Her story is that of a humble beginning but within a short while, was transformed into a big brand. Chicago big babe, Simbo Idowu popularly called Amala Zone, is popular in the US for selling Amala. She runs the popular catering business, Amala Zone. She is very big and currently the most sought after caterer right now. Mostly all the events and parties in the US are being handled by her. She travels all over the world to cater for events. She has been in this business for 17 years having started in the UK before she relocated to the US. She has a long list of clientele and her unique selling point is satisfying her clients with her sumptuous delicacies. She not only does Amala, but she is also into full catering of different types of foods. Recently, she was in Nigeria, and City People’s Society Editor, TAYO OYEDIJI spent a lovely afternoon with her and she opened up on her business, how she has sustained the brand and how easy it has been making Nigerian delicacies for people in the diaspora. Enjoy it!
Let’s talk about your business, Amala Zone. How have you been able to do this kind of business in the US?
It has not been easy. it is not a day’s task and I thank God for what he has done for Amala Zone and we are still there, keeping up the game, and getting the ball rolling. God has done a lot for us.
What made you go into the Amala business?
I started cooking when I was about 20yrs all the way from the UK. Also, I loved doing business, sometimes people call me a Jack of all trades. I just love buying and selling in general. I detected my talents years ago, when I was still in secondary school. Because any little thing I see, I would want to sell. So when I got to the UK in 2009, I was 19 years, I was a partial photographer, caterer, and cleaner. I did a lot of things. At that time, I was single and had to provide for my siblings in Nigeria so I had to get hold of things that would get me money to send back home. When I got married, my husband brought me from the UK to the US. While I was doing all these, I was a nursing student. While I did that weekend. As I’m your caterer, I’ll also be your photographer. As I’m cooking, I’m getting my cameras ready to take pictures and later I’ll submit the album. My cleaning job was still there, I do this around 4 am from Monday till Sunday. We called it early Momo. Nothing stops my cleaning job. It is automatic. A week was 250 pounds and I would gather that and send to my family. I did that for 8 years while I was in nursing school.
So when I got to the US, I started over, and then I was a full-time housewife. I got pregnant and was going to college. So I just looked at it and asked myself what I could do so I started with designer stew (Ayamase), and started giving it out to family friends. Then I had a friend called Lara Odeye, who said it was too sweet and I can’t be giving it out for free that I should try to sell it. So I started from Church and people started buying it. I met so many people along the way. I stayed in Houston Texas. From church members to small events like baby showers. Sometimes I gave it out free of charge as my contribution to the event. So I gave out my numbers and people started calling me for their events, sometimes caterers will call me and I’ll cook the designer stew for them. Later, people started requesting my own stew, so from there I also started selling Nigerian corn from the boot of my car, I would go to the African store where people would see me and that was how I started developing an interest in my catering job.
So I started with my business card and gave it out and people will call. So in 2017, I called my braider who makes my hair and told her about the business because every time I looked like that, she always posts them on Facebook especially when I make Amala, Gbegiri and Ewedu. So she told me one day, she said “why can’t I have a shop instead of doing it from home?” You know, cooking at home can be quite messy. You have to be extremely clean. It spoilt my husband’s house and he also said I have to look for a place to be cooking. God told me that if I need help with where to cook, I can’t just sit down at home, that day, Blessing, my braider pushed me. She introduced me to some people and I later got a place.
In 2017, September I opened a small place initially called Debbie’s Catering in continuation of my catering business. I didn’t call it Amala Zone then. It was when I did the grand opening of my present big place that I revealed the name, Amala Zone. So since then, we thank God and here I am.
Why the brand name Amala Zone? Because I know you cook other delicacies too?
Well, one day I slept and I was looking for a name to call the business. I thought of Amala Junction, Area etc and God said Amala Zone, my abode and I thought about it and told one of my printers in the US that I needed a banner, he asked for what I wanted to write on it and I told him. He said it was a nice name so I started printing it out on my fliers, business cards, etc. People now call me Amala Zone instead of my real name and I have been answering them.
So what point will you say was your breakthrough point when you opened Amala Zone?
That was within 3 weeks when I opened the business. There was this rapid information and spread of my business. I invested a lot in promotions and advertisements. Also, people helped because the taste was nice and they started telling people and posting them on their Instagram pages, especially the young ones. They helped a lot. They posted and I reposted, anywhere they go they always promote my business by telling people and wearing my T-shirt. I used myself most time in terms of promotions. I wear T-shirts always and all with some family friends.
