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How Hero is Leading Bar Takeovers in Africa

When Hero quietly opened its doors in September 2019, in the leafy, out-of-the-way Gigiri suburb of Nairobi, it did so without fanfare. Fast forward three years – much of which was obliterated by the pandemic – and the underdog is now punching well above its weight.

18 July 2023 · 12 min read
Leah van Deventer

When Hero quietly opened its doors in September 2019, in the leafy, out-of-the-way Gigiri suburb of Nairobi, it did so without fanfare. Fast forward three years – much of which was obliterated by the pandemic – and the underdog is now punching well above its weight. Most notably, Hero has been absolutely killing it in the global takeover space, playing regular host to the industry’s finest, including international icons such as Hiroyasu Kayama, Diego Cabrera and Thanos Prounarous. So what happened? How has a small Kenyan venue managed to gain the attention, and support, of the world’s movers and shakers?

Local buy-in

Interestingly, Richie Barrow, General Manager Food & Beverage for Trademark Hotel, where Hero is located, says the very first step that put the bar on the path to success was investing in relationships with the locals. This process began even before the bar officially launched, whereby select guests were invited to sample the menu as it was being developed, usually hosted by one of the directors or a member of the management team. What transpired was that this inner-circle effectively bought into the success of the bar, and became its most loyal supporters, and advocates.

“We solidified quite a good core ambassador group, part of the secret club,” Barrow affirms. “When we opened, we didn't go out and shout about it, we went purely on word of mouth.”

Although the bar had to shut down within months of opening, when Covid washed up on Kenyan shores in February 2020, this brand loyalty made it easier to pick things up again when it reopened to the public in June 2021. It also, evidently, ensured the venue was front of mind when it came time to vote for The World’s 50 Best Bars, as it placed 70th at the end of 2021, making it the first East African bar ever – and first outside of South Africa – to rank in these prestigious awards.

International inspiration

Technically, the first international takeover that Hero hosted was back in January 2020, when Yann Bouvignies and Victor Echevarria came out from Scarfes Bar in London. This wasn’t arranged by the bar, however; rather, the tour was driven by a local gin brand, who had invited Scarfes to visit their distillery, and arranged a shift at Hero as an add-on. Significantly, this was not just a first for Hero, but a first for Kenya.

“Kenya is not like the rest of the world, where there's a huge, well-established bar scene that’s been going on for years and years. That was the first time in Kenya that we’d had international bartenders behind a bar,” Barrow confirms.

Hosting Scarfes for a shift not only made the Hero bartenders feel part of the greater global bar community, but it opened their eyes to new methods of flavour extraction, some of which they had previously only associated with the kitchen.

“There's not a huge amount of different techniques or methods that bartenders can witness in Kenya. The Scarfes guys brought in some more advanced distillation techniques, but also methods like sous vide, and some other chef techniques that we had access to,” Barrow recalls.

Suddenly, the Hero team was inspired to harness local flavours using these processes, and consider how they could make their menu unique, and not just go with classic cocktails.

“It was the nudge that we needed to really focus on making Kenyan cocktails, I suppose,” Barrow surmises.

Confidence boost

Hero’s entry into the 50 Best list caught the attention of Hiroyasu Kayama from BenFiddich in Tokyo, which was then ranked 32, as Hero’s food menu is Japanese themed – a curiosity for an African bar. When Kayama-san requested an introduction – by way of Nicholas Coldicott, Japan’s Academy Chair, and yours truly – the Hero team leapt at the opportunity to collaborate with such esteemed bar royalty, and extended an invitation for him and his head bartender, Hiromi Takanashi, to visit Kenya in May of 2022. Of course, taking on the role of full-blown hosts was a learning curve.

“We were going in blind with hosting takeovers. We had no idea what we were doing. We actually overworked him, when I look at some of the demands compared to the other guests. Hiroyasu was definitely the guineapig for us, but an incredible guineapig!” Barrow reflects.

