The virtual cateress: How I built a thriving online food business

Mirriam Allan

Mirriam Allan has established a thriving catering business, Asili Eateries, leveraging social media as her primary marketing strategy.

Photo credit: Pool

Unless you were acquainted with Mirriam Wacera Maingi during her childhood, you would not recognise her by that name today. The 37-year-old has established a brand known as Mirriam Allan, which has now become her predominant identity. Her clients and friends on social media address her as such. She adopted this name as a tribute to her father, whom she regards as an exemplary parent.

“Allan is my father, just to clarify, as many people assume it is my husband,” she explains. Originally from Murang’a County, Mirriam’s father worked as a driver in Nairobi while her mother tended their small farm, cultivating coffee and pumpkins. Despite not having much, she emphasises that their family never went to bed hungry. She recalls a time when their father fell ill after a road accident, breaking his leg and jaw, and it was their mother who supported the family with the modest income from the farm.

“That was the period when I consumed the most pumpkins in my life, yet my love for it remains,” she reminisces. Mirriam’s passion for the food industry dates back to her childhood. During her time at St Catherine Gaturi Girls in Murang’a, she excelled in home science, particularly in cooking. Her teacher, Mrs Martha Kigoi, recognised her exceptional talent and urged her to pursue a course in catering and hotel management after high school. Kigoi would often call on her to cook for the school’s board of management and parent-teacher association, which boosted her confidence in her culinary skills. After finishing high school in 2002, she enrolled at the now-defunct Wote College in 2006 to pursue a diploma in catering and hotel management. However, her education was cut short when she became pregnant.

While her parents were supportive of her, Mirriam admits that those moments were the most tumultuous in her life. As a youth leader in her church, she felt the pressure of being a good role model and the pregnancy took a psychological toll, leaving her feeling like she had let her parents down. In a moment of desperation, she married the father of her child, but the marriage was short-lived. Looking back, she advises her younger self that relationships require careful cultivation over time, recognising that the choices we make can impact people who were not involved in the making of those decisions.

Mirriam’s entrepreneurial journey began with a setback in 2021, after she lost her job at a restaurant. She turned to her friend, Irene, for support and ideas on how to get back on her feet, only to discover that Irene had also quit her job. Rather than succumb to despair, they seized the opportunity to collaborate and launch a cloud kitchen in Nairobi, selling ready-made meals. With a third partner on board, they pooled their savings to set up their kitchen, but their optimism was short-lived as their business struggled to gain traction. Despite offering top quality food, they priced it too low, assuming that customers would be put off by high prices. They soon realised that they had been giving away their hard work.

Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic dealt a harsh blow to their nascent business, compounding their struggles. In the face of these challenges, Mirriam found herself wrestling with personal difficulties and did not want to burden her partners. She made the difficult decision to step away from the venture, but her entrepreneurial spirit remained undaunted. She launched Asili Eateries in late 2021, located in Ruiru, but encountered challenges such as a small kitchen studio. To keep her business afloat, she resorted to selling uji power, a local porridge, with the help of a few hired ladies. But the venture proved to be unsustainable due to high expenses and low earnings.

In 2022, Mirriam relocated to Thome estate off the Thika Superhighway and took concrete steps to establish her business. She registered it officially, obtained a food handler’s certificate and resumed her original plan of cooking and selling African cuisine, exclusively online. Her hard work and determination paid off, and Asili Eateries now has enough business to employ two chefs. Not content with merely offering readymade meals online, Mirriam has expanded her services to include outdoor catering and cooking lessons. She visits clients’ homes to teach househelps proper food handling techniques and the preparation of nutritious meals.

On a regular workday, she manages various tasks, including taking orders, sourcing ingredients, preparing meals and ensuring prompt delivery to her customers. With a strong emphasis on maintaining the freshness of her products, she sources her ingredients based on individual orders from local markets like Gikomba and Marikiti. The meals are packaged in disposable tins and distributed with the help of four riders. During peak seasons, she occasionally hails a cab to supplement her delivery team. Mirriam effectively leverages social media as her primary marketing strategy, boasting an impressive following of over 20,000 on Facebook alone.

As a true gourmand herself, she distinguishes her culinary creations from others through her commitment to quality. “I take immense pride in preparing food that I would personally be delighted to purchase. Coming from the Central region, where the prevailing stereotype suggests that we indiscriminately mix ingredients and drown dishes in water, I question the need for such practices,” she confidently asserts. Despite not having completed her catering and hotel management course, she continually hones her skill through online platforms. “There’s a remarkable Facebook group called ‘Let’s Cook Kenyan Meals’. I doubt there’s a Kenyan chef who isn’t a part of it. You gain insights into people’s favourite dishes and their preferred cooking methods. Additionally, I have shared the skills I’ve acquired because teaching is an indispensable means of personal growth,” she says.

Mirriam emphasises professionalism and meticulous customer service as the two paramount values in her profession. She highlights fluctuating commodity prices as one of her biggest hurdles. “Clients often anticipate that food costs will stay the same, despite the surging inflation, leading to confusion when I increase my prices,” she explains. Among her most memorable achievements, Mirriam takes pride in catering at local weddings, known as ruracio, and serving over 200 guests at the Sanctuary of Truth Centre Ministries in Lucky Summer. “Patience and consistency are essential for success in this industry,” she concludes.

This article was first published in The Weekly Review, Issue 36.