The first time I “met” the Mama Rocks girls, before I knew them as Sam and Natalie, I fell in love. In love with their truck, their food, and their concept. I had a major friend crush on them. These two young, cool, entrepreneurs who had brought the food truck dream to life in Nairobi.
This is honestly how I looked at them as I placed my order:
I basically just wanted to be their best friend. I still do.
One day, I mustered up the courage to ask to interview them. After an hour long discussion, I learned some amazing things about Sam, Natalie, and their business. Here’s how the day went down:
** Disclaimer, this is a really long post but what do you expect? You won’t find this info anywhere else.
Meet Sam and Natalie
Soni Side Up (SSU): You moved here from London, what were you doing there?
Natalie: My background is in HR and I worked for various different creative agencies. I always knew that I didn’t want a desk job so I was kind of sailing through. You know what my salary was decent but I didn’t feel fulfilled in what I was doing. I felt like I wanted to create some kind of impact through something creative.
Sam: I used to work for a charity. I studied law but never got into it. By the end of it I just realized law wasn’t for me then I started working for a charity and I worked there for 9 years…. I used to work in the training department in HR. I felt like I got to the height of that kind of sector and I didn’t want to progress anymore. I felt fulfilled in my job but I realized it’s not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to do something where I could be more creative and have my own business. Put all the effort in that I was putting towards that job and reap all the benefits myself. I always questioned why I was the last one in the office. Why my boss got to have lunch breaks while I was sat there scoffing my lunch while working. I’m not afraid of hard work, I’d just rather do it for myself.
SSU: What happened next?
Natalie: We quit our jobs and we started working for a burger restaurant called Patty n Bun. If you’re ever in London, it’s a must. You HAVE TO go to Patty n Bun. People are hooked on those burgers, they’re like crack. Amazing bread, amazing sauces, it’s got a New York vibe with underground music and stripped back interior. Old school desks with children names scratched into them. People would queue for hours to get a burger there because it was a 30 seater restaurant.
Natalie: So we learned a lot
Sam: Yeah, we weren’t actually in the kitchen but we were waitressing and it was a really good opportunity to get experience in getting feedback from customers on the kind of flavours they like and how to operate a restaurant.
SSU: Yeah it’s an interesting choice to quit your job and go into waitressing at a burger joint.
Sam: *laughs* it was very humbling
Natalie: Like emptying bins and being talked down to by customers. It was extremely humbling.
SSU: I was a waitress when I was in uni as well and I feel like everyone should go through being in that kind of a service industry.
Sam: You learn a lot
SSU: You do! And you appreciate what’s happening behind the scenes of a restaurant
Natalie: We wanted to make sure we understood everything from the ground up because one day we’d be at a stage where we’re hiring people and we want to say that there’s nothing you’re doing that we haven’t done. So we understand how long it might take and things like that. I just think it’s an important to know every facet of your business.
SSU: When you quit your jobs and went to waitress at this burger place, you guys already had an idea that this was something you wanted to try?
Natalie and Sam: Yes
Sam: We had already decided we wanted to start our own burger restaurant so on our time off we would spend most our time in the library just trying to research about the market here. There was only limited research we could really do from London but as much as we could. We were putting figures together, doing a business plan, really trying to understand the concept and refine the brand.
Natalie: Because it was all about the gourmet burger. I don’t think so much here yet but in America and London people get bored of Mc Donlands, Burger King, and KFC, they’re leaning towards the independent, cool places to eat.
Natalie: If you could have a dirty burger that is different from just ketchup and has customized sauces and different flavours.
Sam: Yeah, it was a big phenomenon. There was a whole street food culture that was coming through with food trucks as well… So that really influenced us.
SSU: Was moving to Nairobi from London a hard move to make?
Natalie: Yes and no. It’s weird because there’s so many comforts in England, so many things you take fore granted. But there’s so many opportunities here, there’s so much excitement and room for growth. Whereas in London, it’s kind of done.
Sam: I feel like it’s easier to make your mark here. We’re pretty much the only food truck right now so it’s easy to be noticed.
SSU: I think a lot of our generation wants to do [what you’re doing] they want to go after what they’re passionate about. They don’t want to sit at a desk 9 – 5 but it’s really hard to get yourself organized enough to do it, and then to take that leap. And just have faith that something will come of it but you guys have done such an amazing job, it must be so exciting.
