NAIROBI, KENYA, JULY 6 ― Meet Samuel Nguyo, a 33-year-old humble and down to earth Kenyan entrepreneur from Roysambu, a vibrant and lively Nairobi estate.
He was one of the six finalists at the just concluded Diageo Kenya World Class competition-2018, one of the most prestigious mixology competitions on earth.
However, one thing separates him from the rest; he was the only contender who did not have a major brand-tag to go with his name.
Compared to his fellow competitors who came from five star hotels, Sam, as he is commonly known in his neighborhood, represented himself and his small bar he owns called Mojitos.
Mojitos is a small cocktail bar and lounge located in Roysambu along the busy Thika Super Highway.
This however did not deter him from locking horns with his competitors who included Evans Odhiambo of Villa Rosa Kempinski, Angel Rivera of Dust D2 Nairobi, Radisson Blu’s Kelvin Thairu, Paramjeet Singh of the renown Nyama Mama restaurant in Nairobi and Patrick Mutua of Villa Rosa Kempinski.
His love with cocktails started in June 2005 when he was employed as a steward at Mercury Lounge along Waiyaki Way, Nairobi. He however knew cleaning cutlery and glasses was not his place.
His eyes were set on the prize―becoming one of the most sought after mixoligist in the country.
Within two months, Sam was promoted to the bar after his hard work and determination won the hearts of his bosses. It was behind the counter where he learnt the art of mixology.
With the support of renowned veteran mixologist Paul Ogunde, now the owner of Nairobi Bar School, Sam polished his skills to become an outstanding mixologist.
“I believed in myself and I have always believed I can achieve what I aim at,” the soft spoken Samuel Nguyo narrates, “I knew my hard work will finally payoff.”
In 2008, he moved to Tribe Hotel but all along, his dream was to open his own bar. He moved back to Mercury when the bar opened a second branch along Ngong Road.
In 2014, he quit his job and followed his entrepreneurship spirit and passion.
“I had given myself ten years in the industry to have started my own business,” he says.
With a capital of only Ksh5, 000 (US$49), he invested in a small cocktail bar in Roysambu.
“That is the only money I had,” Sam says as he removes his spectacles to give them a little wipe ,”I approached my cousin, he is called Rufus Wamahiu to help paying my first rent at a premises I had identified along Lumumba drive,” he continues.
“He was one of the people who believed in me and when I approached him with my business idea, he was there for me. He paid my first rent of twenty-five thousand Kenya shillings.” This is about US$245.
The bar name, as Sam explains was inspired by the first cocktail he made― a Mojito, hence the name Mojitos.
All was not rosy though, he explains, noting that he was introducing a drink that was not common in a middle-class city suburb.
Not many people had interacted with the art of mixology. Imagine an the New York City cocktail revival taken to the estate for the first time.
“I used to sell five cocktails a day but I did not give up. I was doing what I love and I knew every long journey starts with a single stride. All I wanted was to revolutionize the art of cocktail making. Take it from the high end hotel and bars to the estate,” he explains.
“People came to appreciate it after realizing it was the same thing or even better that is overpriced in high end entertainment spots. I offer high quality products at a reasonable price,” he adds noting that he was inspired by the spirit of devolution in the country to revolutionize the cocktail culture.
Four years down the line, Mojitos has grown to become a household name in Roysambu and its environs.
“Due to my diversity, it is easy for me to understand and embrace different cultures and their way of life, and bring it into a glass,” he says.
The bar has become a popular spot among revealers in Nairobi and beyond.
The journey has not been easy as Sam narrates. He was once arrested when homemade bitters were found in the fridge, an ingredient for making cocktails.
He spent the night in a police cell accused of brewing illicit drinks.
His entity has also been severally attacked by other bar owners who have seen him as a threat since he gives the same quality at a lower price.
This did not discourage Sam from doing what he loves most. The push has seen his bar business grow with cocktails accounting for 80 per cent of his sales.
