Kenya: Talking business with the founders of African-inspired gourmet burger outlet

Mama Rocks' food truck.

Mama Rocks’ food truck.

Samantha and Natalie Mwedekeli are food enthusiasts. Growing up with a Nigerian mother and grandmother cultivated their love of big flavours and they created a food business to sell African-inspired gourmet burgers in Nairobi, Kenya.

The two sisters run Mama Rocks, which started with a single food truck in 2016. Today, they operate three restaurants and one food truck. The company also does food deliveries and runs a catering business.

Samantha explains they were motivated by the American food trucks where customers sample a variety of foods away from a formal dining set-up. “Food trucks offer diversity in the food space and people are willing to try something new.”

Mama Rocks’ recipes are a fusion of the West and Africa. The Nollywood Suya Saga Burger incorporates peanuts and suya because these are popular ingredients in Nigeria; the vegetarian Djubalicious burger features Sudanese falafel. But their biggest seller is the Mango Masai Mama, a Kenyan-themed beef burger topped with chilli-mango mayonnaise and red pepper.

Though chiefly a gourmet burger outlet, the Mama Rocks menu also includes items such as beef and pork ribs, chicken wings, and sauces such as mango and shata mayonnaises. Their sauces have become so popular that the company packages and sells them in jars.

Starting small

The sisters started with a mobile truck as it required less capital. A food truck also allowed them to set up where their customers were.

“We spoke to a lot of restaurant owners before opening and they all advised us to start small and build within our capacity. This advice helped guide us on the right path,” says Samantha. She had lost her job in human resources and her redundancy package – along with some investment from their parents – funded the enterprise, enabling them to buy a truck for KES 7 million (USD 65,116) and kitchen equipment worth KES 2.5 million (USD 23,255).

Natalie (left) and Samantha Mwedekeli

They took the food truck to events and attracted new customers to sample their meals. Word-of-mouth marketing as well as an aggressive social media presence have helped make the brand known.

Their envisioned model did not quite fit in with what their customers expected as the locals struggled with the concept of self-service. “They go to restaurants to be served so we had to create a sitting area so that customers could order then wait to be served,” explains Samantha.

Natalie recalls some of the sacrifices they made to get their business off the ground, “We didn’t pay ourselves for more than two years and went back to live with our parents.”

Supply chain challenges

The sisters tested their menu on family and friends. They consulted with a number of Kenyan chefs who were used to British flavours such as thyme and oregano as that is what they were taught in culinary school. But Samantha and Natalie were set on creating a brand with African ingredients such as chilli, peanuts, coconut, red pepper and mango. They ran the kitchen themselves along with their brother and a friend, then hired line cooks about six months later when business started to pick up.

Mama Rocks sources beef and cheese from artisan companies in Kenya as they are keen on quality and knowing where their ingredients come from. The beef, for example, is ranch farmed near Nanyuki, a town in the centre of the country.

They source other products from the wholesale market and depend on imports for quality ingredients which they are unable to obtain locally, such as ketchup.

“The wholesale market does not cater for small and medium enterprises, so costs are high,” Samantha says and proposes restaurants work together to source ingredients to keep costs down.

Mama Rocks started as a single food truck in 2016.

Mama Rocks started as a single food truck in 2016.

Necessity encouraged innovation

Covid-19 has cut their business by close to 50%, forcing them to adapt by concentrating on deliveries and catering services. “As large events were cancelled, we established Mobile Mama.” Samantha explains they set up a tent and mobile kitchen at private homes with chefs and a service team; added services such as bars and DJs are also offered.

Competition has increased since the pandemic with more delivery-only restaurants. These businesses are agile as they operate via an app and do not require customer-facing premises.

Because the bulk of its business has shifted to deliveries, Mama Rocks navigated online orders by partnering with payments company PesaPal. They now sell directly through their website. “Food delivery would be a logistical nightmare if it were not for apps like Uber Eats, Yum, Glovo and Jumia, but you pay a hefty percentage, most times more than 20% of your price,” notes Natalie. “We realised we had to push these costs down and our partnership with PesaPal has enabled us to reduce the cost of delivery.”

The business has grown from four to 75 staff members before Covid. Currently, Mama Rocks has 60 employees, among them a dedicated accountant, cost controller and operations manager.

“We don’t have to be as hands-on as we were in the beginning and can focus on marketing and growing the business. We hire people to monitor the restaurants to make sure the staff is doing what they are supposed to do,” says Natalie.

The business hopes to franchise in the future. The sisters are set on the larger African market, focusing on creating a blueprint that will make duplication easier.