INTERVIEW: From grime MC to bakery owner – Samuel Mensah of Uncle John’s Bakery talks family business

I discovered Uncle John’s Bakery on social media a while ago and like all good journalists, I did my research and found it was a London-based Ghanaian family business. As a fellow London-born Ghanaian, I was intrigued by the business but also because, I couldn’t think of a commercial Ghanaian bakery in London, unlike Ghanaian restaurants which are not uncommon, if you know where to find them.

I was keen to find out more about this business and spoke with the director, Samuel Mensah and talk about his Entrepreneur Rising Star Black British Business Award (BBBAward) nomination. Samuel took over the business, which was founded nearly 25 years ago by his parents and is named after his father – Uncle John. Following the customary ‘so when were you last in Ghana?’ chat, when you meet a fellow Ghanaian for the first time, Samuel shared insights into how this baking business has risen.

Getting started:

When did you get involved in the business?
In 2014 when I was 29. Before that I was building my music career as a grime / hip-hop MC and doing athletics but got injured.

Why did you get involved?
I knew the business needed a solid infrastructure and wanted to use my transferable skills from being in the music industry, like networking, to take the business to the next level. I didn’t publicise that I was part of the business initially.

Courtesy of: @unclejohnsbakery

What was the solid infrastructure the business needed?
We had to improve our digital presence, from our website to how we connected with our customers. I had to modernise our internal systems and build a strong team.

Were you resentful about leaving your music career behind?
There were lots of things going on in the streets and I wanted to show others there are ways to make something of yourself, outside of music and sports. Having a daughter also made me realise I had to help the business, not just for me, but for later generations.

How did your parents get the business off the ground?
I was young when it started, I remember the hardships they went through. My grandmother passed away in 2003 but was a caterer and helped with new product ideas. Like most African parents my mum had a side hustle where she would get things from Europe to sell back in London, while working in the bakery with my dad and of course, looking after me and my younger brother. The bakery is very much embedded in our local community in North London and people found out about us through word of mouth back then, and it was a steady growth after that.

Courtesy of: @unclejohnsbakery

Family dynamics:

If you’re the director, does that mean your dad works for you now?
My dad and I had a similar vision, but I also wanted to solidify our foundations and new how I wanted that to be. This included focusing on staff training health and safety training, translating paperwork into a digital format and clarifying our financial forecasts.  My parents are very intelligent but didn’t go to university like me and are not digital-savvy.

Are your parents still part of the business?
Yeah, they are both directors, I’m just the to go-to person now, rather than my dad. To be honest, that transition of power was hard and the whole culture of the business changed when I got more control. I had to put my foot down on certain things and in African culture, respecting your elders is very important and I didn’t want to disrespect my parents, but it all came from a good place and needed to happen.

What do you mean the culture changed?
I wanted to really understand our customers and make the bakery inviting for all. For example, I didn’t want large groups just congregating outside the bakery having loud conversations, because this is a professional business – a reflection of my family and our culture.

Courtesy of: @unclejohnsbakery

Recognition

Fast-forward five years and you’ve been selected as a BBBAward finalist, how does that feel?
I didn’t expect it because I’ve always been low-key with the business and don’t really put myself out there. As the business has grown, I get that people want to know the driving force behind it, especially as there aren’t many black-owned businesses in the UK. It’s an honour to be acknowledged and to know others in the community are giving a platform that celebrates black-owned businesses.

Why do you think there aren’t many black-owned businesses in the UK?When my parents and other African and Caribbean people came over in the 80s (and even before then), some had their own businesses, but their children born here, didn’t seem to want to carry it on. I was the same, but it got to a point when I realised that legacy is important, so I sacrificed what I was doing and jumped in to help my parents and then became director.

Samuel Mensah has been nominated as a finalist in the Entrepreneur Rising Star category the BBBAwards, which takes place in London on 3 October 2019.
Credit: steve@stevedunlop.com

The bakery

Being a Ghanaian bakery in the UK did you ‘Westernise’ your products?
Our products are traditional, but we have alternative names for some, so they’re more recognisable. We make chin chin but we also call it ‘chips’ on the website, but if you scroll down you’ll find its original name. Our business fits into the UK’s diverse culture and still resonates with Ghanaians.

Is there a difference between Ghanaian-style bread and what is in the supermarkets?
Yeah, I mean you could say it’s all just bread, but many cultures make the same thing differently. The French bake bread their way and our Ghanaian baked goods are a representation of how we express our culture through baking.

Courtesy of: @unclejohnsbakery

Are your customers mainly African and Caribbean?
They were in the beginning, but I wanted to change that, especially as we’re in such a diverse city. Everyone wants to try something new; and now we have a varied customer base including Chinese, southern Asian and Eastern Europeans. Customers are interested in our story and tradition.

Who are your rivals?
I don’t focus on competition; I know who is in the market but when you do things with quality and consistency, you will be at the top of your game. Our customers can relate to us and that helps.  

Any new products in the pipeline?
We have our coconut chin chin / chips and a few ideas but we’re a small team and I don’t want us to get overwhelmed. We’ve made shito (Ghanaian hot pepper sauce) since the business started and customers use it as a dip for the bread. It’s a bit outside of the box for a bakery but it works for us – that’s Ghanaian culture for you!

Courtesy of: @unclejohnsbakery

Diets have changed over the years, has this affected what you make?Some of our products like the chin-chin/chips are vegan-friendly and we are making more gluten-free options. We have also reduced the sugar content in our sweet bread without compromising its taste.

The growth

Any expansion plans?
We’re in selected Morrisons supermarkets across the UK, have a partnership with Deliveroo and a third-party distributor who takes our products to North England, Scotland and Western Europe. We want to expand further but we need to be ready and not just jump into things. That could be damaging in the long run.

How did you convince one of the largest UK supermarkets to stock, what some might call a niche product?
I just presented the fact and figures. The ethnic food sector in the UK is growing and Morrisons know it. We have a good operational model and they were confident in the business. We’ll be doing a promotional a roadshow with them soon.

The man

Can you bake?
Yes. I know all the recipes and happy to put my apron on and get involved. I’ve worked in all aspects of the business from baking, making deliveries, cleaning, serving customers, doing the accounts.

What do you do to relax?
Spend time with my daughter and play football.

What are you listening too?
My music taste is quite eclectic; I listen to jazz, hip-hop, afrobeats – anything really.

You can find uncle John’s Bakery here.

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