Art Caffe – Overdue Post

I first started blogging about the Art Caffe in Nairobi in June last year. I’m finally publishing the post. Now, this is less a ‘review’ more a ‘rant’. Let me explain. I’ve been to Art Caffee three times… All three times I’ve had a *bad* experience.

Friends had been going to the Art Caffee and seemed to enjoy the experience, when it opened, but it was always out of my way, so I never really bothered going there. So, the first time at the Westgate Mall, I decided to try it out. Here goes experience one:

First Experience: House Coffee is a Latte

This was during one the first #140 Conference. The service was prompt. I asked what I then thought was a pleasant waitress (this would change by the time I had left the establishment) for a latte. I was served standard house coffee. She apologized about it, said something about the machine.  I figured, oh well, I’m was going to be there for a short time, let me enjoy the coffee and the ambience. So, I requested the bill which again promptly arrives, but it reads that I had a double latte (which is in excess of 200 bob), I tell her I had house coffee.  She then tells me that I had a ‘Double Latte’ and that it’s the same thing as house coffee. I explain the difference between the two to her and she simply says I ‘don’t know what I’m saying they are the same thing, if I don’t want to pay, I should say so. The price difference was 100 bob, I was leaving, I let it slide.


Second Experience – Coffee is above 100 KES

A friend of mine started working at the Art Caffe and suggested that I should give them a second chance. One Sunday evening, in June, I chose to stop by for a quick meal & coffee. As I approached the place, I noticed that it seemed congested, I asked the waitress at the door for a seat, politely informing her that I will not have company, hence I needed space either at the bar or at a two seater table. She chose to ‘politely’ inform me that in said establishment, coffee was in excess of 100 KES, and that  I should bear that in mind. I responded by telling her that I was well aware of the pricing and that she should get a handle on her job, there is a menu if I needed to check pricing, I’m perfectly capable of reading. It later hit me that she actually had not listened to a word I was saying and probably was assuming I chose to speak to her to find out the pricing. I did go in, had a cappuccino, which I did not finish due to time constraints.


Experience 3 – Still not good enough

This particular issue got to their management and that weekend they requested me to come back for a ‘better experience’… Being rather open minded, I showed up the next Saturday. I was seated. Chose to work. Waited. For two odd hours, no service, the initial excuse was that they were having their morning team meeting and hence would get to me in a while. The meeting ended and every waiter I beckoned said they have gone to get me the ‘waiter responsible for my table’. I did place an order, eventually, but it never arrived. You can imagine my surprise when, a few min later, a european family came to order breakfast got roughly 3 waiters taking their orders (suddenly table responsibility was not an issue) and had their meal in roughly 17 min. While I sat. Idle. I left without as much as a blink from the staff…

I eventually figured it out, after speaking to a couple of their waiters I realised why. Apparently, it’s because I’m black… Yes… According to the waiters, Kenyan’s tip badly hence you don’t prioritize serving them, while the others tip well… My problem with such reasoning is that it perpetuates the myth, because, if the Kenyans are necessarily treated badly, they will not tip, because the service was poor. So it’s a nasty cycle. The management has been made aware of this, but they don’t seem to really care about it. On speaking to my friends, I found out that they all had had issues at one point or another with the Art Caffe, similar issues. These have been raised severally to their management but have fallen on deaf ears… I don’t know whichI find worse, the persistent poor customer service that management ignores or the incorrigibly provincial thinking shown by their staff.

My suggestion? They should hang one of these at their door, that way, I’d have known not to bother…

EDIT – 20th June 2013

Just to clarify – my issue is that the waiters conduct racial profiling, but management couldn’t be bothered to address this issue. This issue keeps cropping up too many times to be pure hearsay. If you go through the comments, the waiters openly say that they do racially profile customers. Management, even with direct feedback from staff have chosen to do nothing about this – and that’s my problem. It may not be a problem of Art Cafe’s making but the’ve failed to address the issue.

Going back to class… Piano class…

Some of my friends know that I am a former pianist. I used to play. Had played for a few years, then I took a rather long break, prompted by, but not limited to, my KCSE exams amongst many other such unnecessary distractions :-).  So, I resumed my classes. And I have learnt quite a bit.

Firstly, the Piano is one of the few last true pleasures that I really have in this planet. I really don’t know how to describe it, but playing the Piano is one of those things that regardless of mood, relaxes me. For some reason, I never really believe that the otherwise bungling buffoon is capable of having a musical bone in his body (referring to self).

