By Jemi Ekunkunbor
Adesuwa Ogunbor, the petite but strong-willed and indefatigable restauranteur, holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture from Delta State University, a Master of Science degree in Financial Decision Analysis from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., and a Diploma in International Business Strategy from the London School of Economics. After and a short stint in banking, she decided in 2010 to establish a restaurant in Benin City.
Kateri’s Bamboo House is a boutique Chinese restaurant located in serene heart of the government reservation area in Benin. The restaurant which has become a place to been in, caters to a wide range of customers from the political and business elite to young people, singles and couples.
After seven years of consolidation, Ms. Ogunbor has expanded and remodeled the enterprise, adding a Nigerian restaurant, Buka Queen. The new dual cuisine restaurant which formally opened recently, gives Adesuwa the opportunity to express herself and engage her many interests.
How did you get into the restaurant business when you could pursue any one of so many careers?
I decided to run a restaurant because I am passionate about providing leisure for others. I derive a lot of pleasure in seeing people enjoy themselves. I enjoy every aspect of it and once the satisfaction is there, it is no longer work. It was important for me to have fun in my chosen work and enjoy the process.
You will be surprised how the restaurant business, and the overall hospitality business, draws on the skills set from my various academic disciplines-agriculture, finance, decision-making, and more. I didn’t really want a nine to five job. My ambition was to be an entrepreneur; to build an enterprise from scratch, nurture it and watch it grow. There is something special about creating a business, something significant, something that other people depend on in pursuit of their own needs and desires. Of course, you run away from a nine to five career and end up with a seven to midnight one, and not Monday to Friday, but seven days a week!
Why did you choose to run a Chinese restaurant?
When I returned from schooling in the UK, I wanted to start a business that involved little overhead, or so I thought. I did my business plan around the regular Chinese takeout places you see all over the UK, which are almost always operated by a very small Chinese family – father, mother, daughter and/or son. The furnishing is little more than one medium-size bench. I thought it was a very simple model and nothing could go wrong. Well, upon opening the doors of Kateri’s Bamboo House to the public, I realized that what I thought was simple in the UK was far more complex in Nigeria. I had created a high-class Chinese restaurant rather than a quick take-away joint! It was dictated by the dynamics of the market.
It must have been a bit difficult at the beginning or wasn’t it?
Yes, it was more than I thought it would be. Over in the UK, I call in and place my order, dash in to pick it up and rush back home. Here, the customers want to stay and eat in a place that is comfortable and has constant electricity, air-conditioning, a pleasant décor and comfortable seats. They want to watch super sports while eating, they want to hang out, meet up with friends and catch up with the popular discussion of the day.
So, I found myself faced with overhead costs that were not in my start-up budget – generator, fuel, air conditioners, fancy chairs, tables, decorations, waiters and waitresses, and the whole shebang as the Americans say.
I had to start navigating through all this and still ensure that our doors were open and customers are happy. I wasn’t ready for the many surprises that the business threw at me, so it was tougher than I ever imagined-tenancy, funding, staffing, government regulators and more. And yet, as each day passed, I realized how much I enjoyed the challenge, confident that, by God’s Grace, I was equal to it. So, it has turned out to be just what I wanted to do.
How did you cope innitially given that you had no formal training in it?
When all is said and done, that is the true value of being educated. You acquire the skill to find out what you need to know but know nothing about. I read everything I could lay my hands on on how to run a restaurant, went on training courses abroad, visited restaurants and got a back-door tour on how kitchens are set up and restaurants managed. I sought the advice of industry experts as well. I had a coach and business mentor who was on hand to guide me through the start-up process.
Why did you choose Benin City for such fancy restaurant?
I am lucky to have been born in Benin – City and it is home for me. So, after school, I wanted to come back home and try to impact my environment. Benin City is a sweet spot for several reasons: First it is home. Second, I see Benin City as an untapped gold mine. This is especially true now that we have a new government which for the public, translates into renewed enthusiasm and renewed expectations. There is a new environment that is business friendly and people are beginning to develop some confidence to invest here. Besides being home and committed to helping build my city (you know they say charity begins at home), a lot has been going on in this city, and a lot more is happening.
