Adetutu Adekunle: the accidental food business woman
Adetutu Adekunle CEO of Bibi’s GrillHouse from a background of degrees in Biochemistry and Environmental Management from University of Ibadan, Nigeria and University of Surrey, UK, found herself gravitating towards the culinary business. She heeded the nudge and attended the London School of Hospitality and Events, after which she knew she wanted to join the already crowded sector with an innovative niche in barbeque and grilled treats and creating gourmet of the regular Nigerian foods. Her strongest story continues to be how she has grown her business with N650 to a multimillion Naira business…
Tell us a bit about your business?
Bibi’s GrillHouse is an offshoot of Bibi’s Cottage Catering Company. We provide catering services for social and corporate events, schools and bulk orders for home use. Our first store is located on the second floor of the Maryland Mall in Lagos. We pride ourselves in offering delicious and healthy grilled and peppered treats. You can also indulge a little with our pizzas and hotdog.
Feed us with the story of your N650 startup capital
One day, after I left paid employment, one of my childhood friends, Zinnie, came to visit me on a Sunday. I offered her lunch, which she graciously accepted. She expressed how much she enjoyed the meal of steamed white rice, efo-riro (a spinach based Yoruba delicacy) beef stew and dodo, fried plantain. We chatted for a little while after and she left.
The following morning, I received a call from this friend of mine. Her cousin was not feeling well and she would like to send her some food. She wanted some of what she had the day before and didn’t mind paying for it. I was shocked but told her not to worry about the money, as it wasn’t made for commercial purpose. Off I went to reheat the leftovers for onward delivery to Zinnie’s cousin.
Come Tuesday morning, I got a phone call from a strange number. The lady was very polite, introduced herself as Zinnie’s cousin from XYZ bank and asked if she could place an order for 5 packs of what she had yesterday. To say I was shocked is an understatement. I asked for a few minutes and told her that I would return her call. In that time, I put a call through to my husband. He never sees barriers so he said, “go for it.” Alas! “Go for it? How? I don’t even have bowls to pack the rice. “Tutu, you’re smart and you think on your feet. You’ll figure something out,” he said and got off the phone after letting me know that he was in a meeting.
I gave the lady a call to confirm our ability to deliver. I hadn’t quite understood how stressful but deeply satisfying that decision would turn out to be. I sounded calm so I could give an impression that we were already in business.
After the phone call, I went into rush-around mode. I had some raw rice at home but I needed to buy one kilogram of chicken at N350 and half a dozen of bowls at N300. I went to the market, came home, boiled, fried, cooked, sweated like a Christmas goat, packed the food, had a quick shower so I could look presentable and off I went to make the delivery.
I drove hurriedly and got to the office in time for lunch. I delivered the packs, exchanged pleasantries and went home elated. The next day saw me getting an order to deliver 10 packs, afterwards 12, then 15 till we got to 50. They also helped to spread the word without being prompted, to colleagues in other banks. At the point when I was overwhelmed as the cook, kitchen assistant, cleaner, delivery driver, bookkeeper, I had to hire one staff. I had many people look down on me but I was never bothered. People would tell me to tell my manager to increase the size of the meat in a most disrespectful manner. “Tell your madam to stop serving small stew or we will stop ordering from you o,” someone shouted at me one day. I said, “Yes, noted ma” and took the feedback.
Security men would prevent me from entering offices etc. Despite all, people were endeared to me because they could relate with me and they thought my boss hired a great sales lady. They also loved that I always stayed afterwards to chit-chat. Many of them became not just customers but friends till today.
Afterwards, other companies requested for our corporate catering services and individuals also requested for the same thing. We grew and got an opportunity to open a quick service restaurant, Bibi’s Grillhouse in the Maryland Mall, Maryland, Lagos.We have also introduced a new line of business that is called Ready Grills. As the name suggests, it is a business that produces and packages ready grills which is now available in stores near you. From our very small beginnings in my kitchen, a business that started with N650 now turns over tens of millions of naira annually.
How did you decide on your product/sector/service, especially on the price point?
Deciding on my product, which is largely food was quite easy. Cooking and various types of food appeal to me. I am very adventurous when it comes to food. Fortunately, I married a man who is very adventurous with food as well. We are always looking out for the newest taste in town and we spend most Sundays watching the Food Channel…lol.
I had always cooked for friends’ birthday parties from University of Ibadan days. When I left paid employment, (I worked as an environmental consultant), I accidentally stumbled on an opportunity to cater to a financial services company because I had dropped off some food for a friend who was unwell at that time. It was an unplanned start to the business but from then on, I have happily been on the food train.
