Jonny Ensall

I'm an editor, writer and occasional documentary maker. Currently editor of easyJet Traveller magazine and regular contributor to NME. I’m also the former deputy editor of Time Out London.

The shadowy world of the Nando's High Five card

The shadowy world of the Nando's High Five card

The first rule of the Nando’s High Five card: you do not talk about the Nando’s High Five card. The second rule of the Nando’s High Five card: you do not talk about the Nando’s High Five card. The third rule… only five diners per visit. And no booze.

You’ve almost certainly been to Nando’s before. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you’re in there around once a fortnight. The South African chain of Portuguese-style peri-peri spiced chicken restaurants has a branch in most areas of London – from the endearingly scruffy Elephant & Castle roundabout to the almost glitzy streets of the West End. There are now 291 locations in the UK and Ireland, with another 25 restaurants planned to open this year.

It’s easy to see why their casual dining experience is so popular. I, for one, feel about Nando’s the way Woody Allen feels about orgasms – even my worst one was bang on the money. I like the DIY dining ethos, the cheap and chic (or should that be cheep and chick?) décor and, most importantly, the price. At Nando’s you can get a sit-down meal for under £10. ‘It’s very classless,’ observes Matthew Crosby, a comedian who devotes a large part of his stand-up act to Nando’s. ‘It spans a lot of socio-economic brackets. Everybody loves it.’

It seems he’s right. You can even find multi-millionaires – Jay Z and David Beckham included – dropping in to Nando’s for a swift half- chicken. Stranger still, some pop stars literally sing the praises of the brand. Ed Sheeran and Example went as far as to create a viral video, the ‘Nando’s Skank’, in which they freestyle lyrics including ‘I love Nando’s more than your mum does!’ With more than 5 million YouTube views, that’s the sort of publicity you just can’t buy.

Or can you? Because if you start sniffing around London’s movers and shakers, you might just catch a whiff of something: peri-peri sauce. In many cases the celebs endorsing Nando’s over YouTube, Twitter, Instagram or simply hollering ‘I heart Nando’s’ through mouthfuls of food are holders of one of the fabled ‘black’ cards. The ‘High Five’ card – as the prized status symbol is officially known – allows you to take up to five people out for a meal in any Nando’s, anywhere, at any time, with drinks (but not alcohol) included.

Never heard of the card? No wonder: the company denied its existence as recently as 2010. Now there are just a few clues on its website. ‘A card that magically provides free Nando’s for a whole year,’ they say. ‘Like unicorns and Robin Hood, is it just a legend?’

It certainly is not. Just a quick search on Twitter reveals dozens of high-profile users bragging about getting one, or lamenting the fact they’ve lost theirs: ‘Nando’s won’t give me a new High Five card,’ a dejected Tinchy Stryder tweeted last year. Ed Sheeran, on the other hand, has managed to keep hold of his for years. ‘It’s a mark of your career success,’ he told The Sun recently.

Hot wings on the house might not seem like such a big deal, but it’s precisely because the cards are so exclusive that musicians are tripping over their Twitter accounts to heap praise on Nando’s, and be allowed to join the programme in return. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the UK hip hop community, you haven’t made it until you’re part of the High Five club. ‘It’s like a more relevant version of the honours list,’ surmises Crosby, who’s still holding out for his. ‘You know when they say, “Oh, we’re going to give an OBE to Sade cos Prince Charles loves her.” It would be closer to the national pulse to give her chicken.’

So just what would I (a journalist whose rap career is yet to take off) have to do to get a High Five card? Get famous and start bigging up Nando’s? ‘Yeah, it doesn’t work like that,’ says pop star Example, real name Elliot Gleave, one of the few celebrities I contact who’s happy to break the omerta surrounding the card. ‘It’s a very special, select list. You can’t just say you like Nando’s, and it’s not necessarily about how famous you are. It’s whether you fit the bill to be someone they want to talk about Nando’s. You could be a multi-platinum-selling artist, but if you seem like you’re begging for it they’ll say no.’ His advice to wannabes is simply: ‘Act nonchalant, and drop the odd, discreet tweet about Nando’s.’

It’s probably not a wise idea, then, to try to get in touch with their marketing team, as I do. Word has already got back to the company that I’ve been encouraging cardholders to spill the macho peas. I struggle to get any answers to my questions, with the only comment coming from an unnamed ‘Nando’s spokesperson’: ‘We’re incredibly thankful to our high-profile fans that get people talking about Nando’s through their passion for peri-peri,’ says this mysterious Mother Hen. At the same time, some of my chicken contacts have fallen silent. I start to wonder, just how powerful is this society of fowl Freemasons – how many people are in the pocket of Big Chicken?

I have one more lead – an anonymous source with a taste for the hot stuff and a story to get off his chest. ‘Nando’s approached me. They asked me if I wanted to go for a coffee,’ my source confides. ‘We were chatting. Then, all of a sudden they put this thick envelope on the table, and told me to put it straight in my bag. I said: “What’s this?” They said: “We think you know what it is.”’

He goes on: ‘Having a High Five card is like being in the Forbes power list – the most famous people in the country ask me how they get one. Just think about how much PR Nando’s get from the mythology of these black cards – how many celebrities tweet about them. I reckon there might be about 100 to 150 in existence, but it’s probably netting them around two to three million pounds’ worth of free advertising.’

Finally, I’m given a few seconds to glimpse a card for myself. I’m awestruck. It truly is a thing of beauty – metallic, with the holder’s name cut into it. Nando’s are evidently worried about fakes, but comedian Matthew Crosby has another explanation for all the secrecy: ‘A few celebrities have been caught out for tweeting about products that they’ve been paid to tweet about,’ he says. ‘The Nando’s High Five card is in that slightly dubious grey area. If you are, for example, Example, and you’re tweeting about it, people don’t actually know that in your back pocket is unlimited Nando’s.’ Returning to the more important issue: just how do I go about getting a bloody card? There is one certain path, it seems, but it’s hardly a shortcut. Nando’s once declared that anyone who could prove they’d eaten in every restaurant across the globe would receive free food for the rest of their life, a mission that plucky Londoner Christopher Poole is currently undertaking.

‘I was eating quite a lot of Nando’s anyway, before I did the challenge, so it just seemed like something I should do,’ explains the 26-year-old fando. Poole meticulously rates every restaurant he visits, and posts photos of his meals for followers of his ‘Nando’s Challenge’ Facebook page. ‘Since February I’ve only been to about 50, and there are 950 to go,’ he says. ‘I think Nando’s put it on their website as a joke, but now they’re probably thinking they need to sort out terms and conditions.’

I’m not nearly as dedicated as Poole, and speaking to him makes me realise a groundbreaking universal truth: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Who knew? For now, I’m simply going to follow the advice I’ve been given, and start acting nonchalant.

So, Nando’s, if you’re reading this, don’t feel you have to send me a High Five card. I can take it or leave it…

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