Dining African: 3 Restaurant Biz Success Stories Savor N.Y. African Restaurant Week
Beginning April 27 and running through Sunday, May 4, kitchens in restaurants specializing in cuisine from nations like Senegal, South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia opened their ovens and their doors to give New Yorkers and tourists with an appetite, a curious palate and a craving for good food a taste of what it means to wine and dine like an African. And all at a special discount.
French, Italian, Indonesian, Mediterranean, Vietnamese… the list is endless. In a city teeming with restaurants from every nation imaginable.. African is relatively unexplored territory.
Black Enterprise spoke with three restaurant owners in Brooklyn who are revered in their neighborhoods for turning their respective restaurants into small business success stories. They include Lookman Mashood of Nigeria’s Buka, located on Fulton St.; and Papa Diagne from Senegal’s Joloff–it’s on Bedford Ave.; and Mark Henegan of South Africa’s Madiba on DeKalb Ave.
So how did these restaurateurs make that major boss move? When did they make that right turn onto the boulevard of success?
Each restaurant is owned and run by a couple. Each duo has married vision with passion to transform their dreams into successful business enterprises.
Standing next to Papa Diagne is his wife of 27 years and partner, Rama Diagne. Alongside Mark Henegan is his wife, Jenny Henegan; and Nat Goldberg has been with Lookman Mashood for the past six years. Their co-owned restaurant opened on April 13, 2010.
All three restaurants have participated in New York African Restaurant Week since it started.
New York African Restaurant Week is the brainchild of Nigerian born Wall Street Consultant Akin Akinsanya.
He says he put this together to “highlight our chefs and our restaurants.” Says Akinsanya, “It was not a question of should we do it. Rather, why not do it.”
He says more restaurants got onboard this year than did the year before.
“It’s a no-brainer for them. It’s a chance for them to showcase what they do.”
Akinsanya and the rest of the New York African Restaurant Week team say they don’t get paid to showcase any restaurant.
So what are the pros and cons of African Restaurants being a part of New York African Restaurant Week?
Not surprisingly, Akinsanya says there are no cons, only pros. He says the restaurants all get a bigger platform to showcase what they do. They get a wider audience, and they are able to see what other restaurants are doing. In other words, it becomes a collective learning experience for participating restaurants.
He called it “an opportunity to learn from each other and become better.”
Papa Diagne agreed. “When you have an event like this you always benefit. Your business gets exposed to new people. People discover you who never knew you existed.”
Akinsanya says, “Without a doubt, Buka, Madiba, and Joloff are true small business success stories.” Why?
He replies, “If you know Lookman’s story and what this place was before he transformed it. This is his passion, and it is clear when you walk in here and experience the ambiance and taste the food. He is definitely a success. Our community supports what he does and he is still trying to get his restaurant the way he wants it to be.”
Lookman Afolayan Mashood is Nigerian-born and the co-owner and co-founder of Buka. A place some people call the “Mecca of Nigerian Cuisine.”
“When I came to this country in 1996 from Nigeria, the first job I got was cooking in one of these Nigerian holes-in-the-wall.”
Mashood says he made the cuisine there so popular, that when he left in 1998, he was deluged with requests from people who wanted to know when he would open his own place.
“I wanted to create an African restaurant where you would feel comfortable bringing your friends. In those days when I worked at the other place and I invited friends from important places to have a meal there, I had to keep apologizing for the look of the place and the conditions. The food was excellent, but the place was a dive. I made a mental note that when the opportunity presented itself I would open a proper Nigerian restaurant where anyone can bring their friends.”
The opportunity did indeed finally present itself.
Says Mashood,”One thing led to another and I finally got some money. I had been in Philadelphia doing real estate and it wasn’t really working out. So I told Nat, I don’t really want to do this anymore. I want to open a restaurant. The first words out of her mouth were ‘I’m going to support you.'”
The thinking behind creating a New York Restaurant Week is simple: to unite African restaurants. The lure is to experience Africa not as a continent, but as a concept. And what better way to do that than through food and music?
