Ice Cream Factory is a hot spot in Lagos. With a wide range of ice cream flavours, and a lovely ambience, Ice Cream Factory has managed to retain its place as a premium spot to chill with friends. Founders, Folusho and Shade Ogunleye attribute the idea to start Ice Cream Factory, to God.
“There were also a couple of other business ideas we were considering and we were getting quite confused so we decided to pray, fast and seek God’s face about what to do. The “eureka” moment came about two/three days into the fast as I was doing a “prayer- walk” home from the train station after work. I felt a strong prompting within me to re-visit the ice-cream plan. Sensing this was the Holy Spirit, I quietly prayed and asked God to confirm it through my wife within a two-week window. I then continued walking home. I had barely gotten into the house when my wife said, “Folusho, what about this ice cream idea?” Bear in mind that we hadn’t discussed the idea in months as we felt it was impossible to meet the requirements and had more or less shut the door to that idea. I had goose bumps and immediately burst out singing and praising God!“
Folusho and Shade obtained their undergraduate and post graduate degrees in the UK, with backgrounds in Economics and Finance. Folusho worked with Shell UK and The Netherlands as a Finance Analyst, and prior to Shell, he worked with BP Oil and Gas Plc in the UK as a brokerage and trade analyst. Shade worked in various accounting and management roles for organisations including Metropolitan Police, BBC and The Consensus Business Group.
Against the backdrop of this wide professional experience, what was long term vision for their businesses? Simply put: “…to further build on the strength of our brands and have multiple outlets of both brands in major cities across the nation and the continent.”
In the interview with BellaNaija, they talk about some of the most interesting parts of running the business – erratic power supply, Fresh Food supplies & keeping good staff! It’s a long read but we encourage every aspiring entrepreneur to read this story.
Can you please share some of the challenges you faced when you wanted to set up Ice Cream Factor?
One of the main challenges we faced was raising finance to get the business off the ground. Another challenge we faced was deciding to run with our vision in spite of the many “contrary voices” of people who had genuine concerns as to whether an ice cream business would be a viable venture in Nigeria, especially since we would be leaving pretty stable employment for a venture that hadn’t quite been tested before. I recall a friend telling me that, “I want to see the amount of ice cream that you would sell that would pay for rent in Victoria Island.” One other friend suggested that we sell some Nigerian food or some other type of food by the side in addition to ice cream/desserts and said that “Nigerians are not yet ready for this your idea.”
Another challenge we faced was how to source fresh milk for our ice cream. From our training, we knew that we had to use fresh milk to in order for us to make ice cream that had the perfect quality and texture – gourmet ice cream. Due to the fact that dairy farming, especially in our local environment can be a quite expensive as well as risky venture, it was extremely difficult finding any farms that produced fresh milk. Due the difficulty of sourcing fresh milk we were advised to use powder-based ice cream mixes, which was readily available in the market. However, we were adamant that we were not going to compromise on the quality of our product, so it had to be fresh milk – no powder-based ice cream mixes for us!
How did you overcome some of these challenges
Since we didn’t have any financial history with any Nigerian banks, bank financing was more or less impossible. We therefore had to rely on personal savings as well as source loans from family. This meant that we had to scale down the initial scope of the business and start small. We had limited amount of funds left over for working capital after we had expended most of our funds paying for rent, buying equipment and redecorating the property. We had an extremely lean budget, more so because the amount we ended up spending on rent was much higher than anticipated. So we had to be extremely prudent in managing our limited financial resources. For example, we paid ourselves a very minimal salary from the business and there were periods when we had to forego this altogether.
Also, we had no money at all for traditional marketing, so we had to rely solely on word of mouth advertising and a bit of Facebook (social media was still in its nascent stage – no IG or Twitter back then). We used my sister’s birthday as a soft opening, we took loads of pictures, posted them on Facebook and the response was massive!
We were also extremely cautious when recruiting and ensured that we did not employ more staff than required to keep overheads low. In fact, we had to assume many multiple roles because we could not afford to employ certain categories of staff. Folusho was the Operations Manager, Marketing Manager, Facilities Officer, Floor Manager, even plumber and generator technician! I was the Head Chef, Accountant, HR Manager, Procurement Officer, Store Keeper etc. Those were interesting times!