Aside from being impressed with Kayama-san’s incredible bar skills, the Hero team was astounded by how interested he was in their national beverages, such as muratina (a local brew) and changaa (a type of moonshine), and that he specifically asked to go see how they were made.

“Hiroyasu had done a huge amount of research about Kenya. He wanted to check out all these different things. It was quite eye-opening for the team. They were like, ‘Who’s this guy coming in from abroad who knows about muratina?’” Barrow chuckles.

As a result, Hero’s bartenders started showing more interest in the country’s local offerings themselves, which had a knock-on effect for the bar’s new drinks and menus.

“What I love about Africa right now – I can speak for Kenya, anyway – is that there’s this very proud movement to be African. It's no longer about just trying to emulate what’s in the States or Europe. We've got these incredible ingredients, we've got these incredible methods, we've got a drinking culture that dates back to prehistoric times. Harnessing that pride … Hiroyasu was great for that,” Barrow shares.

The visiting bartender’s impact didn’t end there. At a press event, when asked how Kenya’s bartenders needed to upskill in order to compete on the world’s stage, Kayama-san swiftly replied that they were ready already, and that they simply just required the confidence to go do it. This was all they needed to hear to level up.

Strategic shifts

Kayama-san’s visit put a fire under the team, and armed with the lessons learnt from their first attempt, they began to instigate a full-scale guest-shift strategy. This entailed developing a rolling calendar, reaching out to global bars and planning events up to six months in advance. First up was hosting Handshake Speakeasy in September 2022, followed by Salmon Guru and Little Red Door in February 2023 and Baba Au Rum in March 2023.

As word spread about the bar, invitations began rolling in for them too, with Hero’s head bartender Kelvin Thairu doing his maiden international guest shift at Locale Firenze in March 2023, followed by him and co-worker Moe Riungu taking over Baba Au Rum in June 2023.

Certainly, the world was suddenly sitting up and paying attention to the little Nairobi bar, so much so that Hero was invited to take over Paradiso in June 2023 – the bar that’s currently ranked #1 in The World’s 50 Best Bars.

“Initially, when Paradiso reached out, I assumed they wanted to come out here. I was like, ‘Okay, cool, when are your dates?’ But they were like, ‘No, we want you guys to come out here.’ We were blown away,” admits Barrow.

While in Spain, Hero also did a shift at Salmon Guru, and in August 2023 they’re scheduled to be at Handshake Speakeasy in Mexico. Hosting plans for the rest of 2023 include Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen and Sidecar in July 2023, Paradiso in September and Virtù/Four Seasons Tokyo in October.

Secrets to success

According to Barrow, the two key things that have set the bar up for successful hosting is planning and partnerships.

“The biggest advice I can give is to plan ahead. If we were to do any last-minute tickets, especially bringing people to Kenya, it would become an absolute fortune. If you make sure you know who’s coming in six months out, and you book your tickets and get everything done, the savings are huge, especially when you're bringing in that many people.”

The tour itself also needs to be well planned.

“What we’ve honed along the way was having a very well thought out programme … that you're not just getting the bartenders out here, and they don't get to see the rest of the country, but that you have both work and play. There's a huge amount of interactions that happen outside of a bar, just by hanging out. It’s great for idea swapping, and sharing experiences and thoughts about being in the industry.

From a partnerships point of view, it’s vital to build relationships with both brand and accommodation partners.

“From the start we've always been very engaged with our brand partners. Initially, there were a lot of conversations about minimum stock guarantees for this, but they now understand it’s a marketing expense. It took a little bit of convincing, but they are now very much on board.

For accommodation, Hero is lucky in that it’s attached to a hotel.

“A big key to success is that our owners are willing to allow us to make mistakes or allow us to try new things. Having that, harnessed with a team that is very young and hungry, has been a really good combination,” says Barrow.
“When it comes to partnering to bring people out, there's a huge saving there because we’re able to board them in-house. For standalone bars, I think partnering with a hotel in the area and maybe sharing the guest shifts would be my way to go about it,” he ends.

———— The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Freepour.