His real name is Saheed Kekere-Ekun. But everyone simply calls him Saheeto. He is often called The King of Small Chops, because of how he came to dominate the small chops business. Many still marvel at how, years back, he was able to create the small chops menu all by himself and develop it into the phenomenon that it has become in the food sector today. Apart from his small chops business, he is into hospitality and real estate. He is the CEO of Saheeto Suites on Lewis Street, Lagos Island. The big news is that Saheeto is running for public office. He plans to contest the House of Reps seat for Lagos Island constituency 2on the platform of APC.
To say he has done very well for himself would be putting it mildly, as the very open-minded and honest Saheeto would be the first to tell you it wasn’t an easy road to walk. It took him every bead of his sweat and toil to get to where he is today. Many don’t know he once worked as a waiter in restaurants and hotels before he could come up with Saheeto small chops and transformed it to the global brand that it has become today. This creative man is not resting on his oars. There’s still a whole lot he’s striving to achieve, and he says he hasn’t even started yet. At the recent 21st City People Award for Excellence, Saheeto was honoured for his contributions to the food and hospitality sector. City People’s Senior Editor, WALE LAWAL, was able to chat with him for a few minutes moments after he picked his award. Enjoy the excerpts.
Sir, how do you feel about your recognition by the City People Media Group?
I feel very happy, very excited. I give glory to God, who created the heaven and the earth, I say thank you to Him, and to the City People Media Group for giving me this honour.
Tell us, how did the journey start for Saheeto small chops, and how do you feel getting this far?
Well, all glory to God, it’s been a journey of 30 years. I remember how everything looked bleak and impossible at the beginning. But I held on to my vision and believed in myself even when nobody else did. Things were very difficult then. Things were very tough. I had to make a lot of sacrifices for my younger ones so that they could also make it in life and become somebody. For me, then, it wasn’t about me, it was about them. As a leader, it shouldn’t be about you, it should be about the people. If as a leader, you have that belief and mindset that it’s about them, then this world will be a much happier place for all of us.
So, I took up the responsibility to take care of their education and their funding. That was when I ventured into catering as a waiter 30 years ago just to make sure that I was able to keep things running. It was really tough back then, but I didn’t give up. We were praying, we were working hard, we got a few family members and friends to support us and that’s how Saheeto started.
Back then during those difficult days, what sort of aspirations did you have before Saheeto came into being?
Initially, I wanted to be a banker. That was actually the first thing on my mind because most of my family members were either bankers or lawyers. That was my plan, but it is God Almighty who disposes. Then, when that didn’t happen and I started as a waiter, I was always looking for the opportunity to pool resources and see how I could do something new into society. That was my first vision. For me, it wasn’t about what I wanted to gain from the society, or what I wanted to gain from the government, it should be more about how I was going to make a difference in people’s lives by creating an institution. I wasn’t interested in creating a kingdom, all I wanted was create an institution.
I believed that when you create institutions, you make people, and those people would make other people. And I stand here boldly before you to say that, 30 years after, we have created over 100,000 jobs. I trained Laredo, Laredo trained somebody, that somebody trained by Laredo trained somebody else, and the circle goes on and on expanding like that and that’s how employment was created. I really thank God that it came to life.
This is such an inspiring story, but I know it couldn’t have been all smooth sailing at the time you started Saheeto Small chops. What were those initial challenges that you had to contend with?
The first challenge was the finance. It was difficult to raise sufficient funds. Another challenge was the inability of people to believe in you and your dreams. We were new and the business was new, not many people believed in us. A lot of people were even thinking, how they were going to eat my chops?
Who was he? Where was he coming from? Who were his parents? The questions and the doubts were endless. And I couldn’t blame them because, for me too, now, I can’t eat anything else if it’s not Saheeto. It’s not like one is being arrogant or anything, but the thing is I know the standards and I know the way some people out there take these standards for granted. You know, it was just like small chops, which I created, just came out of nowhere. All we had then that were like small chops were puff-puff and Mosa (corn-powder balls), but we were able to convince people that we could do it. So, trust and lack of finance were the first two major challenges we faced. The third part was managing people.
Remember I said we started with family members and friends, and the way you talk to your staff is not the same way you talk to family members. It was a really big issue managing these people at the start, but thank God we were able to scale through. We were able to get some funds by getting through to some of our clients, the Ojoras, the Sarakis and others. Those were the first set of people who gave us N300 and three hundred naira was a lot of money in those days. To buy freezers and other equipment I needed for the business, I had to seek financial assistance. So, those were the sort of things one reflects on and just thank God for everything.
How did you make the small chops become acceptable before building it into the serious business it has become today?
We knew that the first thing we needed to do was make it accepted by people. Second, we had to make people understand that, yeah! You still have your rice and all that, but you can’t possibly eat rice at a single party four to five times, it’s not possible. But you can eat small chops up to ten times while you’re sitting. So, that’s the first thing we made people to accept as Small chops are so light, they’re not heavy and this made people become more comfortable with them.
And by the time they began to realise that we have quality control and the human capacity to deliver quality food, they began to believe more in us. We didn’t do billboards, we didn’t do any form of advert, only words of mouth and referrals got us through. Maintaining our standards and consistency really went a long way for us too. These are all the factors that Nigerians at home and those in Diaspora came to recognise and respect about Saheeto. And now, Small Chops as an institution is known not only in Nigeria, not only in Africa but in the entire world and it was created by Saheeto, it is a really big fulfillment for me.
I’m wondering, after 30 years in business, despite competition, Saheeto is not only still in business, but it’s on top of the competition, how have you been able to do this?
Well, we thank God Almighty, but there were lots of challenges. There were lots of ups and downs. But let me tell you, because you’re the original, because God almighty gave you the idea and the knowledge, some others would join the business, but they can never be like the original. We will only continue to grow bigger and bigger and bigger. Competition is good, don’t get me wrong, but we have been able to beat competition because we are the original and we possess the technical know-how. We are the original small chops in Africa. When you want original small chops you go to Saheeto.
I also just found out that you own Saheeto Suites, how did you diversify into the hospitality business?
We just diversified to see how we can expand our horizon. We started Saheeto Suites about a year ago and we’re doing marvelously well. We are also into other businesses like the real estate, which we just set up as well. Saheeto Suites is one of the best on Lagos Island. I can confidently tell you that, even though we opened the hotel just about a year ago, on Lagos Island today, it’s Saheeto Suites and others.
You can verify. It’s a classy hotel because what we’re looking at is not Lagos Island, but Africa and Europe as a whole. When you come to our hotel, it’s on Lewis street, Lagos Island, you will see that it’s standing side by side with other American or European hotels. The ambience is something else. It will give you a mix of American, European and Arabian feel all at the same time. It’s got unique features and very exclusive. But do you know the most remarkable thing about Saheeto Suites? You can never believe the price of our services, they’re incredibly affordable. What we’re offering is worth much more than big value for your money. Until you pay us a visit, you can’t understand what I’m talking about.
Finally, sir, what motivates you? What makes you continue to drive yourself beyond limits?
You know, like the words of Abraham Lincoln, he said, I’m a slow walker, but I never walk backwards. The key thing is that when people are standing, you have to be outstanding. When people are ordinary, you have to be extraordinary. And lastly, there’s no traffic jam in going extra mile. When you put all these things into perspective, you realise all they’re saying is that you should never limit yourself. Look at the successful people around you today, whether it’s Bill Gates or whoever, some years back, they were nobody. They all passed through trials to become who they are today. This means that you too can also become somebody in life. So, all these things inspired me. They gave me the desire to help people and support them in whichever way I can to fulfill their dreams.