Over the last few years, the Nigerian culinary scene has witnessed a renaissance of sorts. Global interest in Nigerian food is at an all-time peak, everyone on social media is trying their hands at classic Nigerian recipes. Tiktok and Instagram has granted the international community access to local kitchens and recipes and technology deserves a lot of credit for helping popularize Nigerian recipes and at least the appreciation for Nigerian cuisine to the world. Credit is owed to icons from the Nigerian culinary world who have preached the gospel of Nigerian meals and helped it reach the ends of the world even before Tiktok and social media found its footing. One of such icons is Boniface Iwo-Omo, the founder and CEO of Sumptuous Restaurant.
Today, Iwo-Omo owns a global chain of restaurants that are sharing the beauty of Nigerian food around the world. However, he started off in his mother’s kitchen then grew a list of clients who were such fans they pressured him to launch his own brick-and-mortar restaurant. Twenty years later and a career full of too many highlights to mention later, Iwo-Omo is still sharing the beauty and joy of Nigerian meals and his chain of restaurant aptly titled Sumptuous is growing faster than ever.
We caught up with Iwo-Omo and chatted about growing up, the inspiration behind Sumptuous and what exactly makes Nigerian cuisine special.
What was growing up like for you?
Growing up for me happened in my mother’s kitchen. We were all boys. We loved food. My mom loves to cook. And of course, this was an African house so we all had to lend a helping hand and from there I developed an interest in cooking. Eventually, I went to culinary school. I did an OND programme in catering and an HND to learn more. And then the rest started from there.
Where did the idea for Sumptuous come from?
It’s been my passion to cook and also serve people and the idea of being Sumptuous has always been there. l I briefly worked in a few places back home in Nigeria while I was still there. I started, just like any entrepreneur would do. We didn’t have the funds to launch a brick-and-mortar store. So we started by doing off-premises catering. I would go out and do catering for people because the capital needed for that wasn’t as much as having a brick-and-mortar. I would cook for people and that helped people develop an interest. By this time, I remember we had big names on our list of clientele – the Folawiyos of Nigeria and other big shots. They would say ‘Oh, Boniface, I think it’s time for you to open a restaurant. We can’t wait for when there is an event.’
And that was when the idea of us opening our first brick-and-mortar started, so we opened our first one in Apapa, Nigeria. And from there, the first mall that came to Ikeja – the Ikeja City Mall – around twenty years ago. I was going to set up an all-you-can-eat buffet space, but I ended up not getting the space I wanted – I wanted four and they gave me one. And that was the beginning of the Sumptuous brand. Today, we have one in Ikeja City Mall, two in Abuja, one in Port Harcourt, one in Ilorin, one in FESTAC, and one in Lekki. The California branch started in 2014. I was on the board of the ICA. I served for over eight years as the only non-American African on the board. While on the board, I remember thinking we’ve done so well in Nigeria, so let’s start one here and that’s how we started here. The doors were opened on the 17th of November 2014. Then the second outlet came out about three years or so ago in Long Beach. And that’s our story, all the way from Africa.
What do you think makes Nigerian cuisine so special?
Thank God for Tiktok and technology and for people who persisted and didn’t give up. In the past, it was jollof rice that everybody knew. It was close to what they knew as Mexican Rice. But today, people know the diversity of Nigerian cuisine. I think what sets Nigerian food apart so much is what is used. Today, everyone wants to return to the ground and eat non-genetically modified food. Look at Egusi Soup for instance. It is not packed, you can barely get it off the shelf. It has to come from the ground. What goes into it is real vegetables. There are fewer chances for it to get modified. A lot of people have realized that with Nigerian food, they don’t have all these risks of getting diseases, eating modified food. What they are getting is purely organic food.
Sumptuous is pretty big right now, but what do you expect it to look like in the next five years?
We started with a ten-year plan for the African market and we succeeded. We attained that within a space of five years. In the next five years, I want Sumptuous in particular cities in the US. I want to see some Sumptuous in Vegas, in Arizona and I want to see Sumptuous in the mall. Even though our model of a franchise is different from what goes on right now because we have something quite different from what is known. So we want to do it differently. So that’s our plan.
COVID-19 hit the hospitality industry hard, what was it like as someone working in the culinary industry?
COVID-19 has changed the face of business, especially in the hospitality industry.
COVID-19 hit the food industry, culinary industry, and the hospitality industry as a whole. It was a terrible hit. The hospitality industry employs quite a good number, and a good percentage of the workforce comes from that industry. Because you can not have a restaurant, without a server, without a cook, and so the list goes on and on. So when it hit the hospitality industry, it was a big and bad hit. However, it came with its blessing. We started innovating around it. There were so many things we were not doing before COVID that we had to start doing. For example, we had to do away with the third-party delivery service and go online by ourselves which meant customers could place orders directly with us. COVID also meant that online made up 90% to 95% of our sales. That is to be expected, people are not going out to eat. COVID also came with so many hits but I prefer to focus on the positives.
As a business owner, what’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Stay focused, stay persistent and never give up. If you look at these three things, there is no money involved. But if you do all three, the money will come. Staying focused, staying persistent, and never giving up are all so important because, without them, people don’t have staying power. When you give up because you feel things are not working, that’s when you give up money and give away everything. Trials will come and you need to wade through those trials to win.