Mrs Funmi Lewis whose passion for food made her dump Accounting and Clothe Trading found herself in Nigeria, running Abeokuta’s most popular restaurant WokCity!, 22 years after she started as a sandwich and Coffee maker in the UK. PublicFaces Magazine Ayobanji Olawuyi paid her a visit recently and she shared with us her experience, challenges and future plans concerning her enviable restaurant. Enjoy reading….
With the Ogun State economy is on the rise, how has WOKCITY survived the test of time for the past 12months?
(Hmm.) It’s been an interesting experience of bringing good food that is affordable to the good people of Abeokuta. When I first arrived here in 2011, there wasn’t really much business activities outside the Government. Government was seen as the main employer and the main source of where you can get money legitimately or otherwise. But, for the past one year and the year before the opening of WokCity, new businesses began to spring up and we were lucky to get a choice space on Oke–Ilewo Lalubu Road to open a restaurant. For the past 12months, I have noticed, we actually have larger influx of people into the town which pulls over more customers for us as possible, so it’s been a good thing.
So that means you have been in operation with the government prior WOKCITY brand?I
Can you just take us down memory lane on how and when you started Catering?
Catering has been my passion. I know everyone will say their businesses is their passion, but I trained as an accountant and I was all the while hoping and wishing I was a cook. I practiced accounting in the UK for a while, before I started Catering in 1995.
What really inspired you to go into the catering business?
What inspired me to actually go into catering business was my bad experience with other businesses that I have ventured into, before food. I was into clothing, but people were owing money, they don’t usually pay on time. So I asked myself, ‘what business can I do that people won’t owe me money? that I can sell large volumes even at a lower price and I realize it was catering and being a job I have been passionate about, I just started in the UK and I grew my business outlets there to 5 Sandwich and Coffee Shops. I used to sell sandwich and coffee because these were the cheapest things you could sell to the public. Just Bread, mayonnaise and you fill it in, cut it and sell with a cup of coffee, so that’s how I started. So, that has been my motto really, find things that are good but don’t cost you much and sell it.
So, when did you return to Nigeria?
I came back to Nigeria in 2011 like I said, since 1985 I have been in the UK, my parent and siblings are here, so I came home fully to Nigeria 2011. Like most of other people I got a bit fed up living abroad, the weather you know and also it is nice to be home, so, I decided to take the plunged with one suit case, but fortunately I got a small job as a caterer in the current government and I have grown myself from there.
You started with a restaurant, and within one year, you have expanded to having a bar at your backyard and a smoothie space. What inspired you to have these extensions?
Actually, that was part of my business plan and there are going to be four arms to the business, which are: the main restaurant, the bar, the smoothie bar, and then we are actually going to open another shop very soon where the garage is now, which will be for grilled chicken, shawarma, mini Pizza (not large ones) to suit everyone.
Domino is in town now and the competition is on the rise, not forgetting that we have the likes of Pizza & Pastries and others?
(Ehm) it’s a healthy competition and I don’t even want to call it a competition because their existence is creating awareness already. When I wanted to open a pizza shop in 2017, I was like, nobody knows about pizza and will I begin to enlighten people about what pizza is? and will I sell? which was why I held back. I have had the machine for the past one year, I’ve not launched it because I was like how am I going to enlighten people. So, Domino are here, including Pizza & Pastries. Dominos right now, are doing big promotion, so by the time we open everybody knows about pizza, everybody knows you must have #2,500 to 3,000 to enjoy it. Ours is going to be around the price of a Shawarma, still good quality, smaller size, single person size, so, they’ve made my work easier. So it is not competition, there is never too much of a good thing in the market. And also, if it is a birthday or a wedding anniversary, go to Dominos, if you are just hungry and you want a bite size Pizza to fill [that is, just you] around the price of a Shawarma, you will come to WOKCITY.
So it’s like you’re targeting more of selected consumer out of the whole population?
If you will look through my whole business strategy, it is actually my plan that I bring good food to Abeokuta for less money. That is my Slogan ‘Good food for less’. So, we look for ways to reduce cost, I won’t say cut corners because I don’t do that, I still use premium ingredients that you could find in a Dominos but for less price. I personally don’t like paying too much in a restaurant for anything.
Sometimes around September 2017, it was reported that you travelled to United Kingdom for further training on Pastries and confectionaries. What inspired the trip?
I didn’t go specifically to train, my children are all there, so, I go every couple of months or three months to say hello, but then anywhere I go, in the world I like to look at what they are doing food-wise and see what I can bring to Nigeria. For example, after that September trip I went to Thailand in October for a family holiday and while we were there, I saw what they do with foods, and smoothies. There was a shop I bought so much smoothies from called Sweet Mango, so as soon I came back to Nigeria I decided to have “Sweet Mango”. And I actually went for cooking classes in Thailand as well which I haven’t really implemented but because food is my hubby, anywhere I go in any country, I look at what they do food-wise and try to inculcate the practice.
Many people want to know if you are the Chief Chef behind all the delicious cooking of WOKCITY. Do you make all the cooking?
Not really now, I used to do all the cooking. Now, I just prepare all the recipes and I do all the monitoring. We have trained everybody. Well that’s my nickname chief chef.
Every business comes with its own challenges. What can you say is the toughest ever and how were you able to overcome it?