There is also a strategic phenomenon taking place in the country. For many years, Lagos, and much later Abuja, have been the centres of power and business. As with all other countries, we have had to deal with the sever problems of urban migration with every young person wanting to run from his or her village and town in pursuit of the promise of the “Big City”. But Lagos and Abuja have increasingly become less able to meet their promise. There is a significant decentralisation of wealth and opportunity to what you might call the “second tier urban centres” like Benin City, Port Harcourt, Asaba and Kaduna (to name a few). These are the new rapidly developing economic centres. Benin City also has the interesting phenomenon of the sons and daughters of the place coming home every weekend when they can, you might even say, “from the smaller Diaspora”. Catering to them is a unique opportunity. For Kateri’s Bamboo House, this has the added importance of making Bamboo House, and now Buka Queen, the place where all such people, the entrenched “locals”, those visiting from the Diaspora and those just in town for business or in transit, congregate. This is where people catch up on what’s really going on in the State and, to some extent, in the country.
Tell me more about Buka Queen, the Nigerian restaurant. What is your dream for it? How do you see the two restaurants at the same complex playing out?
In addition to the appeal of our Chinese cuisine, Kateri’s Bamboo House is simply an excellent place to dine–the setting, the facilities, the comfort, the accessibility, the security, the ambiance. People begin to wish they could eat other meals at this their favourite restaurant. For Nigerians, and surprisingly for non-Nigerians, there has been this desire for Nigerian food at Bamboo Housie. So Buka Queen is a natural response to the yearnings of our clientele and our conviction after due diligence that it also made excellent business sense.
With Buka Queen we now have two restaurants that cater to both a larger clientele as well the broader demands of our existing loyal clientele. Putting them at the same place means that we have a one-stop shop for dining out, whatever suits your pallet. The synergy between the two restaurants creates an exponential increase in demand, and, hopefully, in revenue!
What drives you as an individual?
Curiosity and the joy of accomplishment. There is also ambition and the pursuit of excellence. Once you are part of something, it has to succeed, however tough and whatever the challenges. There is, of course, my mother. She is tenacity personified. My mum taught me to believe in, and be true to myself.
How much Influence did your mother have on you and your work?
My mother has been there for me and has shaped me into the woman I have become. In business, she is my partner and my first critic. She encouraged me to start the business and learn from hands-on experience at a time when I thought I needed to have all the answers before setting out.
I have been very lucky to be born of her. I lost my father when I was just a child, so, growing up, my mother took on many roles; mother, and when she needed to be, a father, a teacher, a mentor and a friend. She has been all encompassing.
My friends often tell me how lucky I am to have a mother like her, and I know that I am blessed. Having someone like her who is always there for you no matter what, someone who simply loves you totally, no ifs and no buts, is a wonderful blessing. She is not always right, of course, but then, she is my mother, and mothers are always right.
I hear she is actually your partner in managing the restaurant.
Oh yes, she is in charge of the back office-hygiene, supplies, procurement, personnel management and everything in-between.
Any other major influence outside your family?
A. I am also lucky to have a couple special friends who are always there for me and who tell me truths I need to know in my best interest, even if I fight them in the process of learning from them.
Let’s talk about your other interests.
Among others, I have a keen interest in promoting education and mentoring young women, especially girls.
As an enlightened citizen, I have political responsibilities and a role to play in my country’s development and prestige. I am keenly aware of my rights and responsibilities as a citizen, and of the obligations of those whom we have chosen to pursue and protect the best interests of the nation and the people. It is not rocket science to observe the obvious that our leaders as a group, national, regional and local, cannot in good conscience claim to have acquitted themselves elegantly on behalf of the people, especially those in need or who are vulnerable to social and economic uncertainties. Our elders have tried, and to a large extent, may be said to have essentially not done particularly well by the people.
Each generation has the right and responsibility to make its mark on society. The young have not learned much to prepare them to succeed the present crop of leaders who have been in charge for half a century. They cannot learn when they are not given the opportunity of apprenticeship and excellent models to emulate. So, we have a problem. Nigeria needs a new crop of leaders, fresh ideas, and bold dreams. But this will not come about just by one generation succeeding the other as a routine of the passage of time. Each generation must give its best and tutor the succeeding generation to excel.
That is what I would like to see, and in the right circumstances, might even seek actively to contribute to. In this context, women have a lot to contribute. But not merely as women, but as enlightened, inspired and inspiring citizens, competent, driven, responsible and accountable.