Sweet Sensation Founder & CEO, Mrs Kehinde Kamson is a Chartered Accountant and one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs. She grew her food chain from a small backyard business in Lagos. She started after giving up a lucrative accounting career. In the excerpts, below, she reveals her story, revealing how she got into the food business accidentally.
I got into the food business ‘accidentally’. Before I started my first business, I was a Chief Accountant in an oil service company called Lummus Crest. It was my first job outside the occasional holiday jobs I had at either one accounting firm or the other and my youth service job. I was young, married and had given birth to three children in three years. Not bad at all, eh? If you are newly married, you might just want to consider the option of spreading them out. Trust me, that’s a safer option and I don’t just mean safer in a physical sense!
My husband wanted the best of me for our marriage and he was never going to compromise the standard he had set for the raising of our children. My job was full time and quite often I needed to go to work on Saturdays and use Sundays to prepare lots of reports ahead of Monday mornings. It was a frustrating situation that didn’t make me favourably disposed to the job.
When you add that scenario to the fact that I had been inspired by my mother’s knack for entrepreneurship and industry and I had developed a heart for service, it was only ‘natural’ for me to try out a ‘small business by the side’.
Maybe because I was only about 23 years old and I had a steady job, but making profit was the last thing on my mind.
So I opened a little shop. While I was working with the oil service company, there was a friend of mine whose family house was opposite the shop at Abule Oja, Akoka, Lagos – right at a corner piece of a major road that leads straight into the University of Lagos. One day I told her parents that if any shop space in the area became available for rent, they should please notify me. Once the shop was available, they notified me and I quickly got it. It was owned by the Awosika’s and it is still there.
When I say ‘little shop’, that’s exactly what I mean. You could drive right past it and not notice it was there. I called the first business I started there, FISHMONGERS which I registered as an enterprise rather than a limited liability.
The idea was to source for fish from different fisheries scattered all over Lagos and sell them to customers. I operated that shop side by side with my job for five years.
On my way back from my office which was located at Victoria Island, Lagos, I would stop at the shop, before heading to my home in Gbagada, Lagos. Note that it was the shop that I operated for five years and not Fishmongers. Fishmongers died a natural death when I could not sustain the business. Maybe the business model was bad or the location was poor for that particular type of business or it didn’t have my undivided attention, I’m not sure. But I realized one day that I couldn’t sustain the fish business again and that there was an alternative type of business I could explore with greater joy.
That alternative business attracting my attention was the baking and selling of pastries and cakes. Earlier in my life I had developed a love for baking and cooking so the idea was one that appealed to me. So I decided to close down Fishmongers and start a business that would focus on making and selling pastries and cakes. I named that business CITICATE – the City Caterers. That was my first incursion into the ‘food making’ business. I removed the Fishmonger signboard and replaced it with that of Citicate. Our emblem then was a shrimp.
At Citicate, you would find cakes, pies, pastries and soft drinks. Apart from cakes and pastries, Citicate was also into catering. I remember the first banquet function I was hired to cater for. It was a disaster! Hiring caterers was not very common then. Most people managed their own events by getting Ghanaian or local cooks. The common practice was to go to mile 12 market, buy all you needed for your event and then hire cooks from somewhere. That’s unlike nowadays when you have caterers who would take care of your event from start to finish and you wouldn’t have to lift a finger to do anything.
During those early days, there were only three items on the menu: meat pies, cakes and sausage rolls. I used to bake the cakes every other day when I got back from work. I baked the meat pies and the sausage rolls every morning before I went to work. I had gotten so organized that I would roll the pastries at about 3 am in the mornings for the meat pies and sausages such that by the time I was ready to go to my office, they would have been ready.
As soon as I finished making the pastries, I would start to prepare my children for school. I would bathe them, feed them, put them in the car, drop them in school and head to work. On my way to work, I would drop the pastries at the Abule Oja shop which was the location for Citicates.
The tough schedule brought out the best in me because I had to learn to eliminate idleness and laziness. I was either picking up a child or picking up a pie! There was no time for frivolities. I learnt to get up in the night to work and cover-up for lost hours. Producing at night and the early hours of the morning were normal for me.
Every day I would roll the pastries at about 3 am, get a short nap while the products were in the oven, get them out after about 35 minutes when they would have been baked and have them stacked in my car for deliveries. After that, I would rest for about an hour before waking up the children to start preparing for school. I learnt how to work hard and multitask, something that comes naturally to women. Perhaps that is why women are said to be good managers.
Even when a woman doesn’t have the privilege of running a time-sapping business, the entire process of raising children, especially when you don’t space them out too well, is a management course in itself. If a woman has children there would be no reason for her to be lazy. You can’t be lazy with people needing your service every time.
It just can’t work. While you are picking one child up, another one is crying for attention and another is complaining about hunger.
Quitting My Job
Eventually, Citicate began to be more demanding and I just couldn’t cope with the burden of keeping my day time job, building Citicate, raising my children who were still very young and generally keeping my home all at the same time. So I quit my job. My initial plan was that once my children were older I would go back to it but in the interim, I would give more attention to Citicate. That never happened.
After I quit my job, my schedule became more bearable. I became more focused on the business and was able to produce and sell more. My first car, a Jetta, was virtually a delivery vehicle. I would stack it with cakes and pastries and make deliveries to various customers and resellers.
I’m not sure if it was the recipe or the way the cakes were packaged and presented but people seemed to like my cakes a lot. I had them on a tray and with the pan of the cake, I covered the tray and cut the cakes into pieces. The pan would then protect the cake and prevent them from falling off. I’m talking of about 14 by 14-inch trays of 48 pieces of cake each. I would cut six lines by 8 lines in each cake, thus producing 48 pieces. It got to a time I was distributing 120 of those trays a day.
