Nairobi’s Latest Novelty: High-End Mac and Cheese, Served by Whites

There’s a newcomer on the Nairobi restaurant scene: the White Waiter.

The other night, Martin Mileveski, a smiley young man from Macedonia, leaned over a table of three immaculately dressed Kenyan women and delicately poured out the Captain Morgan rum.

“Anything else I can get you ladies?”

They smiled and he drifted away.

“That’s kind of cool,” said one of the women, Lawrencia Namulanda. “A mzungu,” or foreigner.

Kenyans don’t usually see working-class mzungus. Melanin-challenged visitors and residents tend to be professionals, diplomats, United Nations types or safarigoers — people with means. Tell Kenyans that there are white people who sleep in rags on the sidewalks of America and most shake their heads and laugh in disbelief.

But Kenyas business landscape is changing at dizzying speed. International franchises, some with imported labor, are racing to set up shop here — Subway, Domino’s, Cold Stone Creamery and other big worldwide brands that had stayed away from this region but now want a piece of East Africa’s fast-growing pie.

“We did essentially zero marketing, and it didn’t matter,” said CJ Bak, the developing agent for Subway in Kenya, with three stores currently and plans for 20.

On good days, Mr. Bak said, each location can get 500 customers. The biggest seller? The chicken teriyaki sub.

Nothing, though, may signify that Kenya has arrived more than the sight of a white man with a bead of sweat trickling down his temple, hustling trays of drinks and sweeping up steak scraps with the edge of his hand.

That’s what you see at Caramel, a dark, cozy and quite expensive new restaurant with a humidor, a private lounge with high-backed leather chairs straight out of the Yale Club, $450 dollar shots of Louis XIII de Rémy Martin Cognac (an eye-popping extravagance that made the local papers) and outside labor.

The other night Caramel featured a hostess from Las Vegas, a leggy bartender from San Diego, a chef from Goa, Mr. Mileveski and another young man from Macedonia. The foreigners made up a small percentage of the total staff but were definitely the most visible. Some said they were here for just a short time, to train Kenyans; others said they planned to stay awhile.

“I see job in Internet, I come Africa,” said Nenad Angelovski, the other Macedonian import, whose English was not nearly at the level of the Kenyan waiters. “I like Africa. I like adventure.”

There have previously been a handful of Westerners running restaurants here, the occasional Italian maître d’hôtel or Israeli manager helping bring a hot plate to a table or making a wine suggestion. But when Caramel opened in September, the word quickly spread: mzungu waiters, mzungu waiters. Many Kenyan customers said it was the first time they ever had their dirty dishes cleared by a white person.

“We never had anything like this in Nairobi,” said Cecilia Wairimu, a well-known Kenyan singer who recently dined at Caramel. “I think it’s awesome.”

Jim Moaddab, the chief operating officer of the Caramel Group and an American, said Kenya was “the perfect investment landscape” because of its “strategic location, natural assets and human resources.”

What had been holding back international franchises, entrepreneurs said, were supply chain issues. It is often difficult to meet Western consistency standards in a place where the power goes out regularly and machete-wielding mobs occasionally barricade highways, interrupting the supply of fresh beef.

Mr. Bak still struggles with his brown bread; the dough somehow changes from day to day and sometimes refuses to rise.

Cold cuts are also an issue, so scarce and expensive in Kenya that the $9 price of a footlong roast beef sub at a Subway in Nairobi is actually slightly higher than the cost of the same sub in many stores in the States. And that’s ignoring the fact that the United States’ per capita income is more than 40 times Kenya’s.

Mr. Bak cited the example of McDonald’s passing out potato seeds to Indian farmers years before the first McDonald’s opened in India, to make sure there would be a steady supply of perfect potatoes for McDonald’s fries.

“You can make that kind of investment if you’re going to open hundreds of stores,” Mr. Bak said. “Here, it’s much smaller, so most of the franchises are not corporate-owned.”

Still, he predicted that with population growth charts showing that almost two billion babies will be born in Africa in the next 35 years, soon enough “everyone will be here,” meaning McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Walmart and all the major American chains.

Fast food in Nairobi used to be chicken and chips from a local spot like McFrys or barbecue at a roadside thatched-roofed shack. To outsiders, it might seem a shame to have a part of the world so full of its own charm get sucked into the homogeneity of everywhere.

But few Kenyans seemed upset about that.

“It’s better for everybody, because it’s top quality,” said Simon Kamau, a Kenyan businessman who has lived in America.

“Popeyes, man,” his eyes glowed wistfully. “I bet people here would love that!”

Step into a Subway in Nairobi and it is as if you are leaving Kenya, or entering the new one. The glass doors are so clean you could easily knock your forehead into them, the floors are mopped spotless, the air redolent of freshly baked bread. The racks of warm chocolate chip cookies are right next to the cash register, just where they should be.

Of course, there are some local touches, like the squishy little bottles of fresh passion fruit juice for sale. And the man making the subs was a little heavy on the sweet onion sauce.

Kenya recently recalculated its gross domestic product, showing the economy to be 25 percent larger than previously thought, just clearing the threshold for what the World Bank considers a middle-income country. Economic growth last year was nearly 6 percent, and the country is on a retail binge. Malls are going up everywhere, with high-end retail space set to double or even triple in the next few years.

Caramel is in a mall, ABC Place, which just underwent a face-lift. Sleek elevators open into a corridor where men in black suits frisk visitors. A long illuminated table glows near the bar, and in the back are reservation-only “cabanas” where couples nuzzle next to flickering propane lamps.

One Kenyan couple on a recent evening seemed amused by the mzungu factor.

“I think it’s going to work,” said the female patron, who asked not to be identified because she knew one of Caramel’s investors. “Where else in this country are you going to get a mzungu waiter? It’s a bit of a screwed-up mentality, but some people have a post-colonial hang-up, and if they can turn the tables, they’ll pay a premium for that.”

Story Jeffrey Gettleman for the New York Times


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