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Risk takers cashing in on street food

By Winnie Makena | August 4th 2021

Alyana and Alyssa Popat run Nairobi Street Kitchen (NSK). [Courtesy]

After four years in the making, Alyana and Alyssa Popat have opened the doors to Nairobi Street Kitchen (NSK) - a collection of 11 restaurants, bars and entertainment spaces promising a thrilling street-food experience.

The sisters are part of the Simba Corp family empire which is a diversified East African conglomerate in Motor distribution, hospitality, financial services and real estate chaired by father Adil Popat.  

NSK is part of the Simba hospitality portfolio that joins a series of other hotels including The Villa Rosa Kempinski (Nairobi), Olare Mara Kempinski (Masai Mara), and Acacia Kisumu and the Hemingway’s group.

Enterprise caught up with the siblings to explore their business.

What was the seed for NSK?

We’re a sibling-run company. My background is in architecture at Parsons School of Design in New York. I graduated in 2017 before moving back home. Both of us have had a lot of experiences of food and restaurants from living in different places around the world but Alyana is the foodie.

We created this place to represent things that we love and places we’ve been to. It’s like saying: “This is the food and culture that’s out there come and explore. Go to Mexico and eat tacos, or go to India and eat pani puri on the roadside.”

NSK has been dubbed as the most ‘Instagrammable’ restaurant in Nairobi. What sets it apart?

We have created 11 concepts all housed under one roof. They are divided into the self-service markets, which is all street food, and the waiting service. We set it up this way because of the type of operation we are running. NSK runs every one of the eleven restaurants mainly to minimize food waste. They include The Nood, Si Senor, Bird Exchange, Desi Loco, Fire & Dough, Spilt Milk, 68 Library, Buttr’dBuns, the NSK Bar and the Roof Top Bar.

We reduce the waste we are creating because all of our concepts share ingredients. For instance, Si senor, the Mexican container, has a lamb taco but Fire & dough, the pizza concept, also has a lamb pizza. So in terms of waste, whatever is remaining from one container can be shared with the other.

The other reason we have self-service areas is speed. One should be able to have their meal in ten minutes.

The building is a guest experience but there is a larger picture. Employees are aged between 18 and 32, fitting into the youth bracket. In essence, NSK has become a training program and staff can learn skills from noodle pulling to smoking meat and making kombucha and understand the different concepts.

Popat sisters, Alyana and Alyssa. [Courtesy]

How did your business journey start?

Our family business Simba Corp has different pillars, the main one being the motor business. Returning home as a graduate in architecture (Alyssa), I was looking for something to do and was thrown into the deep end as a 23-year-old with an incomplete design project and I spent four years. I thought I knew everything but after the first meeting I went home and broke down. It suddenly sunk in how serious this project was. I decided to immediately learn everything from plumbing to structural engineering and even fixing and modifying containers and vehicles. Without doing everything by myself I wouldn’t have this reverence for people in this industry. At Simba Corp, Alyssa is head of projects and facilities while Alyana is the Marketing Manager for Simba hospitality.

As young female founders, what challenges have you faced?

There is probably still a lack of women in the construction industry, where we began. It’s a constant fight against the tired idea that women are clueless. Working in a male-dominated industry makes it a challenge to convince people that you are good at what you do. Being young even makes it harder.

Hard work has helped us prove ourselves. The amount of passion you have for your business inspires respect from the people you work with.

We are also quite strong-headed and as difficult as this project was we knew what we wanted.

What of talk that NSK is providing little more than just ambience?

In the last month, parents come in and say that their kids live abroad in London or New York but when they visit they aren’t interested in hanging out with them. Now, they have a place they can all enjoy. NSK is bringing generations together.

We have also partnered with music band Sauti Sol to have their artist development program here. We will be soon hosting a lot of the upcoming Sol generation artists.

There is a gallery wall where artists can showcase their art for no charge and guests get to buy the art directly from them.

So ideally, NSK is a space for arts, culture, music and possibly in the future, dance and theatre, here in Nairobi and not just nice to look at.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a founder?

Out of everything, it’s the people we work with. We want everyone to leave here with something more than they came with.

Nairobi Street Kitchen (NSK). [Courtesy]

What’s it like opening a new business during a pandemic?

Not knowing what will happen is nerve-wracking. 

In terms of design, we wanted to make it very comfortable for groups of people. The high ceilings at the rooftop bar are designed to help people feel less claustrophobic

Our biggest challenge so far is the 7 pm closing of bars. As a restaurant, the money comes in when people drink. And no one wants to drink that early in the evening so that has been tough for us. We can’t wait for the restrictions to be lifted after which we intend to be among the few restaurants open till 4.am in the morning.

What advice can you give young entrepreneurs?

Seek out opportunities. It’s always a challenge to start any business. We wanted this place to be completely different from Kempinski. We wanted to make NSK more accessible and friendlier in pricing. This was unchartered territory and we wanted to take up the challenge and make it our passion. We saw an opportunity and went for it.

Believe in yourself. If you dream it - even the most ridiculous thing - and believe it you can do it. I’m proud to say we are risk-takers and hope to inspire everyone to go for it.

Willingness to learn is also key. Every day, we are in class. Dealing with construction is a different line of work from speaking to people in hospitality. You become tough and unfiltered especially as a woman. And I had to wear a completely different hat but the blood, sweat and tears were worth it.

Nairobi as a city has a huge waste management problem, we took it upon ourselves to re-use as much waste as we could, Re-cycle, re-use, re-purpose whatever you can, whenever you can. Make it your responsibility.

Take life with a pinch of salt. You will get many opinions on your choices, ideas, your business and if you take it all personally you lose sight of your goal.

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