Natalie: It is exciting! But I’m glad you brought up that point because I found it more scary to be stuck in a 9 – 5 and not feeling fulfilled. Than it would be to take that risk to actually do it.
Natalie: And I think everything aligned for us and we’re lucky that we have the support system that we do, not everybody has that so it’s worked out.
Sam: I suppose we just kind of thought there’s got to be more to life than this.
Natalie: If you asked me how Mama Rocks started, it’s been in our minds for the past 3 years and we had come to Kenya every year and noticed how the culinary scene has changed, has grown. We thought that Kenya needs an exciting urban brand that’s reflective of what’s happening in Africa and celebrates Africa.
Sam: We wanted to create something that could compete with Western brands but came from Africa and celebrated what’s good in Africa. That’s the basis of the concept, food is a vehicle for that.
Natalie: We chose burgers because it’s the easiest food and it’s the most recognizable food. Our mom’s Nigerian and our dad’s Kenyan and we’ve been living in London where we were exposed to many different African cuisines. The flavours are really distinctive, especially Ghanian food, very tasty but visually it’s not the most appealing. So we thought burgers is a fun, easy, playful food where you don’t need amazing culinary skills to get across all these concepts and flavours that we wanted.
SSU: The name Mama Rocks, where did that come from? Was it an “aha” moment?
Sam: I think it was.
Natalie: It just came out
Sam: To this day, we can’t explain what it came from. We know what it means…
SSU: Is your mom really happy with the name?
Natalie: She calls it Mama Rock. That doesn’t make sense! It’s Mama RockS.
Sam: And she calls her daughters Mama Rocks now
Natalie: So “Mama Rock owes me ksh 10,000” and I’m like, you’re never going to get it. *laughs*
Sam: We can explain what it means but we can’t explain where it came from because we can’t remember.
SSU: So what does [Mama Rocks] mean?
Sam: Especially in Africa the mother, or woman, is always the center of the community and we kind of wanted to be that. We want to be the place where everyone comes to connect like friends, family, whatever. The Rocks part…
Natalie: Hold on, Mama is also about the fact that everyone always thinks that their mother cooks the best and mothers always make the best food
Sam: I suppose the whole thing about us wanting to celebrate Africa and wanting to celebrate people as unique individuals that’s the Rocks part. That’s the edge. We don’t want to be a boring brand. We want to be a brand that says something. I suppose we’re doing that, there’s projects that we want to start in future that will become more clear about what we’re trying to get out there.
Natalie: And it’s an all encompassing name. It’s not just tied down to food. There’s a lot of things we can do with that name.
SSU: Yeah, true. And that’s why I think the t-shirts are so cool.
** You can buy a Fela Kuti t-shirt from the Mama Rocks truck!**
SSU: When did you guys start the food truck in Nairobi? In 2015 right?
Sam: No we started in January
Sam: We had a pop up before that, we did a pop up before the van was ready in The Thai Place on Ngong Road. We did a pop up to make any tweaks we needed to make, get feedback from customers and just to go through the whole process. We’d never done this before, we’d never worked in food we’d never worked in a kitchen.
Sam: It’s our fourth month at the Alchemist. Before that, we had done one or two festivals before we based ourselves here. This is where we are able to operate on a daily basis. We did New Years Eve here then a couple weeks later we started being here every day. We haven’t been here long but it feels like it’s been ages.
SSU: It feels like that to me too.
SSU: When I heard you guys were coming I was so excited because for the longest time I’ve been saying “Why doesn’t Nairobi have food trucks?”
Natalie: There’s a reason.
Sam: City Council aren’t flexible so you can’t rock up with your food truck anywhere in Nairobi. It has to be a private property so that’s where the problem lies. Because to be honest, if we didn’t find this place, which we found by chance, I don’t know what we would have done. There wouldn’t have been amazing opportunities like this anywhere else.
SSU: So is it that there’s laws against food trucks? Or there’s just no legislation is place regarding food trucks?
Natalie: There are no laws. I don’t think anyone’s bothered to make them. They don’t seem to recognize the potential.
Sam: We’ve got experience coming from London where we’ve seen the whole thing flourish. It really could be an exciting thing that happens here. We’re hoping that we’ve implanted this idea in other people’s minds and they also start their own food trucks. Lots of people come to us and say “I’ve had this idea for ages, I’m so glad you’ve done it” it’s inspired people to want to do the same and we encourage that.
