Barely 10 months as the Chief Executive, Divine Mercy Canteen, Johnson Azi has become a phenomenon. In this interview with KENNEDY MBELE, he speaks on his unique selling point while advising unemployed youths who see commercial motorcycle business as the last resort to eking out a living
How did you come about this business?
We started in August 2019 when I observed that the business I was doing was not taking me anywhere.
What business were you doing?
After my training as a shoe-maker over 20 years ago, I veered into commercial motorcycle business. Later, I picked up a tricycle on hire purchase. I had just two months to complete my payment of close to N1m when the owner took it away over non-remittance for two weeks. My inability to remit was because the tricycle broke down. Then, I discovered that transportation business was not easy, especially when one is not the owner of the vehicle.
Did you receive any formal training in catering?
I did not receive any formal training. I got most of my cooking skills when I served as a steward. We had a cook, whom I always assisted while he was cooking. Although I was not very attentive in learning his trade, I picked a lot from him and that is what is helping me now.
What kind of dishes do you serve?
We serve ‘swallow’ (eba, fufu and semolina) only. We shall add pounded yam as soon as the new yam is out, and rice as we grow.
How would you rate your progress in the business?
We are doing fine despite challenges. We cook a lot of food daily. For instance, we prepare more than five different types of soup, each in very big pot, and rarely have left over. It is not the amount of profit we make that matters to me, but the number of customers we serve and our volume of sales. I am really impressed by the level of progress we have made so far, but there is still room for improvement.
You sure have faced challenges in your line of business. How did you surmount them?
One of them is finance. We need money to get a bigger space or at least put this one in order. Customers hate being squeezed while eating. Most of them no longer come here to eat because of our small space; hence we take their food to them. Another major problem is high cost of transportation. We used to spend much money daily on transport, but this bicycle I bought recently is helping us. I ride it to the market and use it to deliver orders to our customers. Again, we hardly have light. But we have a generator, which is very costly to maintain.
What differentiates your service from others around?
We prepare all our food and garnish our soup as if we are the ones to eat them. Customers like getting value for their money. For instance, you don’t expect them to pay for two pieces of meat and get just those two pieces. So, we add pieces of dried fish, including stockfish, ponmo (animal hide), etc lavishly to enrich the soup. A customer once came with his visitor for launch. His guest was saying that he was not feeling like eating untill we served his host. On sighting the soup, he changed his mind and ordered a plate of food, and later extra. He was so impressed with the meal that, till today, he still asks his friend about us.
What are your plans to grow this business?
We need loan to expand the business. But my problem is that banks always ask for landed property as collateral, which we don’t have.
Have you ever sought loan from the bank or somebody told you?
I have not sought a loan from any bank. But I will do that soon.
Does the government’s ban on rice importation affect your business?
The ban is a blessing to us because, from inception, we don’t serve rice. So, when the ban was announced, lovers of rice gradually adjusted their taste to ‘swallow’ because the price of rice soared. So, our customers have continued increasing till date.
Who are your main customers and what are you doing to retain them?
Our main customers are residents and people working around here such as bankers. They patronise us well and sometimes get catering contracts for us. To retain them, we ensure their satisfaction at all times and address their complaints promptly.
What experiences have you garnered so far in this business?
I used to think that running a canteen simply entails buying raw food, preparing and serving them to make profit. But I have discovered that it goes beyond that. For instance, I have learnt to manage people, to be patient with them. I have also realised that the little profit accruable in it starts from the point of buying the items needed to prepare the dishes. Again, I have learnt many new cooking techniques. I enjoy a lot of things now; I feed and feel better. Above all, I am so happy to be a business owner.
Where do you see this business in the next five years?
My dream is that it expands to the level that very important personalities will be inviting us regularly for catering services at big events.
If you are to seek government’s assistance, what would that be?
I need two major things from the government: steady power supply and to prevail on banks to be issuing loans to deserving customers at affordable interest rates.
Is there any other thing you would like to share with us?
I want to advise those entrapped in transport business, especially commercial motorcycle and tricycle operators, to leave the business and try other businesses because many have done that and it worked.