His cocktail prices range from Ksh100 (US$0.99) to Ksh600 (US$5.9). In downtown clubs in Nairobi, cocktails average between Ksh600 (US$5.9) while high end restaurant sell a similar cocktail at an average of Ksh1,000(about US$10).
“My creativity has allowed me to offer affordable cocktails without compromising quality,” he notes.
Diageo Kenya World Class Competition
At the competition, he was the only bar-owner who participated.
The fourth edition in the country attracted 40 Kenya’s finest bartenders from high-end hotels in Nairobi, Mombasa and Nakuru.
The group was taken through a training programme to sharpen their skills to meet world standards, with a key focus on satisfying customers.
The competition is part of an integrated programme aimed at increasing quality in cocktail making, while enhancing consumer’s experiences.
It offers support and training to thousands of bartenders and bars across the globe to improve their skills and standards.
The programme has inspired and educated more than 25,000 bartenders worldwide so far.
Sam’s creativity saw him make the cut to be among the final six who entered this year’s finals, held at the East Africa Breweries Limited grounds in Nairobi, on June 27.
It is keen to note that he was the only bartender to make it to the finals for two years in a row, having appeared in the 2017 national finals.
The six finalists at this year’s Kenya competition had to impress the judges with not only their cocktails at their makeshift bars, but also personality and presentation skills.
All the six brought out their best to impress judges of the day―Michelle Slater(General Manager EatOut Kenya) and Brian Owango, the pioneer of modern-day mixology in Kenya. He is also the CEO of Aqueous Mobile Bar.
The two judges were tasked with adjudicating the competition which involves a lot of techniques and creativity.
In the 2018 edition, contenders were judged on four criterias.
These are; making of a signature cocktail, sales of the signature cocktail at the contestant’s outlet during the competition period and social media votes.
The last stage was impressing judges with their signature cocktail (Heat of The Moment), which is made onsite and sampled by judges at the finals.
His signature cocktail “Over The Rainbow” was the most impressive cocktail at the finals, scooping the “Heat of The Moment” title.
This was the main cocktail part of the competition save for sales and social media votes.
He also stole the show with a glass made from a sweet potato which amazed the judges and participants.
The baked sweet potato glass can be used to serve a drink and yet consumable, allowing one to enjoy his drink and a bite at the same time.
The event which attracted a huge following in the country’s bar and restaurant industry culminated with Patrick Mutua of Villa Rosa Kempinski being crowned the overall winner.
He will represent Kenya in the global scene in Berlin, Germany in August 2018.
Though he did not win the final title, Sam believes that what he learned from the event will help him take his business to the next level.
“I was not the overall winner but I was a winner too. I commend Patrick who is a mixoligist like me and wish him all the best in the global scene. I also congratulate all my fellow mixologists in the competition. It was a great experience,” he said,” There is always a next time.”
Sam aspires to have his own distillery in the long run to crown his career as a mixologist. In his short term plans, he aspires to own the best bar in Kenya.
“I believe all this is possible. With sheer hardwork and determination, anyone can be what they want to be,” the soft-spoken mixologist affirmed,” I will have established my dream of the best cocktail bar in the next five years and will be working on owning a distillery.”
He has currently created six jobs at his small bar and lounge where he also offers outside catering. In his 13 years in the bar industry, he has trained and passed skills to young upcoming mixoligists.
Advice to upcoming mixologists
According to Sam, mixology can be taken up as a full time career just like any other profession. However, it is a skill that is yet to be appreciated locally.
He urges mixoligists in Kenya, the East Africa region and Africa at large to do the art professionally and be quick to adapt to changing global trends.
“The world is fast changing hence one must remain keen on the changing styles and market trends,” he says.
He also shares his secret with fellow bar owners: “Do proper costing for a cocktail and make sure you give quality matching the price. My secret is price, quality and service.”
His mantra is:”As long as the sun rises, the purpose to life is still valid.”