Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part discussion with Promise Oghor on NextNaijaEntrepreneur.com. He tells us why he left his job with a bank to become a caterer, what has driven him to succeed and what sets him apart in the catering business. The second part is more of a practical discussion about how anyone can start and manage a successful catering business. I hope this inspires you to create something and prosper.
My name is Promise Oghor, I’m from Delta state. I studied Mathematics/ Economics at the University of Benin and graduated in 2001. By the grace of God, I’m the CEO/Chef at Boundless PICK Ltd. We offer professional catering services for all outdoor/indoor events and occasions of all sizes and shapes.
STARTING A CATERING BUSINESS…
After my graduation, I got a job with a bank and was posted to Awka, in 2005. I worked till November 2010 when I resigned as a cash officer. I resigned because my wife and I worked in the same bank. One of us had to resign so I chose to leave because I’m the more skilled person, I like to work with my hands. It would be easier for me to start up something…
WHY WAS IT A PROBLEM WORKING IN THE SAME BANK WITH YOUR WIFE?
It is the bank policy that a couple cannot be in the same bank to mitigate fraud, though we were in different departments. For malicious people, it would be very easy, and even tempting, to rob/defraud the bank. So you understand how that could be a problem. I left the banking job in 2010 and opened my catering business.
WHY CATERING? WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO GO INTO THE CATERING BUSINESS?
I love cooking. I just love it. It is one passion I have. That was why it was easy for me to decide on becoming a caterer. Cooking is something I do for fun. Even when I was with the bank or in school, I used to invite my friends over to my house and I would cook for them. That was even how I wooed some girls back then (laughs). It’s a part of me. I cooked my own food while I was in school because it was cheaper, richer and more delicious. I would tell my mom sometimes to leave the kitchen and I would cook for the house. It’s a passion.
When I left the bank, like every Nigerian, I had so many things in my mind I wanted to do. One of the first options I had at the time was MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) but it was not sustainable. Let’s tell ourselves the truth a lot of things are not sustainable in Nigeria, and I talked to myself and said I cannot be helping somebody else make money. A lot of people would say it’s a plan B but that was not a plan B for me because over time, you get jaded – you get fed up when the money is not coming. When your down-liners don’t perform, what do you do?
Again, I love fashion. There were so many things I would love to do if I knew how to sew. I went to a lot of fashion designers here and told them I wanted to learn. They were like: you? Learn? I said, ”yes, I want to learn. Forget about my appearance and style and everything, I want to learn how to sew” You know the problem with most Nigerians is we are too proud to do a lot of things. My salary at the bank then was good but I was willing to set aside everything and learn. That was my mindset at the time. Problem was, none of them wanted to teach me.
There had to be something I could do without spending an insane amount of money and that was why I started a catering business. My passion for cooking just made it easier and more fun. Catering funds itself. You want me to cook for you, you give me money and I cook. I didn’t need millions to start. My wife was shy at first (laughs) because she felt I should start big. However, I believe in little beginnings. She has been very supportive since she saw the prospect in food business.
HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT AT FIRST AND WHAT WERE SOME CHALLENGES YOU FACED?
The first job I got was from a friend of mine. He was skeptical at first but I said, “Give me a try…try me.” So he gave me the job and I executed it perfectly. I cooked rice. He gave ukwa (bread fruit) and bitterleaf soup to someone else because he was afraid I couldn’t do it. Funny enough, when people ate the rice and asked who cooked it, he said I was the one who did everything (laughs) because it was amazing. I started telling people gradually, child dedication, birthdays, and that was how my business kicked off.
I lost a lot of jobs because of experience and uncertain market factors. I experimented a lot. For instance, I did a job once and the bag of rice I bought didn’t turn out nice. So I lost that job. There were lots of challenges but I was never daunted. I kept moving.
THERE ARE LOTS OF CATERING BUSINESSES AROUND. WHAT SETS YOUR APART FROM THE REST?
One of the things I work on, which we don’t do often in Nigeria is this: everybody cooks, some people cook better than I do, frankly. What a lot of caterers lack is timeliness and service. Those are the key areas I work on seriously.
Timeliness in the sense that my clients don’t get to the venue before me. It never happens. I don’t like it when people call me on the phone to know where I am. If you tell me 12, I want to be there 11. I never disappoint my clients because of time.
Service in the sense that we don’t rush. We don’t serve people food with dirty or oily plates and say people are rushing. We don’t rush. We must take our time and clean the plates. Even if heaven is falling on top of earth, we serve people with dignity. We dignify service. You are not serving dogs. But in Nigeria, most people don’t care. They eat anything and say it doesn’t matter. It matters a lot to me. When I get to a venue, I dictate the pace of my service. I tell my clients these things. I take time to explain to them and they are happier after the events.
SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE THE WOMAN SHOULD BE THE COOK. DO YOU AGREE? AND HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR ROLES AS A HUSBAND, FATHER AND CATERER?
The idea that a woman’s place is in the kitchen is just the mentality of our fathers, the world has evolved very much. If you watch food channels, most of the cooks are men. If you go to big restaurants, men are chefs. You’ll only see a few women. Even before I traveled, I used to cook to for my wife. Why can’t I cook for my wife? Till tomorrow, sometimes I make lunch, package it and send to my wife in her office. It spices up our marriage like nothing I’ve ever seen. We are too rigid as a people in Nigeria. A lot of people hold on to some outdated tradition and that is why we find it difficult to move forward. Till today, my mom still asks me: I hope you cook for your wife? She knows I do it willingly. Those things make marriage very interesting. I’m very proud of what I do and I do it with so much zest. I don’t care who is looking at me.
On balancing the home front, my jobs gives me enough time to spend with my family. Sometimes I have hectic weekends but other times, I have enough time. So it’s not a problem. I enjoy it. I have an understanding with my wife and she’s beginning to appreciate it. She assists when she has the time to do so and we have a great time together. It has been wonderful having a supportive wife and I appreciate her for it. We understand each other. I don’t see cooking for her as anything. Even while we were still dating, I used to cook for her. It’s just fun.
LOOKING BACK FROM WHERE YOU STARTED, HOW MUCH HAVE YOU GROWN?
My growth has been steady. I’m not rushing a lot of things. I went for a culinary course in South Africa and returned last year. I’m yet to decide which aspect of catering I want to settle on – the food part or the pastry part. I love pastry. In school, I had beautiful times in my pastry classes. I like the smell of baked food coming out of the oven. But one of the problems I have is that baking equipment are very expensive. My idea of a kitchen is way beyond what we are used to in Nigeria. It’s difficult introducing the concept I would like in Nigeria. But my growth so far has been steady and God has been faithful.
Editor’s Note: This concludes the first part of the interview. I hope you enjoyed it. In the second part of the interview, Promise gives a detailed guide on exactly how to start a lucrative catering business. You are learning from the master!