Tobi Smith is a Nigeria-born food entrepreneur based in Texas. His food startup, All I Do Is Cook, which he co-founded in the US, recently started an online drive for equity investment.
He talks to us about the motivation behind his startup’s push for investors. He also goes back in time, telling us about his earliest memories of cooking in his mother’s kitchen, including making terrible fried rice and mashed potatoes with his brother.
First things first, how and when did you japa?
During my accounting degree at Babcock, I always traveled to the US for work and vacation during the breaks. After school, I wanted to do something different. I told my parents I wanted a master’s degree and moved here in 2015.
How easy was it coping when you moved?
It was a mixed bag. I moved to Texas because they said Nigerians are here and the weather is like Lagos; I thought it would be easy not to feel lonely. On my first day in school, I met a couple of Nigerians, which was great.
But the culture shock was real. I mean, it helped that I had been living in the US before all of that, but I found it challenging to find Nigerian food. I lived in Denton, about 30 minutes from Dallas, the metropolitan area.
I had to borrow my friend’s car to get food. At the time, I was earning like $8 an hour.
What were you doing?
I was working in a food court, so it wasn’t too easy to get to Dallas and back. I decided to start a food blog to tell people what I’m cooking.
From the comments people were leaving on the blog, it became evident that I wasn’t the only one challenged by the lack of Nigerian food. Those comments motivated me to keep blogging.
Let’s go back. Have you always known how to cook?
More or less. I grew up with my only brother, and my mum wanted us to know how to do everything ourselves. My mum was a good caterer, and she made scotch eggs, meat pies and so on.
I think that residual knowledge stuck in my head, so we would try to make stuff whenever she wasn’t home. And my mum didn’t like us eating noodles, so we had to cook. If we made terrible mashed potatoes or fried rice with too much curry, we would either throw it out or manage it.
Both my parents were busy, and at some point, my brother went to boarding school. I decided to take the initiative with my mum’s encouragement. She would give me money to go to the market and say that I was quicker than she was at cooking.
Were you truly quicker?
When it was time to write ICAN, after I had been in the US for three to four months, I came to Nigeria and was cooking for my housemates. I started watching DSTv and liked how they presented food on their channels, and cooking became my escape from studying.
Besides personal study, I was attending ICAN training classes in Maryland. One day, someone asked me to cater her housewarming event. Small chops, mostly, and I hadn’t made puff-puff and spring rolls until that date.
At the event, a lady approached me and asked how long I had been in business and didn’t believe me when I told her the truth. That gave me some confidence.
That’s a fascinating origin story. But it wasn’t a business at this point, right?
Yeah. There was no business. At the time, I was selling footwear made by TT DALK. I don’t think I was one of those people that always wanted a business.
Did you ever do a 9 to 5?
I worked for a bank in Lagos, and my most memorable experience was eating pounded yam and egusi at White House.
[Laughs] Yeah, I just wasn’t cut out for the whole accounting and banking thing. The same damn thing every day? I just wasn’t a fan, even if I didn’t exactly hate it. I also did some accounting work for a business group called Babcock Ventures.
Okay. So back to the US. How did Tobi Smith progress from a blog to a business?
The first time I got paid; it started in my church. We had a potluck after service, which was one of the reasons I loved going to church. Spiritual food and physical food, you know.
Was it a Nigerian church?
Yes. I would bring food to the potluck, and some members would like it. Some started going to my blog. One day, an amazing woman, Aunty Lola, said she loved how I presented food on my blog and that nobody was doing that for Nigerian food.
She then asked if I would like to cater her 40th birthday party. She was expecting about 150 people.
That’s a lot.
I told her I didn’t think I could. She said she wanted me to play a part in it. She would get a caterer, but I would plate the food. I could hire any amount of staff.
Seems like a good deal.
It was. It was the first time I was getting paid for something food-related. Then, a friend asked me to do something for about 10 to 15 of her friends. I made jollof rice, puff puff, and similar stuff. She paid me like $360!
At that party, two other people reached out to me. And that was how I started getting paid to cook. On the blog, people would say they are coming to Dallas. Could I make a dish they saw on the blog for them, and they would fly back to their homes with it?
Yeah. I tried it with one person, and it worked. But a friend had his food thrown away by the TSA [Transport Security Administration] because he took it in as hand luggage. I started thinking about how to get food to him without complications. So we got a post office box, froze the food, and then bubble wrapped it. It worked!
So we could just ship it. I’d put the food inside to-go containers until I realised that these postal people were just using the box to play ball. The bowls were breaking. So I used a nylon bag to hold the frozen food. This was in 2018. I worked as a supervisor at a hotel resort and casino, and I was also a barista at Starbucks. I wanted to learn how everything worked.
After some time doing the blog, I realised that many people didn’t have a Nigerian restaurant anywhere in the whole state. And I was lamenting the distance between my apartment and Dallas, and some didn’t even have an African grocery store anywhere close.
These people with no Nigerian restaurants in their areas started to recommend me to others as a guy on Twitter. Some would say that’s impossible and then try it. We started shipping a lot to several places, including New York.
