Meet the women behind Lava Latte, a hole in the wall on 209 Statehouse road.

Lava Latte

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Photos by Jackson Mnyamwezi

What about your personalities drew you to the coffee shop business?

Kagure Wamunyu: If I were to describe myself, I would say I am a Steel magnolia. Career-wise, the idea of juggling things is what made me want to have a coffee shop. After work, you might want to do something else or to go to a place where you can sit and hang out with people.

Abba Arunga: What do you mean when you say steel magnolia?

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KW: I mean you’re sweet and soft but also very strong; like the magnolia flower.

AA: I don’t have a flower description for myself per se but if I had to be a movie I’d be Fight Club. I am many personalities, all existing cohesively in the same person. I’m a fun-loving, business-minded creative who enjoys spending time with people and engaging in great conversations. I like beauty and creating and being in beautiful spaces with my favourite people. This makes coffee shops one of my favourite places to hang out. I like food too so that also helps. (Laughs)

Earlier you mentioned that you’re both doing something else professionally…

AA: I’m currently working for a Nigerian entertainment company -the Talent Entertainment Company, as the lead in business development and marketing for East Africa.  I’m also finally in my last semester at Strathmore University.

KW: I work as a senior Strategy Director at Bridge International Academy. In my role, I mainly focus on policy work so I work with the government, and also engage in partnerships with investors, companies, etc. At the same time, I’m doing my PhD at Oxford part-time. We do a lot of juggling which is why we used to fantasize about a place we could go to that was beautiful, relaxing, and have coffee. We all need coffee. Everyone needs Coffee.  (Laughs)

Lava Latte

Let’s talk about the origin story of Lava Latte

AA: It was a warm night in Senegal {Laughs} in 2016 November. Kagure and I had known each other for many years before that, but that was our first time travelling together. We were travelling to Dakar and on our second day during breakfast, we found this quaint coffee shop called Layu Café. It was like a boutique coffee shop. It had a bookstore, a fashion store, these delicious paninis, and coffee, and we just kept going back. We then said to each other, “we should set up a place like this”. And we were serious about it but at the time it was just a desire for us.

KW: When we came back in 2017, it was quite an intense year. Towards the end of it, we were both juggling so many things; school, work and I thought I need a coffee shop.

AA: And you kept saying there’s no place I can do my PhD homework from at night. So we went back to the coffee shop discussion in December and resurrected the idea. We started looking for a place and decided we were going to open in March. Obviously, we didn’t, because we couldn’t find a space, but we were actively working towards it.

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Lava Latte

Given that both your professional backgrounds are not in the food industry, how are you managing this place?  

{Both laugh}

AA: Umm, we are learning as we go. That did actually cross our minds earlier on, we thought about getting a manager but I think we’ve been open to learning new things really fast. We’ve done our research; spoken to people who are in this industry like chefs and others who’ve set up similar things. We have also been open to counsel. Nevertheless, there have been instances where we’ve had to trust each other. It’s true both of us have no food industry experience, but I have a background in marketing and she has a background in operations. So there are some decisions where industry doesn’t matter but a business background does and we have a pretty good foundation in that.

How did you go about looking for your chef and were paninis your signature dish?

KW: We had already prepared the menu way before and we were looking for someone who could deliver a certain flavour. We wanted very flavourful food, that was the idea. Not necessarily the rice and curries, we wanted a different vibe. That’s where the idea for the paninis, pancakes and chapatis came from.

AA: Although the groundwork was done, there was still so much we needed- like a chef. Despite talking with people, we hadn’t really found people we were comfortable with. So I went on Twitter and put a call out, and it was my most viral tweet. We used this hashtag  #ikokazike and literally got a hundred CVs in three days. Our head chef came from Twitter and we kept on recruiting till we got our assistant chef.

KW: We carried out the interviews over a period of two weeks, just practicals, adding each of our flavours and ingredients we liked. We both have favourites on the menu based on what we helped create and it was just a matter of getting the right talent. Another critical thing was hiring a GM; somebody we trust and who has experience in the food industry with a finance background. That balance helps us juggle this with other activities.

Lava Latte

Why 209 State House Road?  

