Chris Koney’s column: How Uncle John’s Bakery is sustaining the African culture in the diaspora

Samuel Mensah

Many Africans across the United Kingdom would definitely have grown up enjoying delicious bread and other baked products from the popular Uncle John’s Bakery, a family business established over two decades to help Africans feel closer to home.

Samuel Mensah, a media technology graduate of the University of West London is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Uncle John’s Bakery. Prior to taking the responsibility to manage and develop his family’s business, he pursued a career in the music industry.

Uncle John’s Bakery was established by Samuel Mensah’s parents, John and Emelia Mensah after arriving in the United Kingdom in 1982. Their inability to get freshly baked bread instead of the poor quality imported bread after searching tirelessly triggered their entrepreneurial journey.

That was when John Mensah who had learnt his family’s secret sweet bread recipe from his mother back in Ghana, Nana Mary, decided to start baking himself. 25 years on, Uncle John’s Bakery has remained a household name within the Afro-Caribbean Community.

Amidst the current lockdown across the United Kingdom due to the novel coronavirus, I managed to have a conversation with Mr. Mensah to discuss his drive to grow one of the most successful African businesses in the United Kingdom.

In 2014, Samuel Mensah, an honouree of the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, at 10 Downing Street was appointed as the company’s director, marking the era of a new chapter for the company with a total rebranding of the business to create top of mind brand awareness.

“When I assumed the role of management head of the business, I thought of working on getting vast recognition for the business considering our track record for over twenty years. I started working on the rebranding – packaging and strengthening the structure of the business as well as the culture. We received a top-tier health and safety accreditation, the Safe and Local Supplier Approval otherwise known as SALSA which has become very crucial in securing contracts with Tesco, Morrisons and other partners,” Mr. Mensah revealed.

Typical of many startups, John and Emelia didn’t have enough funds to rent a space to setup their own bakery when they started Uncle John’s Bakery. They used a local bakery at night until they were able to rent a small retail store situated in Tottenham, North London for their business.

According to Samuel, “the Tottenham space still exists and very functional. To accommodate our growth and satisfy our growing clientele base, we have had to look at our facilities and increasing capacity. At the moment, we currently operate from 2 production units and also have a retail store. Apart from retailing in major supermarkets, we are now collaborating with key brands such as Dropbox and the Unicorn Theatre.”

Samuel is a proud Ghanaian among the second generation Ghanaian community within the United Kingdom who has made it his responsibility to preserve the culture for future generations. His drive for the growth of his family business has seen the customer base exponentially expand beyond the United Kingdom.

“Our customer base across the United Kingdom has tremendously increased along with other European countries including Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. This is a major milestone for us as a business which is exploring innovative ways to reach more people,” he added.

For the direction of the business under his leadership, Samuel mentioned that his agenda for the business has always been centered around legacy. He said “my two grandmothers were the cornerstone on which our current successes have been built; from the culture and customs they have passed down and these will live on through future generations as Uncle John’s Bakery will always be a family run business. We will continue to expand the circulation and distribution of our unique goods so that all cultures may experience a taste of Africa.”

All businesses have their unique challenges and according to Samuel, a rising Star Entrepreneur finalist for the Black British Business Awards in 2019, Uncle John’s Bakery has its fair share of it.

“Some of the toughest challenges we have faced include standing out from the crowd amidst increased competition and also successfully applying new practices and methods of practice to traditional procedures. However, we are not giving up and always find solace in our motto ‘Obeyeyie’ meaning life will get better in Fanti, a Ghanaian dialect.”

The future looks bright for Uncle John’s Bakery with its plan of systematizing the existing operations, invest in sophisticated technologies and employ innovative procedures to fuel. “Additionally, I also hope to diversify our product range to ensure the bakery is inclusive of dietary requirements and appeals to a wide range of consumers,” Mr. Mensah concluded.

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