Many immigrants don’t have enough millennials to look up to and Sasilka is the definition of hard work, success, and motivation! After receiving a request from a blog reader to share more light on starting a business as an immigrant, I immediately knew that Sasilka was the person to have a chat with.
She shared her truth, tips and everything her life has turned out to be as a full-time immigrant entrepreneur who has decided to do what no one will expect.
“My grand ma and mum had a chain of restaurants. I didn’t help my mum when I was young but I was there to see her sisters cook together. I honestly never wanted to learn how to cook because I was more of a book worm.”
Are you wondering what Sasilka’s immigration story is? She shared:
“I came to Canada when I was 15 years old and had just graduated high school in Nigeria. I went to college for one year, then York University and studied Communications and International Development.
I wanted to be a doctor. I changed my mind months before going to University and ended up taking Summer school to switch to art because I didn’t have any credit.
I later envisioned myself working in television, a writer, or in media/ advertising to create art and also have a business. For business, I was thinking of having a farm and going into real estate – buying and flipping houses.”
I’m sure you are now wondering how she came to start cooking.
“I started cooking because I couldn’t find good or readily available Nigerian food or a place that I was comfortable eating in. There was none online back then in 2012 (you wouldn’t see many around you when you Google).
I’m from Northern Nigeria, so a lot of the meals that I’d want to eat weren’t available even if there was a restaurant. I host Thanksgiving dinner every year, I’d make different meals that weren’t from the North and got out of my comfort zone.
I was born and raised in Lagos (South), so I enjoyed eating Amala, Ewedu, Gbegiri, etc. but I never thought of it as a job.”
At this point during the interview, I was really interested in knowing how she started cooking for business.
“Two-three years ago, I made food during my friend’s birthday and people inquired. They told me that it tasted good and I should start a business. I replied that there were people now doing that.
Someone said he will buy. I said if he was actually going to buy, then I’ll try. He wanted Ayamashe and I agreed but didn’t follow up. He called later and asked for it and I was like, are you serious? I told him that based on the cost price, here is the price!
At that point, I knew that people were going to buy my food. I had to look for a market not serviced. I didn’t want to be the next caterer that just cooks and takes to your house. I figured it was catering to people that didn’t have time to cook, didn’t know how to cook or didn’t want to cook. They want something in their fridge.
I started thinking of the packaging and decided to make it ‘bulk orders’. I spoke to a number of friends in England who knew similar services and compared menus. This became my market— to provide affordable home cooked meals that are enjoyable.
I found that people outside of Toronto and the GTA barely had African restaurants. I started shipping food to different provinces and even to the United States. We still ship to them.”
How SKCOOKKS started:
“I started at home as a full-time student. I’ll wake up in the morning around 4am and cook, put everything in my car and attend my classes. I’ll leave school, deliver the food, then rush to the grocery store to pick up items for the next day deliveries.
Go home to edit my essays or read using audio books while cooking because I didn’t have the time to read hard copy. Sometimes I’ll have to start cooking again if someone wants to pick up late at night or their delivery was first thing the next morning.”
How was she able to start this as a young immigrant?
“It was really hard in the beginning because I was clueless. I’ll run to Canada Post, buy a box. I eventually discovered that I could sign up as a small business partner.
I discovered that I could get discounted prices because I’m a business and they could pick up from my house. I had no one to tell me the best courier company to use for shipping food. I had to figure all these by myself, how to track, and later moved from sending pictures of tracking numbers to clients to sending updated texts/emails.
Those clients still order in bulk. I made sure that the branding was what I wanted it to be. A clean packaging, bag, label, etc.”
When were you sure it was time to launch SKCOOKKS restaurant?
“We started receiving comments like when are you going to open a spot! Phone calls asking: do you have jollof rice now? And I’ll reply that I don’t, it’s freshly made to order and I can only take X amount of order a day.
There were restaurants in Toronto so I did some research. I realized that a lot of millennials live here now and want that ambiance, a beautiful place, and good food in a clean environment. They couldn’t see/ point out what they were about to eat. When you go to eateries in Nigeria, you’ll find that the food is displayed most times.
Another concern was wait time and lack of good customer service. Variety menu was an issue too. There are places you’ll go to and on certain days they would have just one kind of dish on the menu and that may not be what you want to eat.
I started thinking of the kind of space/ location within my budget. I deliberated on whether I wanted to buy the business or rent an empty space and renovate. I thought about whether I wanted a dine in or take out service.
I didn’t want it to be a dine in because it has to be done right and I wanted people to see Africa in a different light. It’ll have to be like The Keg with the food well plated. But that requires more staff, manpower and money. I decided to start a trendy take out for the time being because it was more practical. Customers can sit if they want to.
We sent out surveys to see what people will spend on food.”
Anything to share with an immigrant who wants to start a business?
“You should be very mindful of your credit. I didn’t have one until two years ago. My phone bill wasn’t even in my name because when I immigrated I was too young. Don’t take a crazy one! Look online to see how to build your credit.
If you don’t have money, go to the bank. Chances are that you might not be approved especially if you are a temporary resident (you also can’t register your business). When I started SKCOOKKS at home, I had no capital so what I did was make customers pay before their order was confirmed. When they pay, I’ll use the money to buy the grocery and make the food and that was how I was able to start saving.
