‘I started Pancake Hub with half bag of flour I took from home’

Adaobi Alex-Oni

The owner of Pancake Hub, Adaobi Alex-Oni isn’t one to mince words. Revealing that her business was borne out of almost nothing, she spoke to TOBI AWODIPE on her journey of starting out, the ups and downs of business and the effect of COVID-19 on businesses today.

What was the inspiration behind starting your business?
Everything started from when we reached what I would call a turning point in our family. My husband had just resigned from his job and I was also struggling with what to do. When you have a financial break, there’s so much gap, you don’t know what to do next.

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Somehow, my husband got this office space in Jibowu and it was just that; an empty space, nothing was happening there. He suggested that I start a pancake business in that space. My husband who is a certified wealth manager was busy building small start-ups and thought the pancake business could be a good one.

How did you progress from that point especially with funds?
The both of us started Pancake Hub with barely anything. In fact, the first flour we used to fry pancake was the one we were using at home; it was a half bag. At the end of the first day, I had to take back the flour home, because I had to choose between when the next big financial break would come and having to put food on the table. We had our children who were going to secondary school at the time, so it was a lot of new challenging things happening at the same time.

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Being a start-up, how did you grow the business to what it is today?
My husband is very good with social media. He has a strong presence on Twitter and Instagram where he was always teaching people things like which businesses people could start with N1, 000, creating opportunities whereby friends come together and empower other people and train them to have their own businesses and so on. I credit him with building the business first and foremost on social media. Initially, thought of making it mobile, like having a pancake hub mobile kitchen at strategic spots in Lagos, but that model didn’t really work out. We then started exploring other avenues, like going for events where we would pitch our business and we got lucky with this.

The first major break we got was from a wedding. I persuaded the woman to have pancakes and ice cream as part of her dessert for her daughters’ wedding; we were both members of a chamber movement. She told me out right that she was only patronising me because I’m a member, but she felt people wouldn’t eat pancakes. So, she ordered for just fifty people. When I got home, I asked my children what to do and Tobi my son said he knows people eat waffles and ice cream, so I said let’s try it and that was how that first outing went.

The following week, the woman’s second daughter was getting married and the wedding planner called to inform me that they would need pancakes for 150 people. That got me excited and inspired me to think that we would go for every outdoor event. We were rated as the most visited stand at the first GTBank Food and Drink festival in Lagos. We have had positive reviews from Eat.Drink.Lagos, which reviews restaurants in Lagos.

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Every time there’s a challenge, sometimes we don’t make sales and I ask myself, is this how this business will go? But that’s how businesses are; once you start a small business, you don’t just boom. Our customers have been wonderful and loyal. We relied on our friends and that include my friends, members of my alumni (Federal Government College, Okigwe); they’re my biggest customers. Every event they hold, they want me to cater for them. But our strength has been our online presence; we have a lot of people who order online.

What are some of the good and bad times you have experienced so far?
There was a time we had one experience that eventually turned out to be good for us. A couple was supposed to meet here for breakfast. Apparently, the girl had another man who had already gotten breakfast for her. So, she had two guys who got breakfast for her and then when they both found out that they bought breakfast for the same girl, they went on Twitter to fight. Everyone was like, where is this Pancake Hub?

That day, we outsold and it became good publicity for us. We also had couples who had met here when they were dating and then went on to have children and later came back here to tell us that they met here and now have a child. I have seen hearts mended here; lovers like to hang out here. That’s the high point of Pancake hub for me.

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We have had our ups and down this past three years, but COVID-19 has been the worst experience so far. It hit us really hard and our business was badly affected as sales became non-existent. Right now, we don’t do eat-in anymore; it is strictly take-out. The fear of COVID is still very much with us because people are dying. Many of my customers have the same fear as I so it is not difficult convincing them that they can’t eat in again.

How badly did COVID-19 affect you?
Very badly. For about four months last year, we didn’t open. I had 10 staff and had to lay them off. Now, there are just two of them coming in. I promised them that anytime we’re fully back, the Hub is open to them because these are the people who helped me build the business from scratch. Now, I just have two staff coming in and that says a lot. From 13 to two, that means business is bad and it’s slow.

What are the peculiar challenges you have faced as an entrepreneur?
The major challenge is human management; dealing with customers is also a big issue. Sometimes, I have to beg them that I’m also a customer to someone else and I don’t give them a hard time. Customers sometimes are so rude; they think it is their right to be as rude as possible to you. It’s very unfortunate and I tell them it’s bad behaviour. Sometimes, I’ve had to use my personal phone to call them and say, ‘forget I’m selling pancakes to you, for you to call me and make enquiries about pancakes and hang up the phone while I’m explaining to you is bad behaviour.’

I don’t know where this poor behavior stems from. At the end of the day, I tell myself customer is king and I try to treat them as such, but some people make it hard.

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Another major challenge we face is investment. We are putting back into the business and that includes personal funds just to keep the business running. There is the challenge of not even knowing if the business will remain open the next day. Some days, we don’t sell anything. When things were still normal, by now, everywhere is full and people are having breakfast. Today, I’ve only had three orders for delivery.

Where do you see your business in the next five years?
I see a tall building, like a five storey building at a strategic place, like a bustling junction or crossroads, with ‘Welcome to the Pancake Hub.’ I see my business expanding; that’s my dream. I see us also helping to train and empower the younger generation. I did not just open a business for myself alone; I always want to empower people, young people especially. For me, Pancake Hub is a platform to do that.

We had people approach us for expansion, but I believe anything that is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; we don’t want to be everywhere and at the end of the day, you’re nowhere anymore so we want to solidify what we have. Of course, we are open to franchise, maybe in the future, but for now, no.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
For those who also own small businesses like mine, keep at it, keep pushing and have faith that one day, you would grow. Importantly, be honest in all you do, especially in your business dealings.

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