How So Fresh tapped into an opportunity in Nigeria’s healthy food market

Olagoke (left) and Abimbola Balogun

Ten years ago, Olagoke and Abimbola Balogun started So Fresh, a healthy food restaurant and retail chain. At the time, the health and wellness foods industry was almost non-existent in Nigeria. However, it has since picked up steam and is becoming mainstream. Today, So Fresh has grown to 10 of its own branded outlets, evolving from selling fruits and vegetables in the early days to salads, juices and smoothies.

In this interview, So Fresh CEO Olagoke reveals the steps he took to build the business as well as the challenges encountered along the way.

Tell us about your early career. What skills did you pick up that helped you build So Fresh?

I am a trained biochemist. Once I finished studying biochemistry, I taught for a year as part of my youth service (all university graduates in Nigeria are required to go through a one-year National Youth Service Corps programme).

My first job was as a restaurant supervisor for the fast-food company, Mr Bigg’s. From there, I moved on to the Nigerian Bottling Company, the bottlers of Coca-Cola, in sales and marketing. I did that for a year and a half before joining Chevron in the oil and gas industry where I worked in operations and production. Altogether, I spent about 13 years in paid employment.

We started So Fresh in 2010. At first I combined it with my day job but in 2016 I left full-time employment to focus on So Fresh 100%.

If I were to do this again, I’d probably follow a similar route because I learnt so much from working in a structured environment, particularly at Chevron, where I spent the majority of my time. I learnt how to structure and organise people, processes, systems and reporting lines.

I was at UAC, the parent company of Mr Bigg’s, for four months. I never imagined I would own a restaurant business but I gained knowledge about inventory management, sales, marketing and production cycles. I also picked up HR skills because I had to manage 15 or 16 people in a restaurant setting.

I learnt about continuous improvement at Chevron; that processes and structures within an organisation are never static. It intrigued me that after being in business for over 100 years, there was almost always an update or a review to make the process better at Chevron.

A So Fresh outlet.

What were some of the challenges you encountered in the early days of So Fresh?

We struggled to attract the right kind of employees with the right skills. Remember, it was a startup and we were small. Of course, we couldn’t pay a lot. It was also a new concept, so there were not a lot of people with experience in this industry.

The other hurdle was Nigeria’s infrastructure deficit. I went into business unaware of how much the infrastructure deficit was going to impact us in terms of power and logistics. We were dependent on electricity to preserve the fruits and vegetables; they needed to be fresh all the time.

The biggest challenge was market acceptance. Back in 2010, Nigerians didn’t consider salad as food. We were trying to create a market that did not exist. We had to teach people the importance of fresh, healthy food and the impact it has on their quality of life. We joined Instagram and that was pivotal for So Fresh as it granted us access to our market. We could build our audience online and teach people about what we were doing. Eventually, the global buzz about what you eat, where it comes from, and how it’s prepared caught on. Everybody began talking about healthy food and a healthy lifestyle and the market became receptive.

Once the health and wellness trend caught on, the biggest thing we did was to localise the food to Nigeria. Many people were selling items like Caesar salad which were imported and tasted foreign. But we never sold Caesar salad. We realised it was about what the Nigerian palate would like. For example, one of our bestsellers is a very spicy chicken salad; you probably won’t find it anywhere else in the world.

The second thing that helped us was bringing in healthy grocery products such as chia seed, flaxseed and quinoa. In 2013, they were still very new in Nigeria. It attracted the kind of customer we wanted. Some people found us just by looking for things like quinoa, granola or flaxseed and all of that. And then they discovered the other things we were doing.

Customers making purchases at a So Fresh store.

What other things did you do to attract customers?

One was to educate our customers and audience online and via social media.

The second was partnerships. We found businesses that could complement our message, like fitness brands and nutritionists. We were preaching the message on their platforms; they were preaching their message on ours.

The third thing we did was to target customers who attended exhibitions and events. For some of the events we had to pay, some of them were free. Oftentimes we were not after sales; rather, we wanted to get our brand noticed. With time, we had converts and those converts turned into ambassadors. One of our biggest market drivers has been word-of-mouth.

Let’s talk about expansion. What are the difficulties you faced opening new branches?

We had to ensure quality and consistency across all our outlets. Once people enter a store, they have to feel confident they are getting the same product and service. It was challenging at the beginning, but we were able to solve it with a lot of internal process re-engineering.

So Fresh sells salads, juices and smoothies.

The other challenge was expanding into new territories. Our first outlet in Lagos was well known and was doing well, so we opened a second store and it was equally successful. However, when we opened in Abuja, where no one knew us, we replicated the approach we took in Lagos but it didn’t work. The lesson was to look at the environment and to study the buying patterns and behaviour of customers in new areas.

If you had to start So Fresh again, what would you do differently?

When I started, I wasn’t big on sales and marketing. I believed if you build it, people will come. But I found that can only take you so far. I wasn’t experienced and would probably have invested more in sales and marketing.

I ran the business for three years before I went to business school, even though I was an avid reader. I needed to understand more about what it means to run a business. Acquiring the right business knowledge is very important.

I would also take networking more seriously because it’s true that there’s only so far you can go alone. You need a good network of people around you to build a sustainable business.

Talk about future opportunities.

It will be a journey of growth and expansion; to make fresh, healthy food accessible to more people across Nigeria and Africa. We want to provide more options of fresh and healthy meals that people can enjoy on-the-go.

I see the industry becoming more competitive. Look at what’s happening in the US and the UK. Traditional fast-food businesses are creating their versions of healthy meal options or taking over companies currently doing that. The fast-food landscape will switch to fresh, healthy alternatives.