Since its doors opened in September 2015, SOFFYS KITCHEN has gradually become one of Abuja’s go-to places for Continental/African dishes and especially popular for their Pastas, Grilled fish and kebabs. TMG caught up with its CEO, Safina S. Mannir who shares what it takes to be in the restaurant business.
TMG>Tell us about yourself…
I’m a graduate of Bsc. Mass Communication & Media Arts. I majored in print and electronic journalism from AIUB (American International University Dhaka, Bangladesh) and I have a flair for cooking, thus my going into the restaurant business.
TMG> How did you go from Journalism to becoming a Restauranteur?
As I mentioned earlier, I have a passion for cooking and I love the kitchen. Cooking is, without a doubt, one of the most important skills a person can learn and share.
TMG> Do you remember the first dish you made and what your customers’ reactions were?
Well, I don’t really think I had a first dish per se, because the day I opened was like a rush hour as I invited family and friends to come and have a taste of what I had to offer, so I had a couple of different dishes on the menu that day. I asked for comments and criticisms, and that really helped me to adjust henceforth. But generally, it was satisfactory.
TMG> Did you take any courses in culinary school?
No, I didn’t actually take any culinary courses; even though I had inherited some cooking skills from my mom, which I built upon, it was mostly self taught. Cooking is a passion and an art for me, so I learnt it with pure enthusiasm. I read books, followed food bloggers, watched food channels, youtube shows etc. All you really need is all there, you just need the time and dedication.
TMG> Can you explain some of your influences for your dishes?
I must confess, I like good food, and my husband does too, so whenever I see a beautiful dish on TV or social media that looks amazing, it inspires me and I try to recreate it with my own twist and different presentations. I always try to challenge myself. In addition to being delicious, food needs to be appealing to the eye, that’s what makes it even more inviting, and that’s why it’s an art. I do both Nigerian and international cuisines.
TMG> What is your favorite meal to cook?
I think that would be pasta, it’s fast, it’s easy and it’s delicious, only takes a couple of minutes to prepare. There are so many variants of pasta which makes it dynamic in use, there are various options of spicing and preparing it and it is open to your imagination; it is a staple food enjoyed both locally and internationally and also one of my husband’s favorites.
TMG> Some say the restaurant business is not easy to go into because of the many obvious risks involved. Can you identify these risks and share your best tips for running a top quality restaurant?
It’s surely not easy; it needs a lot of time and dedication in order to make it successful and like every business, the risks are there, but you just have to be hopeful and optimistic. You always have to think of how to improve and satisfy your customer and you have to emphasize that to your staff that the customer is always right. Some of the risks involve trying out new dishes and getting customers reactions. You constantly need to strike a balance in your food stuffs, whether it’s in demand or not, because it’s not good for business if an item on the menu isn’t available. Some of these items are perishable, so there is always that uncertainty. Running a restaurant requires hard work, dedication and perseverance.
TMG> What type of spices do you use (local,oriental,etc)? And do you feel that using quality ingredients is critical for great food?
I use a range of spices, local and oriental. Food is all about the ingredients;the right ingredients make the great taste. You can make a good meal using almost any ingredient, but you need the perfect ingredients in just the right proportion to make a great meal. You need to get the mix right- if you use preserved ingredients when you need to use fresh ones, you won’t get the taste you want, you need to know the ingredients and how they taste for you to be able to use them efficiently. So it is all about the ingredients.
TMG> Do you have a unique philosophy that’s different from others?
The momentum; you need to keep the tempo going. Sometimes things are good, sometimes they’re not. You need to know exactly what to do at the right time, foresee problems before they occur and try to avoid a difficult situation. Most importantly, be prayerful and do your best then leave the rest to Allah S.W.T. and in sha Allah, everything will fall in place.
TMG> How many employees report to you?
Just three at the moment: a chef, a manager and a waiter. I’m hoping to employ more staff as the business grows.
TMG> What are your challenges and how do you handle them?
