The adventure of Mr. Pepperoni
BY GEOFF IYATSE
ERIC Idogun likes food. But not in the sense of just eating every item available. He earns a living from food. In fact, Idogun, who proudly describes himself as a cook, started cooking for the household at a tender age.
After school, he would sneak out to play football at Agbarha-Otor, a sleeping community in Delta State. “Immediately it is 5pm, I will rush back home to join my mother in the kitchen.”
Idogun, who holds two degrees in Political Science and Administrative Studies from the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), Rivers State, at a tender age, knew he would be financially independent. He also knew — long before he established the first outlet of Pepperoni Foods Ltd (a fast food company with spread across four states of the Niger Delta) — that he would be an employer of labour. But how to achieve the lofty dream, considering his humble background, remained a mystery.
At the age of seven, young Idogun, who is fifth in the family of nine, would often wonder whether he was actually his mother’s child, as she would leave his older siblings and compel him to stay in the kitchen. But this was a blessing in disguise, as it marked the beginning of his love for the art of cooking.
In UNIPORT, both male and female friends often ridiculed him for his culinary skills. He was highly sought after during students’ weeks and similar social outings.
“I would do barbecue and coordinate all cooking activities. The more my friends made jest of me, the more I loved cooking. Gradually, it became part of my life. I could not explain what was in it for me, but I just discovered I wanted to do it,” he says.
WHILE his mates were lobbying to serve in oil companies because of the prospects of being retained, Idogun had no interest in working for Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, where he was posted for his National Youth Service Corps’ primary assignment, in 1994.
“While my colleagues were making moves to be retained I was looking for opportunity to do business with Shell,” he says with pride. “I registered with the company as a contractor instead of applying for a job. That was because I had always seen myself as an entrepreneur. I eventually got one contract, an engineering job from there. That launched me into oil servicing contract. I also did some for Mobil.
“In 1996, I stumbled into marine. “I had a tugboat I was managing. I knew I was not doing the job I loved, but needed to raise some capital to start a business I had passion for.”
Few years later, Idogun encountered somebody who changed his life and helped him to rediscover his passion — food business.
“My elder brother’s friend, Leo, invited me to help him set up Kingfisher Foods in Port Harcourt. A month to the opening of the first outlet, he was transferred to Warri. Meanwhile, we had acquired everything we needed to start. I assured him I would take care of it, sharing my time between the supervision of the eatery and my business.”
Idogun says, “I started without any condition. However, along the line, I couldn’t continue my business. We opened second outlet the following year, that was 2001 and the third in 2002. By the fourth year, we acquired locations for the fourth and fifth branches. I committed myself fully to growing the business. Eventually, Leo left Shell and resumed the management of the company.”
The day Idogun’s third child was born marked a turning point in his life. “I still remember where I stood in Port Harcourt when my wife called to inform me of the news. That was the day I had the boldness to confront my boss. I asked — what is my stake in the business? I was not a manager; I was not a supervisor; I had no official title, yet I was in charge. He didn’t have to tell me he was not going to give me a stake, and we had come a long way. He helped me in many ways; yet I couldn’t stay because I was not getting younger.”
IN 2005, when he went to Bayelsa for feasibility study, there was nothing promising about Yenagoa, where he intended to locate an eatery. “I visited three times yet I saw nothing that could support fast food business in the town. However, something kept telling me to go back. It was during my fourth visit that I was able to talk to a supervisor at Mr. Biggs, the only operator in the town then, who coincidentally served as my first manager. He disclosed to me that they were making an average of N350, 000 a day. Based on that, I told myself that I could make N50, 000. I concluded I would open the outlet that is still at NTA/Azikoro Road till date,” he reveals.
By the time Idogun started, he was already indebted to the tune of N8.5m in addition to N3m personal savings invested. That was the first major risk of his life. Friends and relations querried his decision, but it didn’t mean anything to him because what he was about to do was his passion. He had so much confidence in what he was doing.
According to Idogun, those who were supplying Kingfisher chickens and other things accepted to give credit facility when he told them his plans. The technician that was servicing Kingfisher gave him the generator he started with. “I was using fans to circulate the two air conditioners I had. That was how bad the situation was,” he recalls with a smile.