Thanks. After working in hospitality a bit, I found that there was quite a lot of data collected in the business, so I went back to school and applied for a Ph.D. in data science and analytics, concentrating on user experience and consumer behavior.
I started in the fall, but things were heating up with the food business. I had bookings for events from January 2019 to August 2019, and every weekend was booked. I could stay in school and graduate in three years, but I could also focus on my food business.
What did you do?
I spoke to my parents, and I told them I couldn’t combine it. My dad understood after a lengthy phone call. But he and my mum were worried about me. Would I be able to take care of myself?
I told them I would probably not be super comfortable, but I also thought I should explore the opportunity. My dad said to take a semester and try; I registered All I Do Is Cook as an LLC in 2019
It was so easy because I loved what I was doing. Cater events on the weekend, cook food, freeze it, ship it. It was a fantastic experience. By the end of 2019, I had done 350 boxes.
Almost a box a day!
Yes. I moved from Denton to Houston in 2019. And that’s where I met my co-founder, Bethany Hadiza, who is Nigerian but had lived here for a long time. We had intersecting customer bases because she was doing something similar.
She was teaching mathematics in an elementary school and had gone to culinary school. She quit teaching, and we focused on this. This was at the end of 2019.
You are currently seeking investors. How did you get here?
By March 2020, the pandemic happened. We had to shut down the business for a month. We were putting content out in the interim and people kept sending messages, asking when we would be back. But we were still cooking at home, doing 20 boxes daily max.
I figured we should move out of the house kitchen and rent a commercial kitchen. We reopened the website to take orders on May 1st, 2020. There were so many orders that I had to shut down my notifications. By the next day, we had 75 orders!
And it was just Bethany and me. We did 14 hours at a stretch. We shipped out the first batch of orders from the commercial kitchen in the middle of the month —115 orders on that day.
Since then, the orders have never stopped. We were buried in the kitchen and had to hire people. I said that if we kept going like this, we would die.
We hired one person, but it wasn’t enough. We hired and employed. And by the end of 2020, we had three staffers. We had shipped out 3000 boxes.
I think 2020 aged us by three years. I started exploring startup education, learning about funding and all. We applied for SBA [Small Business Association] loans. It was studying startups during the day and cooking all the orders from 5 PM till about 1 AM sometimes.
We got our first pitch deck together. We had no business plan; we were just making sure that we were running at a profit by selling at the right price. We then decided we needed to build our kitchen.
We found a space and started to build it. So right now I am speaking to you from our production facility.
That’s superb. Tell me about going from catering and expanding into putting items on shelves—Rodo Oil in particular.
We wanted to solve the problem of accessibility to African food. Rodo Oil came from making asun and realising that the oil leftover was tasty. I kept some for myself and then gave out some asking for feedback, and people liked it.
Rodo Crisps also came from my making Rodo Oil and working with what was leftover. We noticed that these products in other forms were already on shelves, but we felt we made it better with our favorite peppers, and we decided to make our version.
It’s so interesting you guys package and ship stew. How do you package stew?
We vacuum pack our products to keep them fresh and frozen to extend the shelf life.
You sell something called the Nollywood Night Box. What’s that?
We offer limited-edition boxes from time to time, and one of them (now out of stock) is the Nollywood Night Box. We thought about what people would eat if they wanted to take their Nigerian food to the movies. What would you like to eat if you are having a movie night? That was the inspiration behind that with Nigerian pastries and sides. We also had an Owambe box.
Nice. At what stage did you notice that All I Do Is Cook was successful?
I think it was clear from the start. But one day, sometime in 2021, Oyinkan, our e-commerce and customer experience lead, mentioned that we had just crossed a million dollars in sales since we started.
Sweet. How did you celebrate?
We went out to dinner. We hadn’t sat back to consider all we were doing. Everything seemed right. And we hadn’t spent money on online ads. We were working with word of mouth. We thought that since our customers have gotten us this far, we could get them to own part of the business. That’s why we launched our crowdfunding equity fundraise.
What’s the minimum amount for investors?
So at $10,000, how much equity does one receive?
We haven’t finished filing with the SEC, so that isn’t clear yet. When we do, we’ll have the contract up.
What about those who have contributed before the filing with the SEC?
They are reserving their spot, and they will be getting first dibs. After the legal part, that would be direct investing. We are raising $800,000 at a particular valuation, so it’s a bit easy to calculate.
Is there a valuation currently?
There is, but I can’t disclose it legally speaking.
Okay. At the time of the $1m sales, were you profitable?
Yes. We have always been profitable.
Are there things you know now that you would like to tell new entrepreneurs?
Yeah. A few things. First: You have to figure out where you want to go over the first few years and then work backward, starting small. It’s easy to scale when you start small.
Two, keep your process streamlined: just try to make life easy for your customers and make it easy for yourself. After all, the customer decides whether you stay in business.
Three: Build in public. Let people know what you are doing and how it would benefit them.