I stood outside this food truck with my friend under the low clouds of London. I thought I’d try something new; African-Caribbean. Looking at the limited, but carefully selected menu, I found myself confused as to what the dishes were.
The menu included Wings, Jerk Chicken, Jerk Fish, Jollof Rice and Bagels. After the proprietor, dressed in a Food Junkee apron, described each one to me, I found myself confused once again, except this time it was because I could not decide what dish to order.
After a few minutes of ‘this looks good, but so does this,’ I made my choice and waited for the food that my friends had been raving about for months.
After a few minutes spent waiting outside the black and yellow truck for my order, I was given a very full take away container filled with jollof rice, jerk chicken and jerk sauce.
Who knew I would find such a food gem planted right in the middle of the high towers and the low canals of East London. I was intrigued enough to want to know more, so I reached out to the owners and founders.“My wife got me into this trouble,” chuckIes Ismail, co-owner of Food Junkee, “[she] said let’s do the food truck idea.” Initially, her idea was to start a bakery truck, but as they developed this idea, they decided on starting a fusion cuisine truck instead. Ismail says.
“The truck came, I’ve never been in a truck before and I don’t know nothing about food trucks. I never thought about a food truck, but since she’s doing it, we did a business plan for it, 17 pages long.”
Ismail Oshodi and his wife, Sola Oshodi, had separate careers and a background in business before starting the Food Junkee in 2017. He was a business consultant, building other people’s businesses from the ground up and Sola worked at her family’s bakery.
“Other people have paid me to go and do research for them,” he says, “so I’ve kept the lessons and Implemented them into my own [business].” This African-Caribbean food truck – Food Junkee – was founded by Ismail and Sola a little over a year ago. They are both of Nigerian descent.
At the start of their journey, they had to risk everything they had. It took a long time to analyse and test the integrity of their business plan from every angle they could think of. Ranging from ways they could save money, to learning to make jerk chicken in the most authentic way they could.
The next step was to gather the funds they needed to get the business up and running. It was important for them to be self-funded and not get a loan from the bank.He told me: “[I had to risk] like 70 grand. For me that was everything. You got to understand. I’ve come from losing money. I’ve just come from a business of losing money.” Ismail and Sola soon found the reality of starting a food truck was an expensive one.
There was so much they needed to pay for, such as certificates and supplies. The husband and wife team also had to spend over £30,000 for their truck to stand. There was also a significant amount of money lost on wrong certificates and product experimentation.
After losing hundreds of thousands in turnover in his previous line of work, he decided to take this risk. “I think that was a sign [to] leave it for a bit,” so he changed course in hopes of an improvement in circumstances. “Business is risky. I just focus on day by day. It’s not something that’s easy, regardless of how old or new your business is,” he said.
In the span of two years, Oshodi got married and had two kids. His field of work was not making him enough money in the midst of continuously changing laws and Brexit, which affected his job badly. So many crucial variables were pressing on him at the same time.
He chuckled at life’s irony as he told me that maybe that’s why it worked out in the end. He said, “I had no more energy to give. I had no more time to give. I had no more funds to give. I was literally like this has to work, so when the truck came, I literally drove it to wherever I could drive it to and I sold.”Oshodi’s sister lived near Canning Town and helped him get a spot in Rathbone Market. From there, all they had to do was get a 5-star hygiene rating, and to show up. He said Food Junkee has been there every week ever since.
“Let me tell you about a shift I used to do. This was a weekend shift when I first started. I would wake up at 6 in the morning. I’d be in Canning Town market from 8:00am to 11:00pm then I’d go from Canning Town market straight to nightclubs from midnight till 5:00am, then I’ll go home, get there at about 6:30am, sleep till 7:30am, wake up get ready to go to Canning Town market Saturday morning. Do it till 11:00pm, go the club at 12 midnight until 5:00am. Sunday’s easier cause I can sleep. That’s literally what I did for a couple months,” he said.
Food Junkee’s success did not come without damage. The food truck owner said that working to make his business a success took a major toll on him, both physically and mentally.
Working in a kitchen for a living does come with its hazards, including cuts, burns and bruises. All of which I could see on Oshodi’s hands and arms. He also said that he has lost a hefty six stone (38 kg) over the span of the one year he has been in business.
Apart from the physical effects that Food Junkee had on him, it has taken a toll on Oshodi’s personal life. He said. “I’m providing for people but then I think, ‘am I providing for myself?’ Cause you go to sleep at 2:00am you wake up at six. 2-6, 2-6. I caught a flight to another country to work again in 45 degrees. Then, came back Wednesday, was at work by Wednesday evening. Two years ago I did not have this life, but this life seems to be what I need to do now.” His time at work also takes away from his time with his family and two children.Becoming a husband and welcoming two babies and a business into his life, the hard work to keep all of them in a good place, he says, has made him stronger. He is happy at what he has achieved, but at the same time, he cannot dismiss the never-ending can’t-see-the-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel days, that he has gone through to get there. “You can’t be lazy. You can’t be like ‘I’m not in the mood’,” said Oshodi.
