Magic Beans – Where to get great coffee beans in Nairobi

I’d like to firstly point out that this is purely subjective (has everything to do with my palette). The following are my top picks for coffee in Nairobi, in no particular order.

  • Jacana Coffee – Available at the River Cafe, you have a choice on how it’s roasted (they stock green beans) and ground. So, depending on the machine you have at home (espresso coffee typically requires darker roasts, finer grinds – percolated coarser grinds and you can get away with a medium roast), you can order what you want. It helps that the beans are fantastic. I buy 1 kilo every two months from there.
  • Pete’s Coffee – Available at the iHub. Pete is the de facto  barista for the tech community in Kenya. His coffee is a blend of Kenya’s finest though he refuses to disclose his sources (we demand Open Source coffee!!). This coffee is one of the best blends available in the Kenyan market for espresso based drinks. He sells whole beans and can also grind to your specifications on request.
  • Gatamboya Coffee – So, I’ve had more than my fair share of coffee in this life, but this coffee blend, by Dormans, is hands down the best I’ve had out of a filter machine. Not as great when you use it for espresso based drinks, but for filter coffee or the french press, it’s divine. The beans are available from the new Dormans outlets. You will need your own grinder though, as I do not think they grind the beans for you.
  • Java’s Ethiopian Gourmet – Nairobi Java House stock this. Decent for espresso. It’s the best beans they have in stock at the moment.
  • Out of Africa  – They have great coffee, they just do not sell whole beans which means that the coffee does not retain it’s flavour as long as it ought to, nor do you get options with regards to the grind. I only use their medium roast coffee for filter coffee purposes. They currently have a sale though at all Nakumatt stores.

If you think I have left out any great sources, please feel free to comment and we can add to the list. There are other sources but I have left them out as they are not as reliable (quality-wise)/easy to find/accessible etc.

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.

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. 🙂