I was then reminded of why it is generally important for one to learn an instrument, regardless of age and what point they are in their lives. There are quite a number of virtues associated with playing an instrument, that are beneficial to a person. They are, in my opinion:

  • Patience – The saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ has never been more elaborate. Learning is slow, but extremely rewarding at the same time. It may take you a long time to learn a particular piece of music, but the feeling of accomplishment after is surprisingly rewarding. It’s basically a reflex you are building, so it’s like becoming a master soccer player. Practice is largely mundane. However, when you finally get to the game, it all comes together in an extremely rewarding fashion (in this case we assume you are on the winning team 🙂 ).
  • Humility – Now, I went in for my classes. My playing sucked. So, I was forced to do basic piano drills, you know, this is *middle C* this is *F* etc etc etc… Basically, the same classes I went through when I was 9 years old. I was about to tell the instructor to take a long walk off a short pier, until it hit me that I had lost the ability to read music, and really I did need that back to basics instruction. Leave your pride at the door. The instructors often know much more than you and you only need to let them play to realise that.

Another two skills that are much often ignored are both rhythm, generally… Additionally and more importantly (for me at least) is natural finger dexterity. My typing speed has always been markedly higher than the average person, and given that most work today involves using a computer and hence using a keyboard as your single mode of getting data into the PC, it kinda helps if you can do that faster. You basically work much faster than the average person. This is a general skill that you get so long as your instrument involves complex finger movements.

Steinway Upright Piano - I want to get me one of these

If you can, please, sign up to learn whatever instrument you have been dying to play. For me, its worth it’s weight in gold and a better spend of my time and money than watching that extra episode of “24/Dexter/Smallville/”Ubuntu”<where Ubuntu = any other series 😉 “.

On a related note, you can get Piano’s at a really affordable rate locally, depending on where you choose to look. Typically, I’d recommend getting a grand piano, but these are really only practical if you own the house you live in (if you don’t it’s simply fiscal imprudence, buy the house first, given that they typically cost in excess of 1 million KES). Option two is to get an upright Piano. But the option that presents the lowest cost of entry is the Electric Piano. Does not have exactly the same feel as an upright piano, but is as close as it get’s and is actually much better than most of the Electric Keyboards you get in the market… They cost roughly the same as a high end smartphone :-).

The Fairmont Norfolk – A Coffee Lovers Dream :-)

The Norfolk hotel is one of the oldest hotel establishments in Kenya, I believe they are roughly 107 years old, having been established in 1904 thereabouts. I won’t do a full review of the Norfolk coffee experience. Or hotel experience for that matter.  My focus is on the coffee in this particular case. I was attending a conference and was surprised by the great quality of the brew that they served. The brew was well done, not burnt, and the coffee was full bodied, not acidic, which basically pointed to well roasted beans. They were gracious enough to let me into their kitchen to see their equipment, where they have the full range, from the percolator, to the French press and espresso machines. I took a picture of the ground beans that they were serving, in hopes that someone will be kind enough to identify where they purchase them. The brand is “Safari Lounge Specialty Coffee” depicted below:

Safari Lounge Specialty Coffee

Now, what really impressed me about the Norfolk (and the reason I gave the title) was two things:

  1. They know how to choose their beans. Normally, most hotel establishments leave it up to the procurement department to figure out where to get the cheapest beans, and this normally defaults to the usual Java/Dormans etc brands, you never get anything unique.  Not so here. They took the time to actually find great tasting beans, regardless of cost/hustle.
  2. Helpful staff. The staff at the Norfolk may not necessarily know much about the coffee they are serving you, but should you have a query, they will go out of their way to make sure your questions are answered. Which is rare, in the Kenya service industry.

All in all, save for cost, I wholeheartedly recommend the establishment for one’s coffee’s. The brew was nothing short of brilliant, and their other espresso based coffees should also be great (I have only tasted the Americano 🙂 ).

Savannah Coffee Lounge Review

Started in 2007, by Sasini, this coffee chain had a refreshing new approach, at least as far as the Kenyan market was concerned. They were going to have the first Coffee Lounge. The competition they faced was from Dormans and Java. Dormans have a hybrid diner/”stall :)” model. Java have primarily focused on the diner model, with great success. They currently have four outlets (that I know of, feel free to correct):

  • Savannah Loita Street
  • Savannah Kenyatta Avenue
  • Savanna Museum Hill
  • Savannah Upperhill

Now, Savannah seem to be going through some “teething issues”, they may not have “found themselves” as it were. Why? They keep toying with different models of running their cafe’s. For example, their new outlet on Kenyatta Avenue is more of a diner than it is a lounge, they are focusing more on volumes, however, in Museum Hill, they have  fully embraced the lounge model, along with the Loita Street outlet.