Akinsanya cites “Madiba” as the best example of what an African restaurant can be and encourages other restaurants to use it as a business model. People in the neighborhood are inclined to agree.
Madiba has been ruling the block since 1999 and is practically a neighborhood landmark.
Henegan says the plan from the start was to appeal to an international, diverse crowd. Long before it became fashionable or PC to do so the restaurant welcomed everyone regardless of color, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Madiba is also well-known within the community for its work with AIDS foundations and with gay and lesbian organizations, and for its outreach to school children.
According to Henegan, “With South Africa being such a diverse nation, with an established reputation for good food and wines, people can automatically relate. We welcome everyone, regardless of wealth or social standing. We knew we were getting closer to our goals when we would have broke people sitting at the bar and suddenly a limousine would pull up full of celebs.”
He also adds, “We do a lot of giving to the community, and in doing so we discovered that if you give to community, community always gives back to you”.
If Madiba is a neighborhood landmark, then Senegalese restaurant Jollof, is the grand-daddy of them all.
It’s been around since 1995 and though it changed venues three years ago, from Fulton St. to Bedford Ave., its name is still the gold standard for Senegalese dining in Brooklyn.
Senegalese-born Papa Diagne has been a Brooklyn resident for the past 25 years. He’s watched the neighborhood change through his restaurant windows. He’s watched as the brownstones changed owners and the street corners emptied.
His restaurant is a family effort. Rama Diagne, Papa’s wife, is the chef and Papa handles the front. He says he abandoned the kitchen years ago, opting instead to be the face of the restaurant.
“I love what I do. I love being in the atmosphere of welcoming people. We call that ‘Terange’ in Senegalese.”
Part of becoming successful in the restaurant and hospitality industry is your name. It defines who and what you are, separates your brand, adds mystique to your identity.
The three owners agree that deciding on the right name for your restaurant is integral to becoming a successful business model.
Naming the restaurants.
In coming up with the name “Buka,” Mashood says, “The irony is everyone in Nigeria knows if you want good food you go to a Buka. They are usually hole-in-the-wall, dive-type structures, severely lacking in ambiance but great on food. Those holes-in the wall that I used to work at didn’t even have names. Didn’t have licenses. You’d have to know someone who knows someone that can take you there. So the irony we established in naming our restaurant was that you can be in a Buka but this time it is a very nice place.”
For him, it wasn’t difficult to come up with the name. He believes “Once you put heads together to do something, everything really just suddenly falls into place.”
“Madiba” is, of course, named after South Africa’s national treasure, the late Nelson Mandela.
Henegan says he chose the name “out of love and respect for a great man. A special man. He took South Africa out of the darkness.”
The name “Joloff,” contrary to the reasonable assumption that the restaurant is named after a certain African style of making rice, is actually quite reminiscent of Senegal.
Papa explains. “In general there is a part of Senegal called Jolof. In the north, there was an empire called the Jolof empire. When we talk in our slang that we are going back home to Senegal, we say we are going to Jolof. Like we are coming home. My restaurant is a little Senegalese house in Bed-Stuy.”
Henegan says with a laugh, one challenge is “staying married.” Then he adds more seriously, “maintaining good friends and good relationships. This industry can kill you if you let it. I’ve seen what letting drugs into a restaurant does to the place. It is a recipe for disaster. Our most trying period was after September 11 and also during the recession.”
Mashood says, “Running a restaurant is one of the most difficult experiences of my life. The most difficult aspect of running a restaurant is staff. Your best chef can look you in the face one morning and tell you they quit. My old chef, some days she just wouldn’t show up. She wouldn’t call. She wouldn’t send any message. She would just not come in to work. It has happened to me many times or I fire them myself. Especially when they start strolling in one hour, two hours late. I don’t do African time. I’m an African but I don’t do African time.”
He also says that his experience as a chef allows him some leeway because he can always go into the kitchen and assume the chef role. When the chefs didn’t show up he was able to enter the kitchen, put on a uniform and start cooking. It’s the same with the other two owners. They all have cooking backgrounds they can fall back on, whenever there is a crisis in their kitchens.