I will never forget the first New Year’s Day, around six months after we commenced operations. Only three of our nine staff members turned up to work. We did not panic but just went into work mode. My wife went on the till as the cashier for the day and the chef and I were the only ones in the kitchen preparing all the orders. We thank God for the ability to think and act quickly, as this situation which could have been a total disaster, went quite well. In terms of sales, that day ended up being our busiest day since we opened for business.
On the issue of getting fresh milk, as God would have it, during this period of our search for a dairy farm, my husband stumbled on a childhood friend of his who out of the blues mentioned that her husband’s family had just started a dairy farm. She put us in touch with them and the rest as they say is history.
Tell us about Yin Yang Express. Why did you decide include the Chinese food restaurant option to the business model?
Yin Yang Express was not in the plan from inception. When we were looking for a location for our first Ice Cream Factory store, we were only looking to rent a floor space in a building. After our search for a floor space in our desired location proved to be futile, we decided to take the plunge and rent a whole building with the intention of sub-letting the first floor as soon as possible, as we had tied up a significant amount of our working capital into the rent we had to pay upfront.
After moving to site, we were unsuccessful in getting a suitable tenant to sub-let the space. It was at this point that we began to sense that God wanted us to use the space and not sublet it. So we began to seek God again about the next step to take at this juncture.
Within a couple of months of opening the Ice Cream Factory, we quickly observed a pattern in business activity. We realized that it was relatively quiet during weekday mornings and lunchtime when compared with evenings and weekends. Also our first location. off Adeola Hopewell Street, was in a major business district. So we began to brainstorm about what product we could offer to this ready market that would make up for the periods of low business activity in The ice cream factory. Since we were already in the restaurant industry, albeit novices, our natural inclination was for us to look within that area. We also researched what other restaurants within the area were offering in terms of product and service and decided to offer something different that would cater to the lunch time crowd. We settled on quick service Chinese meals that would readily available, tasty and reasonably priced. That was how Yin Yang Chinese restaurant (recently rebranded as Yin Yang Express was born).
What is your biggest challenge as a business owner in Nigeria today?
Due to the nature of our business, our greatest challenge is power supply. The cost of purchasing generators, diesel costs, maintaining the generators, etc are all significant additional costs that we needn’t incur if we had constant electricity supply.
During the short periods when we do have electricity, the quality of electricity that may come through the transformers (that is, extremely high or low voltage) poses a serious problem.
We have had a number of equipment damaged due to extremely high or low voltage (despite being protected with voltage regulators). We also had a fire incident recently at one of our stores due to a power surge when PHCN restored power. Thankfully we were able to curtail it early before it got out of control.
Do you have a high turnover of employees?
We have some employees who have been with us more or less since inception or at least four years, which in my opinion, is not bad at all considering the length of time we’ve been in operation. We have a member of staff who started with us as a cleaner, then got promoted to kitchen assistant, then ice cream production technician (whilst studying part-time for an accounting degree). He now works in the internal audit department. Another member of staff who joined as a waiter now works as an accounts payable officer.
However, in recent times (since implementing tighter controls around our business operations) we have had more of a problem with high turnover with our front-of-house staff. Staff who come with dishonest motives either leave on their own volition because our controls make it extremely difficult for them to carry out “their plans” or our controls ensure that they get caught and so have to be dismissed. In addition, due to the fact that most of our waiters are pretty young and many have aspirations to further their education or only plan to work whilst waiting to gain admission into higher institutions, we tend to have a relatively high level of turnover, which is not unusual in the restaurant industry.
However, to ensure that business operations are not disrupted by the high turnover of front-of-house staff, we try as much possible to ensure that we maintain some core staff who have a genuine interest in building a career in the hospitality/restaurant industry. This helps to provide some form of stability in the midst of anticipated turnover. Also we have a staff induction and structured training programme that all employees must undergo once they join the company, which makes the process of training easier.
How do you source and keep good staff?
We generally tend to source most of our staff through recruitment agencies or referrals. Occasionally, job seekers also drop off their CVs in-store and an HR personnel then contacts prospective candidates who meet our selection criteria.