Apologies, I was too lazy to go take pictures of any Savannah (not been there in a while), so I only have the logo for now :(, will get more pictures when time allows.

Savannah's Logo

Enough with the nonconstructive banter for the pro’s:

  • Menu – They have a relatively good menu, with a wider variety of foods to serve. Their range of pastries is also quite impressive (I unfortunately quit taking sugar so I’m about as useful as a vegetarian lion is describing meats 🙁 ), with a bunch of new pastries that were previously not available e.g. the white forest cake was previously not available in most coffee shops.
  • Coffee – They do serve a good cup of mud. They have the advantage of having some of the best beans available in Kenya (in my opinion). However, their one issue is the choice of beans. (for me at least, this is an issue : ). They randomly oscillate between dark ground and medium ground beans for their espresso, which in my view is sacrilege :). You only have two options for espresso beans, dark roast and dark roast :). Their cappuccino’s are also quite good as they seem to have perfected their frothing/pouring process.
  • Herbal Teas  – In a weak moment (having felt sufficiently motivated to go ‘healthy’), I decided to try out their  herbal teas. They are actually quite good. I particularly enjoyed their mint flavored tea. I hope never to get quoted on this :).
  • Atmosphere – This is particularly for the Museum Hill Branch.One of the most relaxing views one can get in a coffee shop today. It is simply the best place within 2 km of the CBD where one can relax and get some work done over a cup of good coffee. For smokers there is the added advantage of a smoking zone.

Now for the con’s

  • Service – Started out brilliant, however, in typical Kenyan service industry fashion, their service standards have been deteriorating with time. Staff are less willing to help etc.
  • Furnishing – While the lounge concept was good it is more expensive to maintain. With time however, they have been unable to keep up the standards, and their couches (especially in the Loita Street Branch) need new upholstery… which leads to the next point
  • Pricing – They were more expensive primarily because they offered the best experience, however, they are still more expensive while they let the experience drop :(, so it’s not really the first choice for coffee :(.
  • Coffee Sales – One of the primary benefits of having a coffee shop is the opportunity to sell your beans and branded merchandise (mugs, French press’s, t-shirts etc). It is a big let down and huge oversight that after a lovely cup of coffee, I cannot buy the beans that the coffee came from, and I have to try and figure out which beans they used.
  • Lack of knowledgeable staff – Their staff know little to nothing about the coffee they sell. Added to the above point on lack of coffee sales, makes appreciating coffee a hard task, as the staff members themselves have no clue as to which beans were used and you are left to your own intuition.
  • Internet Access – they used to have butterfly access, but this is now intermittent. Anyone working has to find their own means of connection :(.

All in all Savannah makes for a good place to relax and have a slow meal, if you are not in a hurry. My favorite location has to be the Museum Hill branch. If they put some more effort into coffee appreciation and staff motivation, it may just be a hit. 🙂

Pete’s Coffee – Tagline Competition

Pete Owiti is inarguably one of the best Barista’s we have in Kenya and I dare say greater Eastern Africa. With a great understanding of Coffee, from bean to bar and from bar to mug. Anyone who has been to iHub can attest to the magnetic nature of Pete’s Coffee, you can’t help but ask for another mug. What’s the best part about it? His coffee tells you a story :), whether it’s about where the bean is from or how he got to where he is.

We want you to be part of that story. That’s why we want you, anyone who has taken his coffee or who simply wants to have a great brand get better, to assist us come up with a tag line:

Rules? Come up with a tagline for Pete’s Cofee e.g. Pete’s Coffee, ” for Pete’s sake :).” Tweet said tagline. And include the hashtag#petescoffee. Cool? Now tweet away 🙂

Dormans – My Bittersweet Café

First up in the coffee house reviews is Dormans. Why? Dorman’s is my de-facto coffee house. Let’s start with why they win, then will move to why they are losing me… Dormans Junction

  • Internet – My love affair with Dormans is primarily because they have a good internet connection, not so much the coffee. They have a connection that is upwards of 10mbps… This makes it a perfect place to work from, have calls etc. But to be honest, I just need a place to complete my torrents 🙂
  • Coffee  – My usual while at Dormans? Their Americano/Espresso/Latte. They generally tend to have very mercurial house coffee, but their espresso based drinks tend to be of good quality. I have only taken Chai Masala (Ginger Tea) once.
  • Cakes – There is only one cake I recommend. The white chocolate cake. Be sure to take this with an Americano (Sugar free) primarily because it’s basically made of sucrose. If you don’t mind a sugar high, this is for you :).
  • Service – This goes to Dorman’s Sarit and Junction in particular. They have the best staff. They actually call up the ISP to find out what’s wrong should the connection go down.
  • Coffee Beans – They sell coffee beans in all their outlets which makes shopping for beans an easy affair for me :). I love their blue mountain selection.