If you need financial support, you need to draw up a business plan, look online for samples. Because chances are that if you ask for $200,000 they aren’t going to give it to you without one.”
“A lot people I spoke with before I started advised me to not open a restaurant. They told me: hey, I cook from home because I don’t want to pay rent or have overhead cost, etc. and this is true, but the truth is that half of the people that come to SKCOOKKS from other cultures won’t knock on the door of my house.
So we marketed the business as a new flavor in town. The way we make the recipes for the restaurant is a bit different from how we’ll make the bulk orders. We explain to customers what to try.”
On knowing your niche:
“Know your market/ niche. Some people make the mistake of saying they have many friends who will patronize their business. A few of them will support you but that’s not enough.
Another mistake people make is saying this is a ‘Nigerian market’ only. What happens when the latest Nigerian spot opens? That’s why SKCOOKKS is a new flavor for people to try. It’s important to ensure that your target market isn’t one group of people. It shrinks the vision you have for your business, have a large spectrum.”
On being a full-time entrepreneur:
You might not have a life outside it. You have to be ready to do the dirty work! I am a delivery woman, sales girl, cook, cleaner. I update orders on our website, social media, handle phone calls sometimes.
The first three months might feel disastrous, the next will feel better. It’s like taking care of a baby. I traveled to Nigeria and they kept saying that it felt like I was still in Canada because I was always on the phone checking to see what’s happening at the restaurant. But that’s what I’m passionate about at the moment.”
Can you share how you were able to go about renting a space?
“It’s going to be hard to find a person who’ll want to rent a space to you especially when you are a young black girl. No one believes that you can do anything and that’s the bitter truth.
When I was trying to get a space many landlords will look at me and ask if I was the one who wanted to rent the space or if I had the money. Can we see 6 months rent? And I’ll respond with a yes. And they will say, okay we don’t need 6 months rent.
I had to get a significant man, my pastor to vouch for me because when they realized that I was the owner, they didn’t want to go on with the lease anymore. According to them, I was too high risk.
I believe in perseverance and working around the system. There are some loans you can get from the government or NGOs. It’s not going to be easy and I won’t lie about that. I looked for a space for over a year. Agents usually need some personal information to start with, and once they see my sex, date of birth, most won’t call me back.
They didn’t take me seriously, I’m not sure if they thought I was a waste of time. I later found a better agent and when he saw me initially, I could sense he was shocked to see me.”
What has been your greatest challenges so far?
“A lot of people come here and ask me where the owner of SKCOOKKS is. I just respond with: “Oh he isn’t here or he just stepped out!”
I get a lot of: are you the owner? Because sometimes when they hear my staff talking to me they feel shocked. And I will respond with a ‘yes’ and they will be like are you serious? Where are your parents? Are you managing it for them? Most times I just say whatever they want me to say.
Some will say I look so small and who is helping me? Or where is your husband? You should be married, that’s the biggest one I have heard! No man here? These are the things I hear almost every single time. Or you need a guy to follow you because if people don’t see one, they won’t respect you.
I hear when are you getting married? Oh, you have this business, you’ll never get married! Nobody will want to marry you, you are too successful. That’s if you find a husband, men don’t like women like this. A woman that has all these things, then what’s he going to give you?
Some men come here saying: where is your man? Or why won’t you serve me, bring me water, this is culture! This is all because I am a woman. If I was a man, no one will talk to me like that. They will respect me even if I was a 15 years old guy.
Nobody believes you can do it as a woman. They think I’m too young. Some people tell me not to say that I’m the owner of the restaurant. Some say don’t get a male worker, he’ll be intimidated by your success and set you up.
People think it’s okay for an older or married woman to start a business like this. But it’s not okay for a single, black young woman without a husband. It just doesn’t make much sense to most people.”
What do you have to say about raising capital?
“The bank might be willing to give you a loan but when you get there, they’ll tell you that they meant the business should have been running for 2 years. You have to start saving and neglect some frivolous expenses when you want to start a business. Think big about your business.
Register it early enough and even if you don’t have an income, report it as no income at the end of the year. It counts that you had a business and the bank can help you with a loan because they can see that you have been incorporated and also trademarked.
The future is not today or tomorrow but you should be thinking of 10 years from now and onward. Have a plan, 5 years will come in a snap, you need to keep up with changes in the future.”
When I asked where she sees SKCOOKKS in a few years, she replied:
“SKCOOKKS is to be a franchise and the ultimate goal is to be in a mall in different cities. We want people to know about African food because many have driven from different cities to eat here. The mall is particular to me because I see that a lot of Africans live here. I think it has to do with the approach of how we tell other cultures about trying our meals. They haven’t been given the opportunity.
Why do we have millions of Africans visit Canada but not have the opportunity to eat African food? That’s because no African has really decided to do things the right way or invest into it. I know it might seem like a risk but not for SKCOOKKS.
Jamaican food is similar to African food, Canadians and people from different cultures eat it. A lot of people who come in here to try our food like it and even tell their friends about us.
So we want to introduce it to people, I don’t think anyone has really taken the bold step to do this. There is nothing to be ashamed of as long as you are doing it right, people will patronize you. We want people to know more about Africa not just huts! We want them to know about our good food.”
A huge thank you to Sasilka for being so open in this interview. I hope you enjoyed it, I had key takeaways from this chat. Share in the comment section, your thoughts on this interview. Did you find it useful?