In this interview, the CEO of Top Chef Bakery Lekki, Lagos – Mrs. Imelda Odiagbe, explains what motivated her into bakery business, her challenges and the way forward. Top Chef Bakery Lekki, is a famous hospitality company in Lagos State Nigeria and its environs.
What informed your decision to go into bakery and how were you able to move from a little beginning to where you are today?
I think the bottom line is grace. It is not by our power; not by our might, because I know a lot of bakeries that opened around us after we started have all shut down. One major force behind the progress of our bakery is grace and another that keeps us in this business is quality. The reason we went into baking bread was because we wanted to give people quality food through bread and to fill the space of quality bread in Lekki axis. As at then, that is, ten years ago, we looked around, but we did not really get the quality when we moved into Lekki from the mainland. I used to do good bread in mainland. So, when I came around, my family was not even eating bread. We kept buying bread and throwing it into dustbin because we did not get what we were looking for. It was in the quest of trying to give quality bread to the environment that we went into bread business, and up till now, quality has been our goal. In fact, Top Chef motto is: “Your Satisfaction Is Our Pride”. Once our customers are happy when they eat our bread, we feel so proud. So, quality has been a driving force behind this business. Even when things are expensive, we do not compromise our standard and quality. I have some customers who have been eating our bread for the past ten years, and I am so proud of that. I even have a customer that works with Standard Organization of Nigeria, SON. He is one of the top shots there. He told me before his family started eating my bread that he personally tested it in the laboratory without our notice, and after the test, his boys were like: where did you get this bread? He said they have never tested a bread and got almost 100% perfection. Since then, he has been eating our bread. I was shocked when he told me this, and I asked him why he did that without my notice, but he said he did that at his expense because he did not want his family to eat bromate or anything harmful to their health. I was so happy about that. So, quality is one of our driving forces, and number three is that we have passion for this business; passion even when the going is tough, we keep smiling. We keep going because it is something that we do with ease. For me, anytime I work, I don’t feel it because I derive joy in what I am doing. Sometimes, I work all day in the bakery and I won’t even know it’s already dawn. I’m happy anytime I do my bread and see my products bounce out. I always feel good. So, I have passion for the business.
You have been in this business for years. What are your fine moments and perhaps challenges as well that you would like to avoid if given the opportunity to start over again?
My fine moments are usually when customers come to the bakery, or, call me on phone and give good testimonies about my products. It usually gives me so much joy. People have been calling me from Abuja, Benin and Ibadan. I have even received calls from people informing me that they are buying my bread and taking it to outside countries. Some even travelled with my bread to Spain, America. I have had couples that came to Nigeria, spent some time around us, enjoyed my bread, and while going back to Canada, they told me that they were buying a lot of my bread to Canada. In fact, anytime that happens, I always feel so proud and happy. Such days are my best days whenever I get a report of people telling me that my bread is traveling across Nigeria. I feel so good. I have calls from people blessing me, praying for me that they ate my bread or they just finished eating my bread and they are so happy and they would wish to see me as far away as Aba, Onitsha. Even as far away as Northern part of Nigeria, people want me all over the country; people want me outside Nigeria. Such days are my best days. Sometimes, when I feel discouraged due to stress or staff problem and a customer put a call to me commending my product, I get so elated .The major challenge we have is when the power supply fails. You see this bread business, you can lose serious money within hours if there is no constant power supply. When you rely on the steady power supply for you to produce, and all of a sudden, everything goes blank ,you will lose upto 500 loaves of bread in the space of two hours once there is no power supply to power the oven. I can assure you, those bread will go down refuse bin. It is always a very bad day to have that kind of situation. So, power is a major issue, but we thank God we have a good generator and a back up. So, whenever one fails, the other one is there as a back up.
How did COVID-19 pandemic redefine your operations?
There is no time or season in bread business, because during COVID-19, people were eating. I am very sure that nobody stayed 3-4 days without eating food. So, during the pandemic, we were trying our best. Even the lockdown, people waited for us to open around 4pm and I didn’t fail my customers. I was very ready to serve. I needed to make my customers proud and meet up their expectations. When there was total lockdown for one or two weeks, the little flour we had; I used it to produce towards the evening hours for people from neighborhood to have what to eat and a lot of my customers were really happy and grateful for that. For me, during pandemic, the business was kicking. It did not affect us in any way.
How are you leading differently in the face of competition?