Now to the *not so good* on Dorman’s chain

  • Food – Can best be described as terribly wanting. Firstly, the selection is poor. Pricey (comparative to Java). And not always fresh. I only partake of their breakfast selection and their fries (which are quite good, at times).
  • Ambience – Dormans generally have uncomfortable furniture and poor ambience. Looks good from afar, but the tables are too cramped, seats uncomfortable etc. I prefer a rather basic look (re: Java) and better comfort.
  • Locations – This is still in reference to above. They generally are located in corridors and hallways… The only Dormans well done as a proper coffee shop is in the CBD (correct me if I’m wrong). That particular location is a little too congested for my liking… I’ve only once found a seat, and that was at 8.15, a few minutes to closing time.
  • Operating Hours – All Dormans with the exception of the Carnivore branch (again, correct me if I’m wrong) close business at between 8.15 and 8.30. In this day and age, this is way to early… Longer operating hours would go a long way.
  • Lack of Power – Dormans management decided to seal off power plugs… For those of us who go primarily because of the link, this was a gross disappointment. At the end of the day, many techies were forced out. My current laptop battery serves me fairly well (gives me 4-5 hours regularly), so this does not always affect me, but it’s annoying.

What they should do to improve?

  • Get a better menu.
  • Change the staff uniforms (those ones are atrocious, and my dress sense sucks).
  • Re-introduce power, and perhaps turn it off during peak hours.
  • Start a coffee appreciation class.
  • Start selling affordable end-user coffee machines.

Next on the line? Savannah Coffee House

Coffee 101: Low budget quality Coffee in Nairobi

Are you a geek? Are you a regular caffeine junkie looking for a ‘fix’ (sounds much worse than it actually is :D). Do you simply enjoy a well brewed cup of mud? No clue where to get the machines? Here is a quick guide…  First, where to get quality cheap beans…
  1. Dormans Nairobi Office – Located on 17 Milimani Drive, this is probably your best bet for quality coffee in Nairobi. You can get freshly roasted/ground beans at fair prices at this shop.
  2. River Cafe – Located in Limuru Road, it is a coffee shop/restaurant that also has a coffee roastery.
  3. Supermarkets – All supermarkets typically have coffee in stock. However, not any type of coffee should be worth your hard earned money. Coffee to stay away from? *Kahawa #1, Dormans KKKahawa, Gibsons (everything apart from their Gourmet beans). What to buy? The rest of the Dormans, Java portfolio generally tend to have good beans. Another option? Out of Africa have the best Arabica beans/grounds I have come across in Kenya, in my opinion(for Espresso Coffee – this is your best bet).
  4. Java House/Dormans – They generally tend to stock coffee. Savannah coffee house do not stock coffee :(.
  5. Pekeshe Coffee house – They have some rather good medium grind robusta coffee. I last sampled it 2 years ago and it was great. *note to self – need to buy more*

Notes on coffee? Avoid ground beans as you cannot be sure of their quality… The reason ground beans are cheaper than beans in Kenya is because they mix any and every bean they can come across, quality is not guaranteed…

Currently, what I’m on? Rwenzori beans from Uganda, Gibsons Gourmet Beans…
Sip 🙂
Now, you have the beans, how do you prepare said beans? Coffee machines can cost an arm and a leg, how to get started?
  1. French Press – At around 800 KES (Tuskys & Uchumi) and 3,000 KES (Nakumatt), this is probably one of the best, and fastest way to get your coffee. Use water that’s nearing boiling point…
    The French Press

    Care should be taken not to make the coffee too strong and hence bitter. You should use coarsely/medium grind beans.

  2. The Moka Pot – Best traditional espresso. Has an authentic taste that I simply love :). It’ gave birth to the classic Americano (Espresso in hot water).
    The Moka Pot

    Use fine grind Arabica Beans for best effect.  The machine goes for 600 KES at Tuskys, and 3200 KES at Nakumatt.