In terms of staff retention, we try to pay our staff a competitive salary and also enforce a culture that ensures that every member of staff is treated with respect irrespective of their level or designation. We feel this goes a long way in creating a positive work environment. We also provide other benefits like healthcare, subsidised lunch, staff loans etc and give recognition and financial rewards to outstanding staff on a regular basis, as a means of further motivating our employees. We would want to believe and hope that all these factors have contributed in our ability to retain good staff over the years.
What are your thoughts on the current regulatory policies (if any on food businesses in Nigeria?)
I find that some of the regulatory bodies carry out the same function over certain aspects of the industry and in some cases even charge identical fees. It would be helpful if clear guidelines were assigned to specific bodies and if there was a one-stop shop to deal with. In addition, greater transparency in terms of the charges and rates would go a long way.
A certain demographic of medium/high level professionals have joined the healthy eating train. Has that affected your business in any way? Have you had to make any changes to accommodate this socio-behavioural pattern?
Ice cream was never intended to be a staple and yet the ice cream business has been a viable one, which is why it is still thriving today, centuries after the first ice cream parlour was opened.
We find that majority of our customers come into our store to treat themselves by indulging in their favourite ice cream or dessert. Our goal is to ensure that they all leave with a happy experience. Everyone deserves a treat every now and again and the choice to have ice cream is a great one out of life’s many treats. Nevertheless, we also offer a selection of flavours in Italian style ice cream (gelato) that is lower in fat than traditional American ice cream. Some of our all time favourites, such as Belgian Chocolate, Midnight Express, Strawberry, Amarena, Coconut and a few other flavours are gelato. You wouldn’t be able to tell that they are lower fat, due to their creamy texture and intense flavour.
Although ice cream is our core product, The Ice Cream Factory is beyond just ice cream and desserts. In addition, we offer a range of paninis, freshly brewed coffee and a selection of other beverages.
I can’t imagine a world without ice cream, chocolate or cake! I’m one of those who have joined the healthy eating train but I still love having my ice cream. The key thing, as with almost all things in life is moderation.
How do you manage to stay ahead of the curve – ahead of the competition in your industry?
I have always been and continue to remain passionate about premium ice cream. The period of initial recipe development (7 years ago) after returning from our first ice cream training programme in the U.S was quite interesting. We would experiment with various recipes and inclusions (bits such as cookies, nuts or cakes put in ice cream) and see what worked best, using family members and friends as our guinea pigs! About 80% of our core flavours were developed during that period.
Even now, we have not stopped “messing around” with flavours and recipes. We constantly research on what new flavours we can create and also get inspiration from family and customers. I come from a family of avid food lovers plus I married into a family of foodies (my sisters-in law to be precise!) so I have able consultants whose judgement I can trust. Our signature “Red Velvet Cheesecake” and “Strawberry Shortcake Sundae” were both created due to constant cravings and demands made by my foodie sister-in law. We then embark on a process of sourcing the finest and best flavourings and inclusions to create the best flavour. Our deep passion for our product results in creativity and innovation, which I feel has ensured that we continue to forge ahead in spite of competition.
In addition, we constantly strive to give our customers what we term a “360 degree” experience. Customers should be able to taste, sense and feel the passion that we have for creating our ice cream and other desserts. We offer more than just ice cream so it is more like a dessert concert or theatre production with ice cream taking centre stage! We are passionate about how we treat our customers. This goes beyond the food we serve, which is why maintaining an excellent customer service culture is key.
Also our warm, mature ambience and music selection are all intended to help customers relax and unwind. Everything we do is intentionally targeted at giving our customer that unique ice cream experience. We would love visitors to experience an excellent product and service. It is first and foremost about how the customer feels once they are inside an Ice Cream Factory store. We like to think that we make them feel like friends of the house rather than just strangers with money to spend.
What would you say has been your highest achievement since you started your business?
We feel that one of our greatest achievements to date is being able to gradually build from scratch, a brand that is wholly and proudly Nigerian and that is comparable with to any global brand. We say this with all humility based on feedback from customers. We have had quite a number of people coming into our stores who assumed that we part of an international franchise.
