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.
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.
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.
Not just for chocolate lovers, Dark Sugars is a nice spot on the famous stretch of road, know as Brick Lane, East London.
When I saw how Dark Sugars do their hot chocolate on Twitter, I made a point to go out of my way and visit them. I was keen to see if this could rival my usual Starbucks hot chocolate. To be honest, with the infectious spread of gentrification spreading through London’s urban dwellings, I’m all for independent businesses stirring up the coffee shop industry. I went down to Dark Sugars with another willing chocolate-loving accomplice :-), for the hot chocolate but was side tracked by the chocolates and ‘choctails’ (chocolate cocktails)!
This was a prime example of always being ready when you’re a blogger as you never know who you will meet on your little adventures.
After taking my own tour, buying chocolate and having some cocktails, we bumped into Paul aka ‘The Chocolate Man’, who gave us a little history of Dark Sugars – a true (African) chocolate story.
Using cocoa beans sourced from Ghana, Dark Sugars is the perfect place to chill over some quality hot chocolate or turn up the vibes with a delicious range of chocolate treats and cocktails. There are 2 locations both on Brick Lane, Dark Sugars Chocolate Shop opened in 2013 with the Cocoa House opening 2 years later.
For tasty chocolates, cocktails and indulgent hot drinks Dark Sugars is the place!
Being one of five girls, my mum insisted I learn how to cook if I wanted a man to marry me! I’m Ghanaian, but grew up in East Africa, cooking Ethiopian, Ugandan and Kenyan food for my siblings. I’ve been cooking for my family forever! Says Adwoa Hagan-Mensah, founder of Eat Jollof London.
When did you start cooking for others? At university, I cooked for friends who really liked my food. Rather than getting a traditional part-time job, I created flyers with menus and posted them around university. I got orders really quickly, then started cooking and delivering classic student meals, like lasagne. As popularity increased I introduced some Ghanaian dishes and people ordered them too, they became best sellers!
Did you study a food related degree? I went to boarding school in Bath, England, but left without any qualifications. I felt terrible, letting my parents down after they invested so much in my education. Anyway, I managed to go through clearing and get onto a Hospitality and Management course. I then converted to a Business Management degree and found out after being tested, that I was dyslexic.
Our food is delicious and beautifully garnished.
Did you go straight into the food industry after university? I actually went into recruitment, but didn’t enjoy it. So, I quit that job and started a Ghanaian street food stall in what is now a very popular food hub, Broadway Market (with my boyfriend, now husband) in Hackney East London. This was 15 years ago when there was no buzz around West African food in London!
Was it hard to get customers when you first started the street food stall? No. We got our first wedding client, a Scottish couple from our street food stall, which was called Jollof Pot at the time (renamed as Spinach & Agushi). The demographic of our customers then was about 70% white European.
Our African and Caribbean customers used to come along to the stall and ask, “do [white] people actually buy your food?”
You’re no stranger to TV, are you? [Laughs] We were on BBC’s The Restaurant, hosted by Raymond Blanc and Sarah Willingham (Dragons Den). It was like the Apprentice for food entrepreneurs. We didn’t think we’d last that long, but it was a way to test the market. The concept was to start a restaurant from scratch and perform a challenge each week. We came 4th out of 12 couples, which was great especially as we were representing West African Food and felt we had more to prove.
Describe the structure of your growing food empire? Street Food… My husband runs the street food stall Spinach & Agushi (formerly called Jollof Pot), with outlets in Portobello Market, Exmouth Market and our flagship at Broadway Market in East London. We changed the name after going on The Restaurant show. For African food to reach the masses the way Indian and Chinese food has, we make the taste palatable to the masses, while still maintaining some traditional flavours. Our food does taste different across our brands.
Can you maintain your Ghanaian roots and appeal to the masses? Absolutely, we do this across our three brands and our West African clients who recognise the flavours give us great feedback.
Luxury catering… Our luxury catering company is Eat Jollof London (EJL). We do a lot of corporate events for various companies and individuals. We’ve catered for fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, TV personality June Sarpong’s MBE party, Amnesty International, World Vision and UNICEF. The name (EJL) came about because Jollof (originating from Senegambia) is synonymous with West Africa and we are a West African catering company.
One of our summer dishes is a duck confit salad and tatale (Ghanaian plantain fritters) and thinly cut yam chips.
Recently we did a wedding between a Nigerian and Jamaican couple and made Ackee & saltfish stuffed dumplings and had a fusion menu, blending the two cultures.
Fine dining supper club Tunbridge Wells, where I live, is a quintissential English town. When we moved there, neighbours would ask me about Ghanaian food. So the Ghana Supper Club, was born. It’s a five course supper club at my house that I run with a friend. It’s grown so much that we even have people coming from Brighton to dine with us!