KW: Interestingly, we knew the general area we wanted but we also wanted balance. As a start-up, we were trying to find a good location that suited our vibe. Preferably, a hole in the wall; an easily accessible location that’s still hidden. We had a checklist; where is it located? How much does it cost? How much parking space does it have?  So that narrowed it down. I think Abba knew somebody who had space here.

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AA: Lyra Aoko Studios is upstairs. It hit us that if the former Hillcrest School has now turned into offices, it fits the whole hole in the wall kind of place she was talking about. When we first saw the pictures, we were like ‘no’. Then after we searched for about 3 more months and we couldn’t get a place that met our criteria, we decided to get creative. Coming back with fresh eyes, we said ‘let’s see what we can work with on this one’. Construction was more tasking than we expected. Before we were looking at full, ready places, but this was like a little dark room that did not have access to the back, the windows, even this front door part was just there. The kitchen was even a store.

KW: And how do you turn a store, into something useful? Remember you’re constructing while at work, and if you have any experience with construction you are familiar with fundis. Now we know where to source for material Weekends were for sourcing and experimenting. Finding the right colours.

AA: There was a lot of hands-on work, like waiting for the paint to dry so we could see the actual colour. Next time, we know who to call for our furnishings, fabric, furniture, construction, piping, and so on.  If you need them, just give us a call. {laughs}

KW: We were also careful so as not to be conned, we had to find out the market value for the raw material, Where to get it from cheaply. You learn who the best negotiator is and who is the strict one. This helps you manage the team. In the end, it worked out.

Lava Latte

What’s the vibe you’re going for?  

AA: Comfortable. A cosy New Orleans vibe. Black, African black that’s relatable even in other continents. In terms of art, our art pieces either embody women or are by female artists.

KW: A happy place hence the colour yellow. Our logo is a happy tea bag. Kenyans love tea and coffee. Yellow is also a warm colour. You want to go to a place and feel relaxed, enjoy the space, the food and the drinks, and keep coming back.

AA: One of my friends said it had a weird feeling. You almost feel like you’re in someone’s house. But if you come here frequently enough, and start recognizing the faces, it just feels comfortable. One can keep coming back to work, or on multiple “dates” because of that cosy vibe.

Our staff are also very welcoming, just the kind of energy you want to get. And young. Not that it’s for young people, but the vibe is young.

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Speaking about your artwork, there’s a sculpture on your wall, why that one? Why that particular piece?  

AA:  That was the startup piece of the art. We got a big cut out of Frida Kahlo and built it. The most prolific female painter of all time. She had a terrible accident such that towards the end of her life, she was actually lying flat most of the time but still did magnificent work. Her whole story is magnificent. A strong woman who was strong in herself, and her clear thesis about who a woman is, non conforming to what society expected. That’s us! {Laughs}

Any challenges you’re facing so far but you think you can muddle through?  

KW: A lot of planning goes into serving you a cup of coffee. For example, the vendors you’re going to source it from, purchasing, pricing and how you get people to come back. We are focusing on operations. It’s actually quite an exciting moment. We keep learning what works and areas to look into. Every week there’s something new to learn, like how to keep people engaged.

You guys mentioned a hole in the wall. Did you worry about how much foot traffic you would get?  

AA: We were more keen on drawing people in with how they felt about the brand we had built. Yes, we do have people who just recognize the 209 sign and come by, but the focus is on the kind of energy and the service, and the food we want to give, and the events we want to have. We want a client base that keeps coming back. They love Lava Latte and that’s why they’re coming back here. Not necessarily because they’re passing by. So that was a consideration but it’s not a point of worry for us.

KW: Many people appreciate hidden spots that are away from everyday chaos and we managed to get that.

AA:  Right on the road, but when you walk all the way to the back, it’s like hidden. Yeah, and when parents come with their children who play outside; they are protected.

What should we expect from Lava Latte this year?

AA: Expect a “Lava Sunday” every week. An afternoon, where you just chill, good music and performances. A line up of acoustic artists or DJs who are playing unique music. We plan on having interactive engagements where we can have people hanging out all day, eating, enjoying good music and books. We love events involving books!

KW: A poetry night, giving space to people who want to showcase their talent. Like poetry that resonates with our vibe. We’d also like to grow our brand of course.

 

 

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