The difference for him, between working as a business consultant and being an owner of a business, is that he needs to show up every day with a good attitude, not knowing what the day has in store for him, regardless of how he is feeling.
He would need to do that for any job in order to be successful, however, he maintains a good attitude and high spirits whilst wearing multiple hats, simultaneously, every day: business consultant, entrepreneur, chef, husband, and father.
He said that he shows up to work every day regardless of how he is feeling, to a point where he does not realize how bad he is feeling. “But when I’m driving my car home, I might be like my back is aching.” He prays every day that God gives him the strength to face the day ahead.
On social media, he is known for saying, “every day above the ground is a great day,” almost every day, for the past six years according to him. This is a reason why he does not accept praise easily, like others in his place might. His ambitions for Food Junkee surpass what any startup has in its sights.“I can make this bigger than McDonald’s. I can make this bigger than KFC. I can make this bigger than Subway. Once I get my first franchise, I’m already in the game,” he said.
The idea behind combining African and Caribbean cuisine is to stop the divide between the two nations and their people. “Africans don’t have problems with [other] Africans, but you tend to have a lot of Caribbean and African problems.”
From speaking with Oshodi, not only was I learning about his business and his journey, but I also saw something deeper in his drive, it was a movement. He talked at length about the big divide between Africans and Caribbeans that has gone on for a long time.
“Since we’ve started this it’s been so funny because a lot of [Africans and Caribbean] people have never been in the same queue together. You have the Congolese man and another guy and the Nigerian guy looking at each other like ‘ah I thought you were Jamaican cause you serve jerk chicken’,” Oshodi said, mimicking a Jamaican accent.
“We’re even breaking ideologies cause they have this perception of only Jamaican people sell jerk chicken, and that’s ridiculous.” Oshodi did not accept the idea of other ethnicities questioning why he’s making their cuisine or that he is not allowed to make it. What Food Junkee stand for is breaking barriers of discrimination.The founders have implemented several elements to encourage the mixed community that Food Junkee inhabits. Their business is currently the only one known to give 20% off to under 16s.
They feel like this influences the youth in the local community because someone gives back to them. Oshodi said, “I’m black and I’m Nigerian and growing up, people didn’t give things to black kids. I could never go and get 20% off but with us, they can get it.”
Listed on their extensive resumé, Food Junkee has catered for events like the New Year’s Day Parade in Westminster Council. For them, it is not about money, they also catered the Windrush Anniversary for Thurrock Council.
It was at the Thurrock Docks, where the original Windrush boat sailed in. Food Junkee served their own signature dishes; Jerk and Jollof, and rice and peas. Since starting out they were not always able to serve that, and they were proud to sell out that day.At the start, the food truck owners did not reject any opportunity that came their way. Oshodi explained, “I’ve been booked for an Indian wedding that I’ve gone to make Indian food for. I’ve been booked for football pitches where I’ve gone to do burgers and chips,” even though his truck cooks primarily African and Caribbean food.
Taking all these different jobs has made him realise that there is a demand for food trucking itself. Oshodi and his wife merely manifest the demand in a form of their fusion of cuisines.
In late 2018 they wanted to expand their business and open a new branch in Lagos, Nigeria. Oshodi flew out to Nigeria with a gazebo that he previously bought for events, as well as his jerk pan and his own mixture of sauces and seasoning.
Within four days of his arrival, everything was up and running and now, Food Junkee – Lagos, is open every day. A manager and staff were hired locally, and Oshodi makes all the necessary payments from London. “Technology is a fantastic thing. It makes my life a lot easier,” he says.While we were sitting on the couch talking, it seemed that what he was telling me happened a long time ago. It was as if he was talking about another lifetime.
Then he pointed at his new gazebo and looked back at me. Ismail is a simple humble man who took time out of his shift at the office building he was set up at to talk to me, wearing his rubber gloves and apron. He is focused only on what he has to offer.
The new gazebo symbolises the need for constant investment. “So now we’re trying to get funds in order to invest more and stabilise the income. It’s a gradual process and hopefully in years to come [we will] have an unlimited amount of trucks.” He does not believe in the concept of losing or failure. He said he believes in “I put too much work in not to see results.”
He had to believe in the idea that he could make this idea work, to help build a new life for himself and family. It put a lot of strain on him, especially because he has kids. It also put a strain on his personal relationships with people. He said, “I can’t remember the last time I made [it to] a function, but someone always told me ‘you’re not gonna have time when you get into the kitchen, you know that right?’ and I was just like whatever, but it’s true.”
Oshodi said that this is because the service he provides has a high demand, so he is not chasing customers to serve them. He has already served over 15,000 people.
Word of mouth has served Food Junkee very well, so now in Lagos, he was not questioned. The people had already seen and a lot of his food and overall brand. He sees it as creating opportunities for people, as well as himself.
After hearing what he has to say about business and his experiences with opening a food truck, I would think twice before underestimating what it takes to own a startup. And after having the first few bites of his food, I was not surprised to hear about all Food Junkee’s successes.
Featured image by Gigi Alhegelan