“On June 15, 2005, when I eventually opened; the outlet was a mere glorified Mama Put because what was needed to run a fast food were not there. I was forced to open the place by a comment made by one of the customers. While waiting for show glass, he screamed ‘what are you waiting for, must you serve from show glass? Common put the food on the counter and serve us!’ The showcase came two hours after we had opened. We started around 1pm, and I still made over N180, 000. It didn’t move me because I just believed it was a welcome sale. The sales of the second day made me cry; it was N398, 000. That was another turning point of my life.”
From that day, Idogun saw money chasing him. “Opportunity does not come everyday. When mine came, I appreciated and grabbed it because I had hungered for it for many years.”
“When I eventually opened; the outlet was a mere glorified Mama Put because what was needed to run a fast food were not there. I was forced to open the place by a comment made by one of the customers. While waiting for show glass, he screamed ‘what are you waiting for, must you serve from show glass? Common put the food on the counter and serve us!’ The showcase came two hours after we had opened. We started around 1pm, and I still made over N180, 000. It didn’t move me because I just believed it was a welcome sale. The sales of the second day made me cry; it was N398, 000. That was another turning point of my life.”
IDOGUN’s story is a blend of determination, timeliness and adventure. While he was struggling to raise funds for expansion, Bayelsa State government gave him N15m non-interest loan.
The Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) was coming and the state government decided to give facilities to hospitality operators to beef up their operations in readiness for the event. That was how Idogun got the free-interest loan that launched his business into phenomenal growth.
With a headquarters building, a servicing ultra modern bakery and a water company in Port Harcourt, Idogun currently runs two outlets in Bayelsa State and three others in Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross River states. He said the Abuja office of the venture, which is worth N2 billion would be opened this year, while plans are on to establish a model secondary school in Delta State and a farm that would give Pepperoni total control over its raw materials.
LAST year, Idogun was selected alongside other emerging entrepreneurs across Africa for the 2011 African Awards for Entrepreneurship with $50,000 expansion grant — an exercise that involved 3,500 companies from 48 countries. Mrs. Tokunbo Ishmael, who presented the award on behalf of Legatum Group (the organiser), in Kenya, said, “Pepperoni emerged winner because of its robust Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes.”
On this, Idogun said his ultimate joy is to see people around him happy. This informs his philanthropic gesture, which revolves around the provision of drinkable water to people around his home and business. He also provides electricity to the host community of the headquarters at Rumualogu/Elakahia Road, Port Harcourt.
“Water is freely given by God, so, it should be free,” he says. Idogun adds that the highest level of his humanitarian goal is to build a motherless baby home for the country.
In Port Harcourt GRA (close to Waterline) where one of his outlets is located, the name Pepperoni rings a bell.
Does the sound of Pepperoni make any difference or was it just a business identity?
“No, I did a lot of research before I came up with that name. I said the name must be catchy and easy to call; funny to play with and relate to food. To be honest, I have heard people said — it is the name that sells our food,” he says.
But the chief executive differs. He believes Pepperoni’s food is as good as its name. “They are complementary. I am a cook, so, I know good meal when I see one. I don’t have to taste it, mere sighting it is enough. I do a lot of observations when I visit an outlet. Nobody spends N1000 on a plate of meal just to eat half of the plate. So when you see waiters picking plates that are half eaten, they go back to the drawing board to find out why. I feel very sad when I see such plates in my outlets. But I smile when they are all empty. That is the best way to measure customers’ satisfaction; it is an instant feedback.”
With general managers, managers and several supervisors under him, Idogun says he still cooks when he feels like or when there is pressure. He says he has an apron in every of his outlet, which he uses when the need arises.
Idogun is not the bossy CEO you see every day. His informal style affects the way he runs his business. He knows all his staff by names and relates with them personally like colleagues. He believes a company should be structured in a way that the younger employees can learn the ropes; hence he disciplines a superior whose subordinate falls below expectations.
Like most upcoming companies, Idogun could not get funding from any bank seven years ago. He says, “banks are historians while entrepreneurs are futuristic. Banks want to look at your track records and when you don’t have they don’t commit themselves. That is the problem we have in the country. Entrepreneurs want to delve into unknown terrains to create jobs, but banks are not supportive. They want you to have good history before they can support you.”