Some of our challenges include customer patronage, it fluctuates and varies depending on the seasons and times. Sometimes you have a few customers all day and sometimes it can be overwhelming. And whatever happens, we have to pay tax, bills and for adverts. We have to make ends meet one way or the other. It could be really challenging. Sometimes staff could be inefficient, lazy, reluctant and nonchalant. Bold handling is usually required to maintain staff discipline and order in the restaurant. Sometimes we have electricity issues, we have to go long hours using the generator, which takes a toll on us.
TMG> How do you take ownership of your position- e.g look for guest interaction, financials, organization, cleanliness, quality of company?
I always put the customer first. Interaction with the customer is key, feedback is very essential- it redirects you and keeps you focussed. Organization and cleanliness is a priority, there must be no compromise when it comes to quality. If the food doesn’t look good or taste good for whatever reason, we don’t serve it because a good reputation is very important and must never be compromised. I try to put reasonable and competitive prices for our foods so that satisfaction and value for money can be achieved.
TMG> Tell us about an accomplishment that you are most proud of in your career.
I was privileged to be noticed by the Nigerian Army and was contracted to provide small chops hampers to be distributed to thousands of soldiers in the north east during the Christmas holidays. It’s the most tasking job I have carried out so far and I’m really proud of it. Being able to support our troops directly or indirectly is a rare privilege that is worth doing. It’s been a fulfilling 2016.
TMG> Tell us about your management style and how you handle customers…
I’m very flexible in management because if something or someone is not working, things have to change immediately in order to prevent a potentially bad situation from getting worse. I try to manage the restaurant in the best way I can depending on the situation we find ourselves. Customers can be very challenging to handle sometimes. Some are very impatient while some are just too sensitive but we try our best to maintain a balanced standard so that we can reasonably satisfy all customers especially when FRESH is what we do/serve.
TMG> Tell us 3 things that you consider to be your strengths as a restauranteur.
Persistence, curiosity and hardwork.
TMG> Tell us something you would like to learn or improve upon?
I would like to improve upon on my local skills. We have lots of Nigerian meals from all parts of the country. I have only been able to master the ones that are indigenous to me, which I grew up learning at home, there are other dishes I’m not too good at like those from the east, especially the soups. So I would like to put some more effort in those areas and perhaps even give them a bit of my twist.
TMG> How do you handle labour cost?
Well those are some of the things you have to bear with sometimes: there’s actually not much you can do in those situations, because everything mostly depends on your customer flow which translates to your turn over. Whenever costs are getting high you have to prioritize your stock; purchase only things that are absolutely necessary. Remember that you don’t always make profit, sometimes u barely break even, and other times its even a loss, it all depends on the market situation.
TMG> Now that many people are more health-conscious, how do you come up with meals that are healthful as well as tasty?
Fortunately, my mom is a dietitian, so I get all the health advice from her. We try as much as possible to cook with the most healthy food items we can lay our hands on, starting with the ingredients themselves. We have to make sure its contents have no health risks, from the type of oil we use, to vegetables, meat, fish and poultry. We also try to encourage our customers to try our fresh juices rather than the carbonated drinks to reduce sugar consumption. We try to have a little mix of vegetables in most of our dishes to try to give the meal a sort of balanced diet and we are presently in the process of creating an exclusive menu for diabetic patients, where the meals will be prepared in accordance to medical advice.
TMG> Now that government jobs are few and unemployment is on the rise, how would you encourage youths to become self-dependent?
First of all, have a passion for something you really like, then pick an inspiration or mentor and then follow your dreams. You don’t always have to start big, you just have to start and give it your all. We all have the potential to do something good, all we need is a little push. Our society is filled with opportunities, don’t wait for government to give you a job, empower yourself and then you will see that the sky is your limit. Some of the most successful people in our society today never worked in the government, they created a business that has inspired others. The most important thing is hard working and relentless.
TMG> Apart from running a restaurant, is there anything else that you do?
Not really for now, even though I plan to set up a photo studio soon because I have a background in media and would like to put some of that knowledge into use. But for now, all my energy is focused on the restaurant.
TMG> How do you spend your free time?
I spend my free time with friends and family but mostly with my No.1- my amazing Husband who is my inspiration. Without his support there would be no SOFFYS.