To be truthful, competition has made me a better person because of this bakery. That name – ‘hot bread’: we are the first in the whole of Nigeria. Anywhere you see ‘hot bread’ across the country, know that it originated from this place. The name came through the power of the holy spirit. Let me put it that way because, the first time we baked bread here, then we just started, there was nothing like company name. We didn’t have .I was like: what will I tell people that I am doing? I said people have been buying bread. The name – ‘hot bread’ came out suddenly, and I directed that a banner be placed with inscription: ‘hot bread’. Before I knew it, hot bread became a household name. When we tried to register with CAC, we were told the name – hot bread was too common and general to be registered. With excuses they gave us, we were able to register it with hot bread talks. The truth of the matter is that, the competitors we had around; all rose up when they saw the progress hot bread talks was making. For us, the competition made us better, because our major Unique Selling Point is our quality. We already have customers that believe in us and in our products. Most of our competitors only have passion to make money, but we want to make money, and at the same time, satisfy our customers. So, in the midst of all the competitions around us, we are still number one in terms of quality. This has been our trademark which has kept us growing. We are not ready to fail our customers who have believed in our quality for the past ten years.
What do you think government can do to assist Small Scale Businesses?
For me, assisting small businesses with money is not really the key thing. What we need from government is the provision of basic amenities.If government gives us 24 hours power supply, we can beat our chest and say without generator or anything, we are ready to shoot. Let me tell you; the country is ready to move forward. We need the basic amenities; we need power. Once we have 24/7 power supply, we don’t need any money from government. Let me tell you; even if you were selling pure water, you would succeed, because when your water is cold, someone coming out from the sun will want to buy water from you to chill. The same with those that are in bread. When you know that our bread will not spoil in the oven due to power outage, we are good to go because people are ready to eat. So, what we need most from the government is the basic amenities. We need light; we need constant power; we need good roads to be able to distribute our goods; to move them round the streets. There are streets that are not accessible when it rains. People want to eat bread, but how do we get it across when the whole places are flooded? What we just need from the government is the basic amenities. When we have good roads and constant light, the country will move forward; people will thrive and businesses will boom. Let me be sincere to you, most businesses have shutdown due to high cost of production. Like now, diesel is almost 330 per litre, and imagine there is no power for the whole day, you will burning diesel. The generator I am using is a big generator. Sometimes, it consumes almost 200 litres of diesel in a day. So, multiply that by 330 naira per litre and tell me how many bread I need to produce in a day to offset only the diesel expenses alone. I am not talking about staff salary or cost of production. What I need from the government are basic amenities. I need government to give us access to all the roads, towns and streets. Then, we can move forward from there.
What targets have you given yourself to become a leading force in bakery business?
By the grace of God, I am believe that before the end of 2023, I want to be in the 36 States of Nigeria. If I’m not registered presently here; I want to own one of the biggest bakeries in the country, where I can be able to produce and take round the entire 36 States of Nigeria. So, this is my dream, and I want to achieve this project within the period of 2023.
How have you been able to match your business with family responsibilities?
Ah! Of course, we all know that family needs are the number one, and family is everything. You can not love your business more than your family, and at same time, you cannot love the family and leave the business behind. The family too relies on the business. The family needs the business as well. By the grace of God, my children; when we started, they were still small, but now, by the grace of God, they are all grown and all in school. It is just me and my husband using the house and improving in the business. We have the whole time for the business now, but when they were small; to be sincere, it was not an easy task, waking up in the morning, getting the kids ready for school, dropping them off in school and you’re coming to the office, facing the production; looking at the time when they will close, thinking of how they will get home, thinking of how they will do their homework; their assignments; their lessons; thinking and making sure they are not outside the house; they are not in the street as well. Managing my children when they were tender was not an easy task. By the grace of God, we were able to overcome that stage. Right now; as a mother, sincerely speaking, I don’t have much. I have only two kids. I work so hard to ensure that my children are registered well, and gain admission to the right school. Education for me is the best thing you can give a child, and not wealth or anything. It is about their education. I ensured and personally told my children that if they don’t pass their standard of the school I want them to go, they will remain with me until they pass that standard, and when they knew how serious I took it , everybody put his or her head down. They all worked hard. Today, they are in the school I want them to be, and those schools are schools you can send your child to, and go to bed knowing that, the culture, the ethics you want to see in your child and they are doing it. I’m grateful to God.
We have seen youth coming up with business strategies, and all of a sudden, they go off the line. What do you think is making many youth unsuccessful in their businesses?