My toughest was actually and still is power supply in Nigeria. It is a shame that every business person has to factor in cost of buying diesel and maintaining a generator. When I started my business, I bought a medium size Generator and then realize the fact that it was too small, the thing will just cut out especially between 7pm and 7:30 it just goes off when there is a whole que in the shop. So, I have to raise finance to buy a much bigger one which really has eroded into my profit and the running cost of a big gen is of course much higher. The second challenge for food business is consistency of supply and consistency of quality, because in Nigeria, things are available seasonally down to vegetables. If it is not in season it can cost six times the money you use to buy it in the season. The common tomato can cost anything from #500 for a small cluster to #5,000. So, it throws up your cost of production. Meanwhile, you have to be also consistent with your pricing. You can not change Amala from #100 to #180 because elubo is expensive right now, No! you just have to bear it and wait for it to turnover. As a food vendor or business person I am waiting for a Nigeria that will be advance in storage, processing and storage of raw materials for the required produce.
What are the safety measures you take when it comes to making Sortable foods on point?
For now I will say the main thing I do is that I am in the premises every day, all day, every day unless I am away from the country, and when I am out of the country I employ a Specialist Consultant from Lagos to come and keep an eye on the shop always. Don’t leave your business alone but now we got health and safety forms and plans and checklist in the shop to examine. For example, a time our dish comes out, we cook our dish in small batches just like a kilo of rice at a time to make sure it comes out fresh but still it is got to be documented that Jollof Rice came out around 9am sold or not, by 11am it must be discarded bring a new one, that was part of the operating cost of making sure food quality taste remains the same. The other thing is that we work closely with the health department, Environmental Health Officers, come in once a month to monitor us that we are complying, they have given us certificate that we are complying with them, but also my staff undergo training practically every day as you saw earlier over the food, that we make sure we meet international standards in food.
On the scale of 1-10; how well would you say WOKCITY is doing?
In terms of operations I will say 7, we are still striving to improve every day, I take advice from anyone, I take customers’ comment into consideration and everybody knows that I act on it instantly, I don’t wait, but in terms of customer patronage I will say 9 we have been very lucky, we have a very steady stream of customers right from day one, and we strive to make sure we keep them with us.
…. Is it up to what you thought it would be in the first year?
Yes, my targets were exceeded, exceeded in terms of turnover in customers’ numbers, like I said I have worked in another country and working very hard to bring us up to that standards especially with compliance on the health and safety rules whether it is already passed in the country or not and also I am always looking for a new recipe. We recently introduce a new dish called jambalaya, because I went to Lagos and I saw it, I like it, it is Fried Rice with sausage and chicken in it and it’s been a sellout. So, I am always going out either, in or out of Abeokuta to see what new ideas we can bring, so that customers won’t get tired of eating the same food.
The ambience in your restaurant is quite inviting and doesn’t just make it a place to come dine but also a place to want to relax and chill. What inspired the idea of hanging art around the restaurant?
(Laughed), that was an accident. I am an art lover and when I opened the restaurant I was spending 20 hours there and I was feeling stressed and I like art to calm down, so I just said “all the art in my living room, since I am always in the shop let me bring them here”. So, that was how it started but because of the very positive comments from customers about how they like the art, and I just left them there for all of us to enjoy together.
Apart from the Garden Bar, Restaurant and Smoothie space, what other things should the people of Abeokuta and beyond look forward to within the next 12 months?
We should open the WOKCITY Shawarma, grilled chicken, pizza, and ice cream bar in the same compound because my vision is to have a food court in one premises. I don’t want to have branches by running all over the place, so, just stay in one premises and run the four businesses.
Getting the ingredients for the food and everything, do you go to the market to get all that?
Yes, I always go to the market, firstly, because I enjoy going to the market, it’s a good form of exercise but also gives me an opportunity to select the best ingredient for my shop at the best price, sometimes when you send off for them to get it for you or bring it you, it’s not as good as the one I would get myself. So yes, to get good quality at a good price. And also, I enjoy the interaction every other day with the market traders.
What are your favorite market place to buy food stuff in Abeokuta?
For fresh ingredients, it is Kuto Market and Lafenwa market, I go to both markets on each market day, so, every other day is a market day, very early around 6:30.
What is your favorite dish?
Wow, that is a most difficult question. I have many favorite dishes, I like all of them, let me think, I have a favorite dish is just freshly boiled plain white rice, with enough stew and fried meat I can never say NO and the rice with the hint of onions and garlic, I love it.
Who is Mrs. Funmi Lewis?
My name is Funmi Lewis Nee Fadaunsi, I am married to Mr. Eniola Lewis, I was based in the UK, I am blessed with three children, all doing well in the UK working. my last born is in the university. My educational background: I was born abroad but then I came to Nigeria for my primary and secondary schools, my University education was in the UK, I studied Accountancy and Finance, and worked as an accountant until I really had the urge to become self-employed. I had my secondary school education in Lagos, primary school education also in Lagos – Fountain Primary School, Surulere, and Lagos Anglican Girls in Surulere, and University in the UK,- North London University where I studied Accounting and Finance. I am from Osun State, Ilesha. My father is from Ilesha, my mother is Ijebu, they live in Lagos and they still live in Lagos. I moved to Abeokuta in 2011 because I just love the town.
What advice will you give a young girl or lady to be able to get to where you are today?
Be patient and do what you love.