Many customers have also asked if we imported our ice cream and are shocked to find out that we actually produce everything ourselves on-site. I remember this American lady who after tasting our butter pecan ice cream asked to see the owner and then told me that butter pecan was her favourite ice cream and ours was the best she’d ever tasted. Such feedback from customers over the years has been very encouraging especially during tough times.
As a couple working together, how are you able to balance the work-home dynamics of your relationship?
On the work front, one of the main benefits of working with my wife is that I’m working with someone that I can trust 100% and I know always has my back. Knowing that you are not in competition with one another but working towards a common goal and that your partner has your best interest at heart is a great blessing. I think an appreciation of this fact helps a lot when we have disagreements at work.
We work very well as a team because we have an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We play on our strengths and fill in when possible for the gaps. There is no point struggling to take on an area that I know that Shade is better equipped to handle and vice-versa. For instance, even though we work together, we have separate roles that we play and so oversee different areas of business operations. There are a few areas where there may be an overlap, both for the most part that is how we work and we find that this system works well for us.
To maintain a healthy balance at home, we try as much as possible not to discuss work at home, although there are many times we find this impossible, especially days when we have to take work home.
Running a business as can be quite demanding and challenging. However, I try my best to structure my work around my obligations as a wife and mother of 3 children. Our family ultimately comes first, so being able to attend our children’s school activities for example, is a huge plus. The implication of this is that many times we continue to work long after getting home. I have no complaints because I love what I do and the flexibility that being my own boss gives me in terms of my time.
When it comes to working with my husband, first and foremost, my husband is my best friend. Trust me, this matters a lot when you have to spend almost 24 hours a day with the same person on a regular basis! He is very secure in himself and therefore does not feel the need to put me down or intimidate me. This gives me the freedom to be myself and express myself without any fear of antagonism. Even though he is my husband and indisputably the head of our home, once we get to work we relate as business partners.
When we have disagreements or conflicting views at work, I have never had to deal with any of that, “I am the man or I am the head of home talk”. Instead, we address these issues as normal business partners who have an equal stake in the business would do. Sometimes we come round to see things from the other person’s perspective and sometimes we agree to disagree. However, because we constantly seek God’s face regarding all aspects of our business, He eventually leads us in the right direction. Officially, Folusho is the CEO and I am the MD. We fondly refer to God as our Chairman, so we are both ultimately accountable to Him!
What advice would you give a budding entrepreneur trying to go into the food/restaurant business in Nigeria?
Firstly, the importance of preparing a detailed business plan cannot be over-emphasized. The process of doing so would help arriving at a decision as to whether or not the business is viable in the first instance. Thereafter, my advice would be to simplify every aspect of your business operations as much as possible and document the procedures to make it easy for employees to follow. Most people going into the restaurant business do so because they have a passion for cooking, baking, good food, etc. As such they come in as experts in these areas but lack the requisite knowledge or skill in the actual business of “restauranteering”. A successful business requires structure, financial intelligence, strategic planning, very hard work and resilience. I would also advice that they research their market thoroughly in relation to the product and service they intend to offer. Finally, I would advise that they incorporate a system for monitoring and reconciling sales and inventory into their business process and ensure that this is implemented.
In addition, you should be able to measure and account for every item sold and every ingredient or raw material that goes into every finished product. What you do not measure is at risk of either pilferage or wastage. It can be quite a tedious task going through this process but believe me it is worth it and would save you a lot of money at the end of the day. We had to do through the rigour of doing this for EVERY single item sold in both our restaurants.
As your business grows, learn to delegate, albeit do it wisely. Carefully recruit managers with the requisite skill set and attitude (attitude is so critical), and invest the time and effort in training them, using your already documented procedures. Incorporate a control into your system/process that enables you check and ensure that your managers are doing what they ought to do (like we mentioned earlier you can’t build a business based on trust). What you need to trust are your controls and business process. When done right, this would free up precious time that could be either used for strategic planning or to perform other high level functions required to take the business forward.
Special thanks to Foluso and Shade for taking time to chat with BellaNaija. We wish you all the best in your future endeavours.
Photo Credit: Ima Mfon