Like I told you earlier, what drives every business is passion. That’s number one. Discover your purpose; find that thing that you derive joy in doing; that your number one thing. Most of our youths always go for anything that evokes. Maybe, if you’re into pure water and everybody sees that you are making money… ah! It is pure water that is selling now and we are all going to do. We all know what happened in those days when pure water came out. Everybody rushed into it. It is the same thing you see in bread. Once they see that one person is striving, everybody wants to go into that same business. There is no passion. They don’t have any passion for what they want to do. So, by the time they start facing the challenges in the business, they give up. For me, my encouragement for every youth is: discover what you love to do; discover your passion, and from that, you can start making money from your passion. When you’re in a right thing you love doing, it will be easy for you; you do it with ease; you don’t feel any pressure when you’re facing challenges in that thing. Passion keeps you going even in the midst of challenges. So, for me, don’t do something because you see Mr A doing it, or, Mr B doing it. If you are good at repairing bicycle, keep repairing bicycle, you will make so much money from it because you have passion for it and keep discovering new techniques for fixing a bicycle. You can even go into producing bicycle if you have passion for it, but when you don’t have passion, any small challenge you have in that business, you will easily give up and that business will shut down. That is my own advice for every youth: discover what you love doing and then put your energy to it. And another is laziness. Laziness is a major factor in setting up a business. There is no business that doesn’t have a breaking point. When you start a business, you must face challenges. It was not rosy for us when we started, but there is time you get to your break through, and that you will be able to recover yourself and start making money. But, during that challenge, I will encourage anybody: don’t give up. Believe in yourself that if others have done this and they are succeeding, I will equally succeed. Believe in yourself that you can do better. Keep believing that someday, something better will come out, that is how you get to that stage of overcoming challenges. For us in bread now, there are challenges we overcame four or five years ago. When such challenges come to us now, we see them as a minor issue, because we already know how to tackle them. So, don’t give up in the midst of challenges.
On a final note, what advice do you have for the up coming entrepreneurs?
My advice to everyone who wishes to go into business; who wishes to set up a business is: number one: do a proper feasibility study of what you want to do. If you have a passion for something; know if the environment you want to set that thing up needs it. Discover if the people around you need what you do. If you are going into a business and that business doesn’t meet any demand and needs of people around you, it will shut down because there is nobody to patronize you. So, look into the system around you and find out what the system needs, and provide it for the system. Of course, you will sell well and excel in that field. Don’t just rush into anything. Find out how you can better the need of the people. Find out how you can make life easy for people around you. That’s entrepreneurship. When you bring out an idea to meet all needs of people around you, you’re already an entrepreneur, solving people’s problems.
How can people differentiate between a well-prepared bakery bread from the ones done locally?
In fact, let me tell you the truth, Some people will prefer to spend money on packaging; making the packaging looks attractive, but what is inside the package is rubbish. The best way you can know a good bread in the market is through the taste. Every bad bread; let me tell you; after eating it, it will begin to disgust your cheeks. It will look as if you ate something very bad. Any product that you eat, whether bread or beverage and you have the taste of the product after. But, when you eat good product, as soon as you’re done eating the food, it looks like you brushed your mouth. You don’t have this after taste. After- taste is the major way of knowing any bad product. When it comes to food – that is why we wrote in our motto, ‘let the taste do the talking’. When you eat our bread, you will know whether it is good or not, and I keep telling people that be careful of where you buy your bread and what you eat, because bread is one of the easiest death warrant that we have in this country. People buy their death; people eat poison through bread and they never know. You know why? It is because it is a processed food. People put things together and make it out, and they all look alike. It will look like that golden colour, or look white and you don’t know the content, except you taste it. Because things are expensive in the market, a lot of people are compromising standards and quality. Some are using bromate to substitute for butter, but I keep telling you people that it is better you look for a quality product. Don’t go for quantity, but some will say: ah! This bread is now becoming too small. I want to buy the one that fills the nylon; that is big. Remember: cheap article ‘dey purge belle. Na so we dey talk am, no be small’. For me, please, be mindful of what you eat and be careful of where you buy your bread. I can beat my chest and tell you that bread top – our product – anything that you see us produce here is 100% quality product. We don’t compromise our standards when it comes to what we put. This is the only bread that my family and I eat. I don’t allow any other bread in my house and to be sincere, l know a lot of bakeries around me. It is my product that they eat, but they bake bread and people buy their own. They come here and buy my own bread to eat. I tell them always if they produce something they and their family cannot eat, it therefore means that they are giving people poison. Anything you give to someone and you cannot eat it, you know that there is something in that thing that is not healthy that you are giving to people, probably because you want to make money and you are not eating it. I keep telling people that I’m not here because I want to make money and therefore, let me give people poison. I’m answerable to God if nobody sees what I’m doing; the content of my bread as I’m mixing, there is a power above me. There is someone that gives me grace to work, and I’m answerable to him and that person is God. So, for me, we put the fear of God first in what we do, and I’m not ready for any substandard, no matter the cost. I rather reduce my size and give people quality than to give people quantity and poison to eat. When you give people bromate, you are giving them cancer. If you give people saccharine, you are giving them cancer. I’m against it. I tell my customers that my bread is small. Yes! I’m ok with it, because the price of things are so high and I have to reduce the size to be able to maintain quality. For me, I don’t compromise my standard.
How many workers are in your employ?
We have over 100 workers. In fact, there are some workers that I don’t even know as I entered into the factory right now. I saw some faces that they even employed today that I don’t even know because as our production keep increasing, we keep demanding for staff.
What measures have you put in place to ensure quality control in your products?
It is only my husband and I that ensure quality is not compromised. We have a lab where we do our quality control. So, we bag all our batches and give to the workers and we will monitor them when they are producing it because it is a process.
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