Setting up Bibi’s Grillhouse was a decision we came to rather quickly because it is an under-served QSR niche. Many Nigerians have joined the fit fam wagon and now prefer grills to the fried foods that we are used to. The pricing, however, is a different ball game in this economy. Prices have gone up significantly and I have had to review prices to reflect this harsh economic reality. We keep looking for ways to ensure that customers get value for every naira spent.
How do you build a successful customer base?
This is an interesting question because building a customer base has been largely through word of mouth and referrals. I guess I have earned the bragging right to say that a good product advertises itself. It is as simple as that. God, consistence, integrity and good service. I say God first because all man can do is plan and wish, it is God that helps to make our work fruitful and productive.
Has this helped you in staying atop the highly competitive culinary industry here in Nigeria especially Lagos?
The best way to compete is to focus on your strengths and sharpen them by acquiring more knowledge. Knowledge indeed is power. It enables you to be the best version of you. Always trying to outdo your previous record. This enables you to be excellent in all you do and makes you stand out eventually. Our food is like that, affordable 4-Star dining. What’s not to like?
What kind of culture exists in your organisation? How did you establish this tone and why did you institute this particular type of culture?
Employee welfare and satisfaction is a key driver of performance. We try our best to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect and an open-door policy. We welcome ideas from all members of our team because winning ideas can come from the mouth of the least expected people. We listen, deliberate and implement the idea if found viable and that team member gets a commendation. We also have a reward system for various attributes.
How do you push through worse times in business?
I push through to be honest, by praying and going back to re-strategise. It has always helped.
What has been the biggest let down in your career so far?
The biggest let down in my career was when I had to shut down our first outlet in Lekki Phase one. We had serious challenges with our location and parking. This led to us taking the painful but right decision at the point. I have grown to regard it as my greatest learning point in business so far.
Top three female bosses in the world you admire?
I admire these three women in no particular order. Ibukun Awosika for her doggedness and her contribution to building young women, Tara Fela-Durotoye for standing by what she believed was her dream and building it into a successful brand and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, who despite the loss of her husband, has kept pushing forward through her sorrow and has not allowed it to hold her down.
What do you think of the rise in food fairs, festivals and competitions in Nigeria, especially Lagos?
I think the rise in food fairs gives a clear indication of where we are in the food industry. We have evolved and we keep growing. Nigerians are typically adventurous. Just as we have grown in fashion, we have grown in food, developed capabilities in food plating and design and the use of local spices.
At Bibi’s Grillhouse, we held a #BoliFiesta last year which was a hit. It was held to draw attention to our Boli, which is an amazing variant of regular roadside Boli that people are used to.
Hmm. Nice. So what great book have you just read?
Management in Ten Words by Terry Leahy
Talking about the big ‘R’ word, has the recession affected the restaurant culture in Lagos and ultimately sales?
Well…it really hasn’t. I cannot speak for the people on the fine dining part of the food business. But for our quick service model, we are effective yet affordable and fortunately, people must eat. (Laughs)
What’s the next level for Bibi’s GrillHouse? Say in five years?
We have expansion plans to other parts of Lagos and Nigeria. Plans to develop GrillHouse into a franchise brand. There’s also a strong focus now on empowerment of young people through subsidised training and internships.
How has your background in Biochemistry helped in your product delivery to customers?
My background in Biochemistry has given me a lot of ana
How do you ensure that people eat organic and more natural foods in these days that everything is being artificially produced?
We are particular about our supply chain. It is extremely important to us to buy locally bred poultry and other meats and fish. We do not base our choices on price but on organic and good quality products.
A big problem with the culinary industry is the maintenance and improvement of standards. How do you endeavour to improve your food quality?
I agree that maintenance and improvement of standards is a big challenge. However, I have been trained to see the opportunities in the midst of challenges. This is why our staff are our greatest strength. We hire some of the best brains in the industry who have been trained in world class institutions. We retrain them frequently so that we can maintain our standards and keep up with industry trends.
If you were not in the food business, what else would you be doing?
I think I’d be running an NGO which focuses on vocational education. I am passionate about this and it has finally reared its head as I am now the Vice Chairman, Board of Trustees of KHAN Regenesis, a not-for-profit organisation which focuses on transforming mindsets of Nigerians with a focus on improving standards in vocational training.
Any role models in the industry?
Ayodeji Megbope of No Leftovers who also started catering accidentally and for being dogged and resilient despite all the challenges she has faced.
How do you cool off from the heat in the kitchen?
I cool off by getting some me time, generally having a relaxed day. I love hotels and get away locations where I am responsible for no one and can be in my slacks for most of the day. I also catch up on sleep, watch TV series and read books.
What’s your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Believe in yourself. Know you can do it.Learn the ropes of your business; you need it to succeed. Be dogged and consistent.