Natalie: What’s interesting is, it is a lot of fun, but it’s also a LOT of hard work
Sam: And no sleep *laughs*
SSU: Yeah, your hours! Holy cow. Alchemist is busiest on weekends so must of your weekends must be taken up here.
Sam: Yeah, we don’t have lives right now *laughs* but we’ve only just started, we’ve already started to build mechanisms to allow ourselves to spend more time marketing the brand and not to be in the kitchen as much. We really want to still be a part of all of that but it’s our baby, we don’t want to completely step out. But we can’t be doing the hours that we’re doing… It’s a bit crazy. *laughs*
SSU: How did you guys get the branding for Mama Rocks? It’s super unique and it’s got this afro street feel with lots of graffiti and Fela Kuti. Is there a particular reason for your use of Fela Kuti?
Natalie: Who doesn’t like Fela? *laughs*
Sam: We admire his strength and his passion for going against the status quo and challenging authority.
Natalie: That’s what we want as part of our brand
Natalie: We want to encourage independant thought, creativity, music
Sam: And to inspire people to be themselves and celebrate themselves
Natalie: Because I suppose as part of Mama Rocks it’s not just about the food, we want to be Africa’s answer to the Hard Rock cafe. We want to encorporate music into the brand as well and do festivals, have t-shirts and merchandise. We want people to be proud of Africa and the changing face of Africa, what does it mean to be African? And that’s why our food is a fusion. We’ve taken creative licesne with our menu because Nairobi is so multi cultural there are so many people from everywhere here. So it’s about what is Africa today? Now? We always get asked “Where are you from? Are you Nigerian? Are you Kenyan? Are you from London”
Natalie: And does that really matter? Everyone today is one big melting pot. People move around, we’re a global society , so why not have that in a brand? We want to export Mama Rocks to other countries but we’re very adamant about starting in Africa.
Sam: So we want to go pan African first. Nairobi, Addis, different cities.
SSU: Why start in Nairobi?
Sam: We’ve got a base here because our parents have lived here for a long time. We’re living back at home with our parents which was quite an adjustment. But they’ve been really supportive and we couldn’t have done this without them to be honest. We don’t have to pay rent so we can focus on [the food truck].
Natalie: In terms of suppliers and beef, we roughly knew where to start [in Nairobi].
Sam: It wasn’t easy though
Natalie: Yeah, it wasn’t easy. But if were to go to Nigeria, for example, it would have been a lot more difficult. At least we had some sort of infrastructure to begin with here.
SSU: What do you guys see as the future of Mama Rocks? You said you want to go pan-African, hopefully expand?
Sam: Even before we go pan-African, sorry, go on.
Natalie: No go ahead, do it. Just say it.
Sam: Even before we go pan-African there’s a lot we’re working on. We want to develop lunch times at the truck. We want a place like this [the Alchemist] of our own. We want somewhere permanent where we can set up and use this truck for festivals and events. It’s actually quite difficult to pack this truck up and unpack it, move it around.
Natalie: We didn’t even have a food truck in mind when we started. We wanted a permanent place like this. And that’s what’s so weird, because this is what we wanted an outdoor space with arts, creative, and music but cost is an issue and also location; finding a plot like this is like gold dust. So like [Sam] said… Oh no, you didn’t say this. We don’t want to be a franchise.
Sam: I was about to say it!
Natalie: We don’t want to have ten shops. We want to have flagship restaurants one in Nairobi, one in Cape Town, one in Johannesburg. You know? We want it to be unique to the area so everything in the Nairobi branch will have a real Nairobi feel and if it’s in Nigeria and Lagos it will have a real kind of Lagos vibe.
Sam: I’m really scared of us becoming a franchise where you have several outlets and you dilute the brand. That independent spirit goes completely. I don’t want to make it seem like we’re just churning it out. The brand loses it’s heart when you start having ten, twenty stores because you can’t maintain that spirit.
SSU: So how did you guys get a food truck if you wanted to originally have a store?
Natalie: Because.. You know what happened? We spent about the first five months in Kenya just doing research because whatever we did in London was very “head in the clouds”, conceptual.
Sam: Not based on reality
Natalie: So when we came here we realized, actually that might not work. We spoke to a lot of people that actually have restaurants in Nairobi. We spoke to Kevin Ashley, the guy behind Java House and he was saying “Ladies, do you really know how much you need to invest into a permanent place?” and we were like, okay maybe our figures are completely rubbish
Sam: Our figures are completely crap
Natalie: So even though this was a big investment, it wasn’t as big of an investment as a permanent place. We wanted to reinvest what we make from this into a permanent place and to kit it out properly. We don’t want to do things by halves because you want to give people that whole experience, you know?