It’s been such an emotional journey but I love it and seeing other African food brands coming up, is great! Supporting each other and sharing ideas will give West African food more prominence in the UK.
What does fine dining mean to you? It’s refined, tasty West African food, with traditional flavors and amazing presentation.
Do all your brands have one unifying ethos? All our brands are approachable and we pride ourselves on excellent customer service, which unfortunately isn’t synonymous with African catering businesses.
Your most popular veggie dish, Spinach & Agushi contains… Tomato stew mixed with grounded Agushi (melon seeds), ginger, garlic, chili pepper and toasted Agushi seeds as a garnish with fresh baby spinach!
Your most popular meat dish is… Antelope; a nice lean meat we slice finely across Jollof rice. It delicious!
What’s been your biggest learning so far? After running Jollof Pot with my husband for 12 years and then losing the business in the last recession, I realised we couldn’t work together. We had two young children and the pressure was just too much.
Anyone who’s lost a business know what it’s like, but you must pick yourself up and move on.
Any exciting developments? We’re expanding EJL to Ghana! For our London customers were developing a food delivery box service, which will contain pre-cooked meals and also ingredients to make your own meals from scratch.
Come alone, leave with friends…My supper clubs have a networking vibe, if you come alone you won’t feel out of place. There are games, communal dining where you share a plate of food and get mingling, saysTokunbo – founder of Tokunbo’s Kitchen.
I came out of Angel tube station and immediately tapped in the address of the Starbucks where Tokunbo and I agreed to meet. I have the worst sense of direction and only had 10 minutes to get there, so I didn’t have time to get lost!
But by anxieties where unwarranted, the Starbucks was just across the road from the station and I was 5 minutes early. I bought a herbal tea and found a table. Notebook and pen ready, red record button on my iPhone begging to be pressed. I waited for ten minutes then Tokunbo rushes in flustered and apologetic for being late. Selfishly, it made me feel more at ease because I wasn’t late lol. Anyway, after big smiles and greetings exchanged we got started…
African food is becoming more popular in the UK, why do you think this is? Social media! Our generation isn’t shy about documenting their food experiences. People create hashtags like #jollofwars, giving African food publicity!
Why did Tokunbo’s Kitchen start? My mum taught me to cook Nigerian food from a young age with the expectation that I’d be cooking for a family one day. I saw that you can do so much with it and wanted others to experience it. Friends always commented on my food and I’d spoken with a friend about getting into the street food business. So, I did it!
I love being in the kitchen, making things happen and the freedom of running my own business.
I do everything myself, so creating a permanent team would help. The hardest part of running Tokunbo’s Kitchen is doing festivals and market stalls – I get around 5 hours sleep, cook, set up, on my feet all day, and do the washing up!
When did you start Tokunbo’s Kitchen? In 2015 I went to a festival and queued for over an hour for jerk chicken! That’s when I thought I can definitely do this myself, and started Tokunbo’s Kitchen in September 2015.
What was your first Supper Club like? At my first supper club, I served pounded yam in a communal setting, with a big bowl of Egusi stew (the same way you would get it in Lagos). That way people can try as much as they like. Many Nigerian dishes are vegan based and we cook with palm / coconut oil.
Nigerian food is a burst of different flavours. I make a chilli sauce as a side, so people can add spice themselves – anyone can eat my food.
What do you think about ‘African fusion’ food? It’s fine, but I also like to keep food authentic especially when introducing it to a new audience. My non-African customer base is increasing, so I wouldn’t stray too far from my roots. If I did I would lose what makes me special.
What’s Tokunbo’s Kitchen ethos? Bringing people together through great food, giving them a taste of Nigeria.
“When people are thinking about what to have for a takeaway I want them to think of Nigerian food and say ‘Let’s go to Tokunbo’s Kitchen and have some Jollof rice’”.
Have you eaten anything interesting lately? The other day I had suya chicken and puff buns, it was like the Nigerian version of Chicken and Waffles. ‘Suya’ is the name of the popular beef snack but suya chicken is quite new in Nigerian cooking. The spice yaji used to make suya, is very versatile.
Most Popular dish of 2016 from Tokunbo’s Kitchen? My Jollof, Ayamase stew (with green chili) cooked with palm oil and Iru (locust beans). Akara, which is black-eye bean fritters, was also quite popular last year.
What’s new in 2017? There’s a lot in the works: A meal subscription service, more supper clubs, and pop-up venues across London. My first of the year will be at Craving Coffee on 3rd February, in Tottenham, London. I’m interested in doing a series of networking talks, on running a business, women empowerment and other topics, where of course there will be good food!