Nigerian Shell Oil Attorney Gave Up Her Job And Launched 2 Food Startups In NYC
New York City helped celebrate Nigerian Independence Day over the weekend with a jubilant parade down Second Avenue. Afrobeat blasted from floats sponsored by local Nigerian associations and businesses; dancing revelers waved green and white Nigerian flags to the crowd below.
A party followed at nearby Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, which was lined with vendors selling colorful wax print clothing and Nigerian foods, from sizzling meats to platters with jollof rice.
One of the vendors was Snackin’ African, a new startup just under 1 year old, specializing in one product, chinchin. These crunchy little squares are comparable to shortbread, but slightly less sweet and a touch more buttery.
“It’s super popular in Nigeria,” says Foluso Salami, the founder of Snackin’ African. In addition to a standalone snack, chinchin can be the amuse bouche — a small appetizer — before a meal or accompany a particular dish.
Salami hopes that Snackin’ African chinchin will be the African product that breaks through to mainstream U.S. consumers. There have only been a handful of food products and dishes from West, South and East Africa that have had relative mainstream success in the U.S.: Ethiopian cuisine including injera bread, its yergacheff coffee and grain teff. From the west coast, the grain fonio found in Senegal and Mali has also made inroads in the U.S. Chef Pierre Thiam, originally from Senegal, gave a recent TED Talk on fonio. Of course there are West African influences already woven into the U.S.’s culinary landscape, dishes like gumbo and hoppin’ John for example, as a result of the horrific slave trade.
But unlike dishes and ingredients from Latin America and Southeast Asia that have become part of the mainstream American culture over the past several decades due to a large influx of immigrants, new African dishes have not.
“African cuisine is the last frontier to get explored,” says Salami, “it’s the next one and I’m happy I’m part of it.”
Salami explains her journey from a Shell Oil attorney in Nigeria to food entrepreneur in New York City.
Nina Roberts: Why did you leave a career as a Shell Oil attorney to launch Snackin’ African?
Foluso Salami: I loved being an attorney, I was passionate about it, but I always wanted to own my own business.
Roberts: How did you get from being a Shell Oil attorney in Nigeria to a food entrepreneur in New York City?
Salami: I came here on holiday and I visited the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie. I spoke to someone in the international students’ office and said I might apply next year. I did. I resigned and I was in school two weeks later. That was 2009.
Roberts: Why make a business around chinchin?
Salami: I couldn’t readily find it in any stores. And the few times I stumbled upon chinchin in remote stores, it was often oily and stale.
I said to myself, I’m going to make my own chinchin and I’m going to make it baked. So if I make it baked, I can have as much of it as I want! I started it for selfish reasons, basically.
I took the same recipe we used in my family and tweaked it a little with the knowledge I got from the Culinary Institute of America. My husband and daughter loved it; I started sharing it with my neighbors, people liked it.
Roberts: How did it go from a Nigerian snack you missed that you made at home to Snackin’ African, the business?
Salami: Snackin’ African is actually my second business, I have another startup, Dùndú Kitchen. It’s a fast casual food company named after a Nigerian street food that’s part of our fish and chips. Instead of potato, it’s made from the African yam tuber. It’s a pop-up in fancy food markets like Broadway Bites.
I started selling chinchin as a snack at Dùndú. It did so well and took on a life of its own, so I said, “OK, I’m going to give it its own identity.” We moved into a commercial kitchen in Long Island City, Queens. We sell it online, ship to 50 states in three days and we’re in a couple of specialty food stores.
Roberts: How have you been marketing?
Salami: Mostly word of mouth and through social media.
Roberts: Have you encountered odd preconceived notions about Nigerian food from those not born there who live in the U.S.?
Salami: Yes. Half the time the ways of Africa—the people, the culture—is somehow considered backwards. That really bothers me. I’m proud of the fact that I’m Nigerian; the culture is vibrant, the food is good.
Chinchin or other Nigerian foods might require some product education, which is normal with anything that isn’t mainstream. One does need to take the time to put it together properly in a way that appeals to people.
Everybody here knows what a burrito is now, but not everybody did 20 years ago when I visited the U.S.
Roberts: How did you finance your startups?
Salami: They are both self-financed.
Roberts: Have you been approaching mainstream distributors and stores catering to all nationalities and ethnicities?
Salami: Yes, it’s across ethnic lines. A good percentage of the clientele of both my startups are Americans — more than half.
Roberts: Do Nigerians here in the U.S. think it’s strange that your chinchin is baked rather than deep fried?
Salami: At first they are like, “Baked?” Nigerians are very expressive! But then they try it and say, “Oh, this is good!” Some say, “Who told you to bake it?” I say, “I told myself to bake it!”
Roberts: What are some of the Snackin’ African obstacles?
Salami: Finding the right distributor — it’s a work in progress.
Roberts: What are your upcoming plans?
Salami: We are going to start selling chinchin at a few farmers markets and open my first Dùndú Kitchen location next year. It’s going to be small space, because of Manhattan’s real estate prices.