The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Accounting may be Peter Nganga’s full-time profession, but cooking is his passion. He loves food so much that in 2007 he opened a side project: the Palava, a restaurant in Aurora that served dishes from western, eastern, and southern Africa. While its expansive menu included everything from coconut fish curry to jollof rice and plantains, it was the appetizer samosas that earned the most attention.
“We couldn’t keep up with the samosa [orders],” he says. “It was kind of shameful to have this whole menu and only have people picking this specific item.”
A customer suggested that Nganga launch a company dedicated to selling his samosas, triangular parcels of crispy-flaky dough stuffed with the likes of curry-scented chicken, beef, lamb, or potato and accompanied by a house-made sweet-and-sour chutney. It felt right, so, in 2012, he closed the Palava, leased a production facility in Aurora, and launched Palava Fine Foods, which sells boxes of frozen, ready-to-bake iterations of the delicious dough-wrapped goodies.
With the help of his wife Harriett (the couple met at the Palava in 2007 when she came in as a customer; they married in 2009), the company grew exponentially. Nganga expanded his samosa lineup to include seven flavors—beef, chicken, potato, lamb, barbecue pork, spinach, and sweet coconut—and three chutneys, including the original sweet and sour version, as well as pear-ginger and mango. By early 2020, Palava was supplying samosas to restaurants and hotels across the Denver metro area with the help of distributor Shamrock Foods, including clients like the Hyatt Regency Denver at the Colorado Convention Center, which purchased dozens of cases weekly.
Then, last March, the pandemic swept the nation, causing the company’s sales to tumble. “COVID has been a game changer in every way, but not for the better,” says Nganga.
When the company lost most of its hotel and restaurant accounts, Nganga turned to online sales, often delivering orders personally to save on shipping and freight costs. To bring in more revenue, he entered the retail market by partnering with local international grocery stores, including H-Mart, Pacific Ocean Marketplace, and Arash International Market, and Nooch Vegan Market in the Speer neighborhood—a move Nganga says helped save the business.
To extend the company’s retail reach even farther, Nganga hopes to get the product on the shelves of regional and national big box stores like Costco and Sam’s Club in 2021, which would require Palava to amp up production. But despite the volume of samosas produced, the recipes and cooking process behind them remain the same. Palava still purchases meat, vegetables, and spices from local sources, and makes the dough, sauces, and fillings in small batches. The chutneys are always slow simmered and the samoas are folded by hand, says Nganga, who still works as an accountant and runs Palava on the side with Harriett’s help.
The name Palava is a nod to community spaces in West Africa.“It is a central location within the community. If there are feuding parties or people quarreling in the community, they go into a palava hut and they’re provided with water, food, and everything that they need while they’re having a conversation to hash it out. No one leaves the hut itself until whatever issue gets resolved,” he says.
The Palava restaurant served as a welcoming gathering place in Aurora, and it is important to Nganga to continue enriching the community by hiring and buying ingredients locally—no matter where the company goes from here. “We are definitely a Colorado business,” he says. “We want it all homegrown.”