Sam: And this gave us the opportunity to test the market and to go to where the action is.
SSU: What about menu conceptualization? Is that something you do together?
Sam: Yeah, I suppose we’re quite creative. We just sat down and thought “what would taste amazing?” then we just played around with food and flavours and came up with some amazing recipes.
SSU: Were you making sauces and testing them in your house?
Sam: Yeah, and we’ve been refining them since. For example the Lamb Burger started off very simple then we changed bits and pieces and added stuff and made it better over time. Getting feedback from people has been really important. Before we started we got all our friends to taste all of our food and got them to anonymously rate each of the burgers and say what we can change and how we could make it better. Instead of it just being about our palettes.
SSU: Favourite thing or a must not miss. If someone is coming to Mama Rocks for the first time…
Natalie: The Mango Masai Mama is —
SSU: I’m right behind you on that one
Natalie: It’s a must because it’s Kenyan influenced and I just love red peppers. I love the colour contrast of the red pepper with the mango sauce it’s a bit sweet and spicy..
Sam: I also feel like it’s different from anything else you can get BUT my personal favourite is the Nollywood. Every time I make it I get all excited because I just love the sauce. It’s really unique. It’s honey nut mayo that we make ourselves. So you’ve got the honey nut mayo, once you put it onto the beef and then the really nice fried onions with paprika then there’s a hot sauce that we use. When you put the hot sauce on top of– you can smell — it’s just– *sighs*. The heat from the burger releases the — it just puts — I can’t even explain it! It releases the flavours and the smell of the hot sauce it just all comes through, it’s like an explosion when you put it all together. *laughs*
Natalie: And we came across the sauce by accident you know? It wasn’t even a recipe it was just “let’s try this” “yeah! It tastes alright”. But the thing is, one thing I think is really important is the original recipe has changed now. It wasn’t like this before and it’s only because a customer made a suggestion. It was constructive criticism and we thought “maybe we need to change that”. And that’s the only reason it is the way it is now. [The customer] made it interesting by giving us that critique. It’s really nice when people say “actually you know what? I don’t like that” constructive feedback is amazing.
Sam: For example, our mother’s Nigerian. There’s this thing called Akara I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.. It’s basically made out of beans, it’s a vegetarian food, but it’s been patty.
Sam: Like a bean fritter. It’s basically beans, they put red peppers in it…
Natalie: It’s like a Nigerian onion baji!
Natalie: I don’t really like onion bajis
Sam: It’s nice.. It’s really nice. I want the world to know about this food it’s so nice. So that’s the kind of thing we want to introduce. It’s really easy to eat and anyone can eat it. We could even put it in a burger.
SSU: Do you have any secret sauces?
Sam: Hmmmm.. Yeah, our hot sauce. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else.
SSU: I was at Blankets & Wine, you guys had the truck there, your line by far had the longest. I was standing back on the lawn, kind of watching, you guys were just going. What’s the most burgers you’ve ever churned out?
Sam: Probably on that day.
Natalie: I think it was like 200
SSU: On that day??
SSU: How many of you were in the truck?!
Sam: And the thing is, we can’t fit anymore people into the truck. It would be dangerous.
Natalie: We sold out of meat. I had to make three stops to the butchers that day.
Sam: The butcher was surprised
Natalie: The guy was like “what’re you doing? What is your business selling?”
SSU: What do you do for fun, what’s a stress reliever?
Natalie: A week ago we went to Vineyard. Listened to some music, had some shisha, chilled out. But that’s kind of a rarity I guess because we’re building to something big. I think first 6 months we were here we were going to every club scoping out the Nairobi scene so we got that out of our systems a bit but, I love going to cinema. We saw Batman vs Superman a week ago.
SSU: When you’re not in the truck, what’re you doing?
Sam: Sleeping! So I haven’t done this since I was fifteen, literally. On a Monday I slept until 6PM. I thought it was 12PM. It kind of messes with your body clock a little bit but that’s why I think it’s important for us to build a really good team and we’re lucky we recruited the people that we have because we have an amazing team so far.
Natalie: We just want to inject that Mama Rocks spirit into everyone. We don’t want to be serious! We want to have fun with it.
All photos courtesy of J. Mwai Photography