The cakes were made using grated coconut as the unique ingredient and they were creamy. Customers found the cake unique. UNILAG loved it! There were at least 8 butteries I was servicing in UNILAG. All the hostels and pastry shops around the staff quarters were asking for it.
The cakes dominated the pastries. The pastries were not more than 50 to 60 and it didn’t take me more than one hour to roll. But the cakes were more tasking partly because of higher demands.
I had two people help with the baking while I focused more on the finishing and the icing during the night. All my equipment were locally made. Only my mixer was imported. It was a Kenwood mixer and I had about eight of them because I was using a process that was unique. I was using the Genoese sponge recipe that starts with an egg and sugar whisk base. It makes cakes very fluffy. I started with one mixer, adding one after the other until I had about 8 mixers. They would be lined up and when I put the mix into the last one the first one would have finished mixing.
After some time, people who owned butteries in MEDILAG (the medical school of the University of Lagos) were sending messages that they wanted me to supply them. So I had to add the logistics of supplying the butteries of MEDILAG to the already complex logistics of supplying the UNILAG neighbourhood and it got to a stage that the cakes were too much for my car to contain. I was suddenly faced with logistic and distribution problems.
Before I was through distributing the cakes, it would be time to pick up the children from school. The demands of the business were growing faster than I could handle and I didn’t have the infrastructure to handle the growth.
Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately, considering the benefit of hindsight), at about the time when the UNILAG market for the cakes was getting to its peak, the owners of the shop gave me a quit notice! I was told that one of the children of the owners wanted to use the shop for something so I had to leave.
The good thing was that the principal activity (the baking of the cakes) was not threatened because in the first place I was baking the cakes both from home and from one other small space I had rented further .down the road from the Citicate shop to make up for the limited space at home. I remember that after baking at that small back up facility, we would use wheelbarrows to ‘transport’ the cakes to the Citicate shop!
WHEN FRUSTRATION BEGAN TO SET IN
But despite the fact that cake baking was not affected by the loss of the shop, the quit notice coupled with logistic problems that had been developing as a result of high demands and the general pressure of trying to grow a small business while managing a family got to me.
I should mention that at that point, even though sales were increasing, I was still not making as much as I was earning while at my former job. The fulfilment and sense of growth the experience brought had kept me on. But the quit notice triggered a frustration that had been building up silently.
I became confused about everything and I started to doubt the wisdom in quitting my job. I began to feel that there was something wrong with someone who, rather than grow in her profession, was preoccupied with baking and selling cakes.
My colleagues were beginning to be senior managers in some banks and financial institutions. I began to ask myself, “Am I wasting the best years of my professional life doing all these ‘dirty’ things while my colleagues are moving up corporate ladders?” There was one in particular who had gotten a promotion at Schlumberger and had been transferred to the UK to head the Nigerian subsidiary of the firm in London. Wow! I asked myself, “Why did I go to school at all if I was headed towards soiling aprons all day with oil, butter, flour and sugar at a backyard shed? How will I relate with my mates after some years? Won’t I lose touch with current happenings in my profession?” Those were the kind of questions in my mind.
I used to feel very ashamed of my appearance whenever my brothers visited looking corporate and all suited up. I remember always feeling embarrassed every time they saw me in the bakery looking messy from head to toe while trying to cope with the daunting demands of baking and attending to a crying child at the same time. I would look into their eyes and see pity and worry. I still wonder who wouldn’t have been worried about me back then. I was always like a nervous wreck!
My aprons used to be so messy that I changed them three times a day and regularly needed to soak each one for at least 24 hours before I could get the stains on them removed. While washing those aprons, all sorts of negative thoughts would cross my mind and I would constantly be close to breaking down emotionally. I needed a change and I needed it fast. The change I desired was one of going from being confused to becoming certain I was doing the right thing and moving in the right direction.
FASTING TO FIND DIRECTION
As you would have noticed, the problem was not with what I was doing but my perception of it and the doubts in my heart with regards to the prospects of toeing a ‘non-corporate’ line. Simply put, I was confused and worried. I felt that I needed to develop a strong conviction that I was heading in the right direction otherwise I should make a U-turn, fine-tune my resume and get back into my ‘secure’ accounting profession.
It was at that point that I began to think about how getting God to guide me could provide the conviction I needed to either forge on in the direction of the food business or go back to my accounting profession. I decided then to seek divine guidance even though at that point, I was not what you might call a serious Christian. Though I had the fear of God in me based on the foundation my parents had laid for me, I wasn’t particularly serious about the things of God to the extent of constantly praying and fasting. On this particular matter, however, I realized that I needed direction and I knew that it was only God that could provide me with the kind I needed.
I asked God in prayer: “What do I do father? Should I stop what I am doing before I lose touch with accounting?”
Because my heart was desperate for some kind of divine guidance and because I felt that if I could tug God well enough He would answer me, I decided to fast for a few days.
So off I went on a fasting journey. I didn’t eat anything for the first three days, hoping that God was going to answer me early enough. All I wanted was to know if I was supposed to go back to my job or stay in business so surely God would have no problem solving that for me or would He?
What I didn’t understand was that His ways are not our ways. After three days of fasting, nothing happened – no finger writing on a wall, no voice from a burning bush, no donkey speaking and no loud echoing voice from the skies. God seemed too quiet for my liking! I couldn’t figure out why He would choose not to answer me after I had gone without food for three whole days! I decided there was no point going on with a ‘total’ fast again so, from the fourth day, I started eating whenever the clock hit 6 pm. That continued for another four days.
– Culled from Her 2011 Autobiography Pots, Pans & Spoons.