Why Nairobi's new restaurants don't feel the Covid heat

A dining area at the Hidden Gem. Restaurants are versatile and highly adaptable, making their own playbook as the global health crisis drags on. PHOTO | WINNIE WANGUI | NMG

What you need to know:

  • The restaurants are versatile and highly adaptable, making their own playbook as the global health crisis drags on.

Faced with reduced business amid mounting liabilities, some restaurateurs decided to cut their losses and have since closed their doors permanently especially with forecasts showing it could take up to 2023 for the industry to recover.

The hospitality industry has been among the worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the height of the health crisis, hotels and restaurants were no-go zones after the government imposed heavy restrictions including closures and limited operating hours that sharply cut revenues.

But some entrepreneurs appear to be reading from a different script, believing there is no better time to open and expand than the pandemic time. If the footfall to their establishments is anything to go by, it appears they are unto something.

Here’s a take from these restaurant owners who opened new restaurants during the pandemic.

Fifteen Rooftop, The Curve By The Park

Fifteen Rooftop Restaurant

Rib-eye steak served at the Fifteen Rooftop Restaurant. PHOTO | POOL

This rooftop eatery offers awe-inspiring views of the Nairobi National Park.

Launched in January, Fifteen Rooftop has five distinct spaces - The Chef's Table is the main restaurant, the Sunset Lounge offers beautiful sunset and Nairobi's iconic buildings views.

Karen Macharia, a marketing consultant with Fifteen Rooftop mentions that plans to open the space started way before the pandemic.

“We are based within an apartment hotel and this made things a bit easier for us when starting out. Although we opened during uncertain times, we’ve been successful thus far. Strategies such as creating hype before we opened got people curious to see what we were bringing into the market and word of mouth referrals have helped get new people trying out the restaurant,” she shares.

The restaurant’s major challenge though is the ongoing construction on Mombasa Road. Karen adds, “the traffic snarl-ups discourage patrons from visiting us and unfortunately it is beyond our control and hope the construction soon comes to an end. However, this has also worked for us where those stuck in traffic opt to come in for drinks, or dinner as they wait for the traffic to let up.”

She adds that on most weekends Fifteen Rooftop is full as people have more time to spare. “Our partnerships with different brands offer patrons fresh and exciting experiences which keep them coming back,” she adds.

For Karen, opening a restaurant during a pandemic wasn’t a risky idea. It aligned with their long-term strategy which for Fifteen Rooftop is expanding within the hospitality industry.

Hidden Gem Restaurant, Lavington Mall

Wooden pallets serving as restaurant furniture at the Hidden Gem. PHOTO | WINNIE WANGUI | NMG

Offering Italian cuisine, this new restaurant features rustic decor. Murals of wine barrels and vineyards, wooden pallets converted into tables and chairs, plants strewn across the space and a quaint wine shop are what constitute this eatery.

Hidden Gem is owned by James Kinuthia, a wine enthusiast whose previous main business was distributing wine from various places around the globe to hotels and restaurants in Kenya.

“When the pandemic hit home, our wine distribution business was gravely affected. Hotels, which were the majority of our customers, closed their doors, leaving us with uncertainty about payments owed to us. To date, we are still trying to recover debts owed by hotels and it is not an easy process, especially considering some permanently closed their doors and may never come back,” starts James.

He shares that the decision to stop all wine importation was hard, but necessary.

“There was nowhere to supply to. Soon after the announcement of the first case of Covid-19 in Kenya, alcohol sale was banned and restaurants were ordered to do deliveries only. We had to stop importing more wine and decided to focus on debt collection and selling the remaining stock which was harder than we expected,” he adds.

Hidden Gem opened its doors in January. Their menu offers Italian dishes including pasta, pizza, cheese boards and cold cuts.

“When we opened, the government had allowed restaurants to offer dine-in options. Being a new restaurant opening for the first time during a time when most people had missed dining out with friends and family, this worked for us. People were curious and we managed to get a good footfall. We import our cheeses and cold cuts from Italy to ensure we serve the authentic Italian flavours and experiences and our seafood is from Malindi and Kilifi,” he highlights.

For James, opening a restaurant was always something he wanted to do. Together with his team, finding the time to dedicate to starting a new venture in the industry was the challenge.

With the pandemic putting a halt to his entire wine distribution channel, they had to survive and the next passion he had was opening a restaurant.

“You see, for us to open a brand new restaurant during this time, it wasn’t as difficult as most people would expect. We were starting anew so we did not have pending bills from expenses like rent or salaries which I believe are some of the hefty debts some restaurants and hotels are grappling with now,” he divulges.

The wooden pallets currently serving as restaurant furniture were what they used in their storage locations for wine.

“The restaurant is doing fine, given the circumstances, and since life has to go on, we are currently focused on building the restaurant as we hope the situation will improve enough for us to resume the wine distribution business,” he adds.

Cocos Bistro, Karen Plains Road

Indoor dining area at the Cocos Bistro, Karen. PHOTO | WINNIE WANGUI | NMG

Njeri Gathara, the founder of Cocos Bistro had the idea of opening the restaurant in 2019, at the time, she held a full-time job.

Her idea came into fruition in February 2020 which was when the restaurant opened for business. The pandemic hit two weeks after and the restaurant was temporarily closed until May when it was re-opened.

The restaurant takes up an adequate space that now due to social distancing protocols seats up to 30 people. Their menu leans more towards continental. However some dishes such a pasta, wraps, burgers and ribs are also available.

“We had to reopen in May because we had taken up a large investment to set up the business, rent was still being paid even while we were closed and there had been no reprieve from the landlord so we had to reopen and give the business a chance,” she adds.

When Cocos Bistro reopened, they focussed more on deliveries and office-tailored menus to boost revenues as people were not eating out as often as before.

Njeri further highlights, “When we started offering deliveries, we partnered with the food delivery apps available in the market, however, this did not work to our advantage as we had hoped. We realised most riders were not familiar with Karen and its environs and we were having our deliveries delayed which painted the restaurant negatively.”

Direct deliveries done in-house are some of the strategies they had to implement to help keep the business afloat. Menu expansion is something that happens in restaurants over a duration of time.

However for Cocos Bistro, being a new restaurant during the pandemic, in a bid to keep their doors open, they introduced finger foods.


“We realised as people started getting used to the idea that Covid-19 will be with us for a while, they started looking for meal options they could have in their cars, or on the move and so we came up with wraps and sandwiches among other finger foods,” she adds.

Njeri urges that running a restaurant during the pandemic requires versatility and adaptability.

“The uncertainty of not knowing what will change in terms of government directives doesn’t make it easy but I believe in business you have to weather the tough times. We are not where we thought we would be when we opened before the pandemic but we’re still here and figuring out how to stick to our goals and offer memorable food experiences to our patrons."

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