  3. Stove Top Percolator – One of the most widely used machines, historically. In my opinion produces some of the best tasting coffee you can ever get.
    Stainless Steel Coffee Percolator

    The machines are available for 800-1500 KES at Nakumatt. Use coarsley/medium ground coffee. Care should be taken not to boil water. Coffee should *never* boil :), it burns (no better way of describing the resulting taste).

  4. Filter Coffee/Electric Drip Brews – I generally stay away from the lower priced filter coffee machines in Nairobi, primarily because of quality of build e.g. some make the machines from cheap plastic, so your coffee necessarily has a smell of burning plastic (maybe I’m being a detail Nazi, but hey 🙂 )
    Filter Coffee Machine

    Others make the drip basket too small, so the coffee constantly overflows… My recommendation? Buy a Black & Decker device and you will never be disappointed (for the low end). I’ve only tested two other brands with disastrous results.

So you have your coffee beans and you have your coffee machine, how to grind?
  1. Sonashi Grinder /Sanyo Grinder – The *only* affordable (under 10,000 KES) grinders I came across in 3 months of searching in Nairobi. Simple machines, you use visual judgement to determine grind level… Will set you back 1,200 KES at Tuskys/Uchumi/Nakumatt.
  2. Hand Grinder – Available at Tuskys and I guess Nakumatt for roughly 650 KES.
With the above you should be in a position to enjoy relatively great tasting coffee at an affordable cost… I think… :), and no, I’m not an addict 🙂

The Kenyan Driving Experience…

When I think of some of the pointless things I’ve done in life, I’m tempted to think driving school is one of them. Why? No one in Kenya follows the rules. I admit, I’m not the greatest driver out there, I won’t speed, I don’t always park on my first try and have issues reversing every now and then, however, I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Why my anger towards Kenya? Below is a list of foibles peculiar to the Kenyan driving experience:

  • Overlapping – Do you think you are God’s greatest gift to mankind, really? You wake up late, and proceed to delay *all* the other people who had the sense to wake up earlier than you. The worst bit about it is that overlappers increase risk for both themselves and other drivers and make the traffic situation *worse*, never better. And what do other brainy overlappers do? Follow suite.
  • Drunk Driving – All manners of campaigns have been done on this one, however, if you are inebriated and insist on driving yours is a special kind of silly. I recently lost part of my boot to one such driver, on a Sunday afternoon (as right).

    My poor child :)
    My vehicle, shortly after being mutilated (yes, I insist) by a drunk driver...
  • “Bullying/General lack of courtesy” – A colleague once said, a Kenyan is the only person who hoots at you while he is on the wrong e.g. he’s overlapping, you refuse to give him way, he hoots and shouts at you. Forcing your way to the road, changing lanes carelessly, basically, being a troglodyte with a car.
  • What our little ones see

    Wrong Lanes in Roundabouts – This picks a little from the above point. The Kenyan takes the wrong lane, starts forcing his way into the right lane, hooting and threatening accidents left right and centre.

  • Overtaking carelessly – Anyone who has driven on a Kenyan road will attest to this. A friend mentioned that good overtaking should not cause any change in another driver i.e. the oncoming car should not brake, nor should the car being overtaken have to break. However, in Kenya, the typical thing is either – flash your lights and hoot on oncoming traffic to slow down for you to overtake/hoot, attempt to drive into the vehicle you are overtaking, hoping to force them to brake to allow you to pass. Thing is, if your car does not have adequate peak, or there is no clear path for overtaking safely, and you insist on doing so, you can only be described as a cretin.
  • Anger for no reason – Have you ever been at a fourway junction, with full visibility, and no opportunity to cross, while people behind you try to overlap and keep hooting? They can’t see, but insist on forcing you through. If you are hit, they will simply drive around you and laugh. Worse still are those who insist on hooting when you extend basic courtesy to someone else. People use their lights, car horns for all the wrong reasons, such that, when there is a crisis, we generally tend to ignore them.
  • Our Police – They are second only to crazy drivers in causing traffic. Worse still is that they see road accidents involving drunks as enriching opportunities and don’t actually arrest them, making our roads ever the more unsafe.
  • Kibaki, Raila, Kalonzo – We have choppers, WTH???!!!
  • Driving with full lights  while there is oncoming traffic- It’s not only unsafe, it’s also terribly short sighted, a driver can ram into you in that state of temporary blindness. There is always someone with brighter lights, be courteous.
  • Matatu’s No comment.

I don’t claim to be the best driver, I’m still learning, everyday, however, I believe basic courtesy will greatly improve both the driving experience and safety of our roads. Oh, visit this page for defensive driving 101 tips.