Q+A with Tokunbo Koiki
Tell me a bit about yourself, your background and where you are from.
My name Tokunbo actually means “from across the sea” in Yoruba, a language from the West African Nation of Nigeria. Although I was born in Camden, London I lived in Lagos, Nigeria for the next nine years and this experience shaped my taste buds and love of Nigerian cuisine and culture. I feel very proud of my dual heritage and the experiences of living in both Nigeria and England has shaped me into the proud British-Nigerian woman that I am.
What is Tokunbo’s Kitchen and how did the idea for it come about?
Tokunbo’s Kitchen is a private chef, catering and pop-up service for people from all cultures to experience and enjoy authentic Nigerian food. Tokunbo’s Kitchen provides food lovers the opportunity to enjoy authentic Nigerian food through various pop up and supper club events. Guests experience a cultural immersion that celebrates the vibrancy and traditions of Nigerian food and culture.
In 2012, I was selected to be part of the prestigious Atlas Service Corps, a leadership development fellowship program in the U.S. This involved living and working in Washington D.C. supporting vulnerable and homeless adults through provision of daily meals, case management and advocacy work. Very early on I noticed that despite the dozens of food trucks that would be parked around the city business districts serving breakfast and then lunch, none served African food. This was hugely frustrating for me and the sheer frustration of similar experiences attending festivals and food markets across London led to the launch of Tee’s Food Corner, a pop up Nigerian street food stall in September 2015 which then became Tokunbo’s Kitchen in 2016.
How did you get to where you are today and what was your career path?
I completed my university education in London, earning a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Psychology from Goldsmiths College, University of London and a Masters in Social Work from Royal Holloway, University of London. With these degrees, I worked extensively as a committed advocate for children and women’s rights globally with cross-cultural experience of working internationally across three continents.
I am an accidental entrepreneur as my lifelong dream was to be a social worker but after fifteen years working in the field as well as in education, I had become disillusioned with my chosen career path. My mother taught me how to cook at an early age as a rite of passage so I could cook for my family in the future. As a result, for most of my life cooking was more of a chore rather than something to be enjoyed. However, my attitude to food started to change once I started to learn more about Nigerian food and culture. I especially enjoy seeing the satisfaction on people’s faces from eating the food I created. It’s a feeling second to none.
Whilst the idea for the food business was planted in my mind during my year living in Washington, the final push I needed to turn my new found passion into a business venture happened the night after I had waited TWO hours for jerk chicken at a festival in the summer of 2015.
Are there any unique challenges running a food business and do you have any tips?
There is so much more to it than just cooking! I have had to learn how to market myself and my brand through telling and sharing my story. The operational aspect of running a market stall or festival is hugely different to setting up a supper club which is like a popup restaurant but they share the same objectives in enabling people to share my love of Nigerian cuisine. I have learnt to ask for help as I found trying to do it all by myself was becoming very draining. Also not to be afraid to ask questions about things I do not know.
What do you love the most about your job?
That it enables me to connect and meet new likeminded people who have helped me in varying ways in my attempts to build and scale up my business. I have forged a number of exciting partnerships as a result of this and it has helped me to broaden my business model and attempt new things I hadn’t considered when I first started. I have also enjoyed the feedback from customers telling me how much they enjoyed the meals I cooked and created as well as feedback that gave me scope for improving.
What are your ultimate goals and aspirations for your business?
I want Tokunbo’s Kitchen to be a household name when thinking about African food not only in London but globally. Whilst I am still unsure about ever opening a restaurant, I would love to have a semi-permanent space where people can come and continue to enjoy authentic Nigerian food without the usual complaints of poor customer service and delay in getting the food. I am also learning to note down my recipes with the objective to one day have a cookbook as ultimately I want people to be able to go home and recreate the meals for themselves.
Have you had any mentors to help you along the way?
Yes, I have worked with a business coach in the early stages of starting the business which was extremely beneficial, as she enabled me to consider different business models and was a great resource in helping me to find funding. I am now working with a mentor with a background in finance to help better understand the financial aspects of running a profitable and sustaining business.
What keeps you motivated?
That I am creating a legacy that will outlive me and help to bring Nigerian and African food to a more mainstream and global audience. The other day my ten year old nephew asked if he could be involved in the business and my daughter is always wanting to assist me with creating my recipes as well as giving me advice on how to have a great event. This keeps me focused and motivated as I am enabling them to see what is possible when you have a clear goal and objective.
What advice would you give to someone that is struggling to take the leap and start a business?
It’s so imperative for anyone considering any type of business to undertake a market research of their ideas. Talk to other people and be flexible. My initial business idea has evolved so much from my original vision and this has been mainly through taking on board the feedback I have received from customers as well as other people. But my biggest advice is to take that first step, whatever it may be, just do it and you will find that initial action will have a cascading domino effect of leading to more actions that will eventually get your business up and running.
Find Tokunbo’s Kitchen at http://www.tokunboskitchen.com/