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.
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.
The relationship between Africa and the UK spans centuries. In the last 2011 UK census 1.8% of the population of England and Wales identified as black African. Various waves of immigration, have led to multiple snippets of African culture in the UK. According to the census, the foreign-born African population come from all across the continent including:
We all know that Africa is a diverse continent and not a country. However, along with music and fashion, generalisations are also made in reference to African food. Undoubtedly, there are similarities in cuisine within specific regions but African food cannot be grouped onto one plate and that’s what makes it fun!
Battle of the ‘A’ continents?
Unlike Asian immigrants to the UK who have carved out a conspicuous niche for Asian Food, Africans have lagged behind in this area…but they are making up for lost time! In addition to African restaurants, some foodies/chefs have gone the supper club /pop-up restaurant route, making African food more accessible.
What is a supper club?
Supper clubs can vary in size and take place at different premises, decided by the host. This can be in a private home or a neutral location. Each guest usually buys a ticket beforehand and eats from a set menu. African supper clubs are slowly spreading across the UK, with many of them in London.
How do you find out about African supper clubs?
Online (including social media) and word of mouth.
Raised in a West African family, we generally ate our traditional food at home, so I’ve not really felt the need to look for African restaurants, until recently. Admittedly this was the wrong mindset to have. I’ve realised Supper clubs introduce guests to a creative fusion of African dishes that you (as an African) may not cook on a regular basis and they are a great opportunity to socialise with new people (which you wouldn’t really do if you went for a standard restaurant meal). There has also been an increase in non-Africans going to supper clubs, which is great as it puts African food in front of an additional audience, dispelling the myth that African food is just about pepper and heat.
Why are supper clubs important?
First of all they are fun! You get to socialise with different people.
They give independent food entrepreneurs a platform to gain exposure, develop a following and build their business.
Where is the next African supper club in London?
Check out below; why not grab a ticket and get a little taste of Africa?!
Africa is a continent with many different cultures and #recipes; but where there are differences, there are also similarities. Check out this video, how does it compare to Ghana’s version (Bofrot – video below) of the fried doughnut treat?
“Do not despise these small beginnings” – a modest Ethiopian / Eritrean café in Woolwich, London may be a small fish (at the moment) in a big pond, but it’s getting noticed!
The Blue Nile Café has had good reviews on travel website TripAdvisor.com and other restaurant review sites; its owner Hagos (who came to London in the 80’s as a refugee), opened the establishment in 2014 with the help of her sons.
As a former Italian colony, Eritrean food also has Italian influences.
East African food is still trying to make its way onto the London food scene, but this Eritrean restaurant in London is going full stream ahead!
Snippets of an African legacy; from a colourful perspective