Home > Business > Cardiff Character: Kemi Nevins

Cardiff Character: Kemi Nevins

Kemi Nevins smiling

Just after the 20 year anniversary of Kemi’s cafe, its founder talks about her journey, her two new knees and her plans for the future

Kemi Nevins portrait
Kemi opened her first cafe in Cardiff on 1 October 1999

Kemi Nevins never thought she would open her own cafe. As of 2019, she’s had three. 

Surrounded by delicatessens, salons and rival cafes, Kemi’s is a hub of the Pontcanna community and its food scene. 

From hungry builders to 20-year regulars coming in for a coffee and a chat, Cardiffians seem drawn as much to Kemi’s personality as they are to the food and coffee.

But it’s taken a lot of work to get there.

Kemi Nevins and a staff member behind the bar in Kemi's cafe
Kemi’s serves something for everyone, whether you’re a vegan or a carnivore

Hike ups and bust ups
Kemi’s career began as a nurse in England, but changed when Kemi decided to follow a whim. 

“I loved the patients and supporting people,” she says, “but things change. I got a bit bored and thought, ‘I could open a cafe’.

“So, 20 years ago on 1 October 1999, I opened the first Kemi’s on Mill Lane.”

There were hurdles at first but surprisingly, she adds, none of these were related to her gender or Nigerian heritage. It was all financial. 

Kemi remortgaged her property and maxed credit cards, but she managed to keep the Mill Lane cafe running for almost three years before a rent hike forced her to sell up and get a 9 to 5. 

Even if the Queen was in front of me,
I’d still chat with people

Normality didn’t last long, though. In 2002 she opened Kemi’s at Craft in the Bay, which ran for 11 years, only coming to an end when a monetary bust up drove her and the landlords apart.

“It would’ve kept going,” she confesses, “if they hadn’t been greedy and if I hadn’t told them where to go.”

Kemi then breaks off as a regular enters. Everyone that comes in wants to talk to her, and she to them.

“Even if the Queen was sat in front of me,” she states, “I’d still have to chat with people.”

Kemi Nevins portrait
Kemi’s larger-than-life personality seems to keep customers coming back, although great food and coffee help too, of course.

Blissfully unaware
Since opening in 2012, the Pontcanna cafe has been a success for Kemi.

“Our coffee and ingredients are fresh and good quality,” she explains, “but we’ve also changed with the trends. No jacket potatoes or pasta salads anymore. It’s all gluten free, vegan, vegetarian now.

“We haven’t stood still. There’s something for everyone and it’s been good for business.”

Her son, Patrick, has also been instrumental in their success.

“He’s grown the business, has youth, enthusiasm and new ideas. He’s made it his own,” she says.

There are still issues, Kemi admits, “but I’m blissfully unaware these days. Patrick is at the helm.”

Make it work for us
At 57, Kemi is a divorced mother of three, has had two knee replacements and owned three cafes. 

It is understandable, then, that she has handed over daily management to Patrick.

There will be a place for it
until we want it to end.

She is still involved in the cafe that she has given her life to – buying ingredients, washing dishes and remaining the face of Kemi’s – and remains part of the cafe’s future plans.

“We want to make it work without compromising our health,” she says. “We’ve worked hard, made it work and people want to come and eat and share their lives with us. There will be a place for it until we want it to end.”

Kemi talks through the best and worst things about running a cafe.

Read More
Eira stood in her kitchen smiling
Cardiff Character: Eira Ellis-Evans
A taste of Wales arrives at Cardiff’s Christmas market
Welsh Vegan Winterfest is back in Cardiff with its biggest selection of food yet
Healthcare students throw cultural night in support of refugees