So how have you been able to meet up with the demands?
When I started, I was the only one doing the cooking and I couldn’t handle it alone. So within 2 weeks I added a staff, 2 weeks later, we added another staff and by the time I knew it we were having about 24 staff. That is how it has been as we are rapidly growing.
How do you prepare for parties because I know that sometimes you have 2 in a day?
Yes, for the parties, there is this thing I promised myself to be doing, when I have events, I would make sure I cook the food myself. That is why sometimes I get late to an event, I am really sorry if I have annoyed some customers but it is not easy. You know I have to plan everything and I can be quite picky as to how I want my food to taste. I put all the energy myself and that is the most important thing because I know I would be responsible for the food at the venue and this involves licensing. Any food we cook at our restaurant, we have to be responsible for it because of things like insurance, certification and lots more. I would cook it and after cooking, I go back to my make-up artist to look good for the event.
So where did the interest come from?
Well, being the first child of the family, the interest came from when I was very young. I have like seven siblings. My mother was a trader and civil servant. She worked in a local government and came home very late. My siblings and I were the only ones at home with my dad who was a Mechanic. He used to work from 8-9 pm. So before my mom comes home, my dad would give me money to buy foodstuffs and cook. So by the time my mom comes back, the food is ready. She would just eat and go to bed. It was my father that just put that interest in me. Growing up was tough and I had to take care of my siblings. Cooking is just something I love doing and I developed an interest in it.
So, how have you been able to cope as a wife, mother and businesswoman?
It is not easy, I’m still learning while I’m still in the business. Thank God for my husband, now that I’m in Lagos, he is the one taking care of our child back in the US. I have some family friends that help. My mum is there too helping with home and shop. And I have my Aunty Laide, she has been so supportive. As I’m talking to you now, in a few hours, they would open the restaurant for me and I thank God for my husband who has also been there and very supportive of me.
What has been your unique selling point?
My unique selling point has been a unique taste of my delicacies and also referrals and I won’t lie to you, my customer service is amazing, I love my customers and everyone around me. My customers are the best. When I started my business, some people were like she would change when she starts making money. Change is not for everyone. If you are nice, you are nice, if you are respectful, you are respectful. The business did not change me in any way. I’m still who I am
Can you tell us officially, how old is Amala Zone?
Though I have been into catering for 17 years but officially after changing my business name to Amala Zone, it was rebranded and founded in September 2017 and we are still here 5 years now.
So where do you see it in the next few years?
I see Amala Zone going global, I see it everywhere in every area and corner of your street. But I’m taking my time and I know God would do it.
So apart from your zone, do you go outside your area to cater?
Yes, I travel worldwide. Right now, I’m in Nigeria for a job and it’s done, I’m preparing to go back. So, I travel all over the world to cater. Even in America, I go to several states to cater and in a few weeks’ time, I’ll be in Germany and then London again.
How affordable is Amala Zone?
Well, you can get a plate starting from $10 to $28 depending on what you want to eat. We have meat pies for $2.50, we have suya, we have Asun, etc. Different things for you to choose from. I even have kuli kuli from $2.
What other delicacies do you do?
We cook Efo Riro, Egusi, Ayamase, Designer Stew, and Asake stew. It is the red version of designer stew but we use palm oil. I got the idea from a good friend of mine. She told me about it when she came to America. She said why don’t I use the red one instead of the green one? So she told me what I can put in it. It’s been added for a year now on my menu. You can have it with white rice or porridge. It is like diced peppers with palm oil and assorted meat and fish.
I also added Igbo soups like Afang soup and bitter leaf soups to the menu and also Wanke which is rice and beans in Ghana style.
We would like to know your background?
Well, I was originally born in Ijebu-Ode, I schooled there, at the age of 19, I travelled abroad to the UK. I schooled in Our Lady’s Secondary School, Ijebu Ode and I went to Adeola Odutola Elementary School in Ijebu-Ode. And after that in the UK, I went to Southbank University for my nursing school. After that, I came to America to Newham Community College, which was where I did my college. I also have several certifications in IT, I have the background, and I have done service now, core masters. Generally, I just got distributorship from Odogwu Bitters in Nigeria. So come around Amala Zone to get yours. We have dozens of wholesale and retail. So please contact us at +8324756939 and on our Instagram page, amalazone. God bless you and I love you all.