Papa says when the building on Fulton St. where his restaurant was located was purchased by a new landlord, he knew it was time to start looking.
Henegan says when he first started the restaurant he did all the cooking and his wife made all the desserts.
“I would see a dish I liked and ask fellow South Africans for help in how to make it. Then I would teach someone else. I don’t see myself as a chef, but I have a passion for cooking and for South Africa.”
Mashood says gentrification is “fantastic.”
Really? He clarifies.
“When I first opened [my restaurant] on this block, people were asking if I was crazy. It was a dangerous neighborhood. You would hear stories about people getting killed. But my mind told me this was the right place for me. My real estate instincts served me well. Because we had wide, glass, open windows my critics thought so-called thugs would smash the glass and steal our liquor. Well, nothing like that ever happened and look around you, the neighborhood has changed for the better. Now Brooklyn in general is fantastic.”
Papa doesn’t completely agree. “Yes, there have been big changes. And the likes and dislikes depend on which side you are on. If you own in the neighborhood then, of course, you’ll make more money. But if you are not an owner then the new changes will hurt you. I really do not see the effect of the Barclays Center where I am.”
Says Henegan, “It is a bad thing when people are displaced. Remember after September 11 a lot of people flocked to Brooklyn from the city. When there is good change it is best to support it. Embrace it. The increasing number of interracial couples here now can attest to the cross culture. I love the diversity that the stadium has brought to Brooklyn. The big problem here now is the rent.”
Although the other two owners didn’t mention expanding, Mashood is looking to open another Buka, somewhere in the Lower East Side, though he wouldn’t mind opening up shop near the United Nations.
“I know it will happen one day. But as you know it is not very easy for a black man or a restaurant owner to get a loan. Somebody will offer me a $50,000 loan and say I have to pay back $30,000 in three months. How am I supposed to manage that? I’m not selling drugs. And, to be honest, in order for me to open another Buka I will need at least a quarter of a million.”
He explains the attraction of dining African. “What we do is we take African food, as it is cooked at home, and we brought it to the white man’s land. And we serve it on the table for them, the same way it is served at home.”
He says a food blogger once asked him, “What has influenced Nigerian food?”
“I was looking at him like he was crazy. We have been eating in Nigeria long before the white man showed up. It hasn’t changed. It is traditional cooking–the flavor, the traditional spices. When Nigerians come here and find locust bean in their soup, they scream with joy, because that is exactly how their mothers used to make it. People say you have to present the dishes in a certain way, with a certain flair. I tell them, I’m not a French restaurant. I’m not trying to make Italian food. I’m a Nigerian serving Nigerian food, the way it is served at home. Who is going to come to a Nigerian restaurant to order a burger? I’m here to serve them pounded yam and okro.
Advice for other budding small business owners and entrepreneurs.
All three agree that you must have a passion for the business. They say that you must enjoy what you do. And you can never go wrong with an excellent kitchen staff.
Henegan says, “At the beginning you cannot be obsessed with not becoming successful. Even during bad times you have to stay positive. Always keep your brand fresh. Most of all, to become a figure of success do not be deterred by the competition. I’ve always wanted all restaurants to be successful. And you absolutely have to utilize technology. Facebook, Twitter, whatever means of maintaining community outreach. As Africans know, A village raises a child, not a single person. Community is very important.”
Mashood says the business has stayed successful because “we stayed true to our course. We never deviated from what we believed in. Even when we are slow we are still focused on where we are going. I will probably not be able to keep doing this for the next 10, 20 years. We can be better but I feel like we are going in the right direction.”
He hesitates slightly when asked if his restaurant is a small business success story. He finally admits, “I think I can say that. I’m hungry for more, but yes. We went through this crazy winter and we survived.
Akin believes “Your culture is your currency. And your community is your money. If you can’t sell your culture you can’t sell anything. The Chinese started selling their food long before they began exporting other products.
If you missed last week’s New York African Restaurant Week, you can indulge your taste for authentic African cuisine later this year. Another African restaurant week is planned for October.