Don’t you just love a great success story? And none is more delicious than one focused on food.
So, meet James “Bim” Adedeji. Remember the name. At least the “Bim” part. Because sure as you want barbecue sauce on your ribs, you’re going hear more of it. Maybe even in direct reference to Bim’s Kitchen African-inspired Smoky Baobab BBQ Sauce.
Before this gets too obtuse, let me start at the beginning of what is a truly African-inspired, London-based business story, spiced with flavor, passion, the right product, ingenuity, and more than a dash of self-generated good luck. A mix worthy of Olympic gold. James Abimbola Adedeji (his second name is where “Bim” comes from) was born in the U.K. At age 10, his parents took him to Nigeria, their home country prior to their move to England. The young Adedeji finished high school in Nigeria, graduated from the university with a degree in philosophy and — before returning to live in London at age 21 — spent a good deal of time in the kitchen learning the subtleties of Nigerian flavors, spices and traditional dishes.
“Kids were expected to help with chores, including cooking and cleaning,” he says. “I loved being in the kitchen and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became. I graduated to more complicated dishes and found the older people opened up to my interest and shared their secrets and special ingredients.”
Back in England he did a variety of management-type jobs, ending up in health services, working for ministers, heading up teams and setting up services.
Meanwhile, at home, he would cook. “I loved it. I would cook for friends and colleagues. There are many excellent markets here in London for African spices. Generally, I was experimenting. I took things people liked, like barbecue sauce and played around with the flavors trying out different African ingredients. And not just the Nigerian ones, many of which were more difficult to get and expensive.”
“But I found it a lot of fun, seeing for myself and showing people how versatile African spices and ingredients are. I knew people found what I was doing really interesting but looking back, I didn’t pay much attention to the praise.”
Adedeji and his British wife of 14 years, Nicola (they have a son, Femi, who is 13 and a daughter, Sade, who is 10), often talked about starting a business. It would definitely be a food business. “We toyed with the idea of a restaurant but nothing grabbed us.” In preparation for something, one day, Adedeji bought the URL www.bimskithchen.com 10 years ago, not knowing at the time what he’d use it for. Click on the link now to see what was in store.
The Penny Drops
“It was only when a friend from work, who was going home to Hong Kong to see his parents, asked me to make him some sauces to take them as a gift — and said he would pay me for them — that the penny dropped.”
“We realized that this could be the business we were looking for. It had been staring us in the face all along.”
Adedeji started playing around in the kitchen with more focus. He sought out and found spice importers he could buy directly from and some of the lesser-known ingredients he was after.
As he began thinking in terms of specific items and developing a range, other people started inquiring and buying. “We realized there really could be something in this. We got a stand and started selling at a very small market near our house on Sundays. People liked what we were doing.”
“There was quite a range of authentic products for specific ethnic groups available — for example, you get a lot of South Africa spices and traditional food items in London — but there wasn’t anyone going back to the basics with the ingredients and using them to create new products as we do.”
They saw scope for a line of easy-to-use products; products that would introduce people to African spices and ingredients they’d never heard of or didn’t know what to do with; products that would get them more interested in African cuisine and show them how versatile it — and the ingredients — could be. They saw they could do all that and at the same time, “enjoy what we enjoyed doing anyway. We both love cooking and food and experimenting. It checked all the boxes.”
Adedeji continued working in his full-time health services job, at the same time growing Bim’s Kitchen, until they formally launched the business about 18 months ago.
The Bim’s Kitchen line is unique. They got inventive by looking at what was already popular, experimenting and reinventing. “It’s about everyday cooking with African flavors added,” says Adedeji.
So, for example, they make a ketchup “with a very different taste.”
And take their baobab barbecue sauce, “We use the baobab fruit powder from the tree. We also do a nice chili jam and a hot sauce using baobab. If you break open the baobab fruit, you have this creamy powder that’s been approved as a food ingredient in the U.K. and the U.S. It has more Vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk.”
“There were ingredients like this that had started coming onto the market, but nobody had used then the way we do.”
He makes a curry sauce with black-eyed beans and roasted peanuts. “In West Africa, we have lots of local bean dishes and we have lots of peanuts. Curry here in the U.K. is very popular. So we thought if we were to make a curry with popular African ingredients, what would we use? Beans and roasted nuts work very well. We also make a chickpea and melon seed curry. We add other spices, coconut milk and alligator pepper which is very popular in West Africa. All our curry spices come from African chilies. This means they taste very different.” It’s about easy, everyday cooking. You buy a Bim’s curry of your choice. You use it with meat, fish or vegetables.
Even Prince Charles!
“Not long after we started, we submitted a couple of items to the Guild of Fine Food, a professional body for independent food producers. They do blind tastings and you get awarded stars for excellence. Two of our products — our smoking red hot sauce with birds-eye chili and our hot and tangy BBQ sauce — won stars.
The business has been going just over 18 months. Already they are in about 50 stores in the U.K., including the famed Fortnum and Mason. They’re in Ireland. “Our first international market, although not too far away,” Adedeji chuckles.
Thanks to New Zealand–born London–based chef Peter Gordon, they’re also in the Middle East. “Peter is the so-called godfather of fusion cooking. He reflects on how I approach my cooking. He doesn’t care where the ingredients come from, so long as they work well together.”
Adedeji wrote to Peter Gordon soon after they launched, explained what he was doing and asked if he’d like to try some Bim’s Kitchen products. “He did and he has become a kind of informal ambassador for us. He told someone about our products while he was on a trip to the United Arab Emirates.” Now you’ll find a Bim’s Kitchen line in the Australian-owned Jones the Grocer chain in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other Middle Eastern cities.
The Adedeji family has even met Prince Charles through their products. “We were invited by The Prince’s Foundation to be at the Ideal Home show here in London. They were looking to showcase innovative products and producers and asked if we were interested in having a stand. Obviously we were. Prince Charles came over to chat with Nicola, Femi, Sade and myself and took some of our products away to try.”
Not bad for a company that at this point is “quite literally, me and my wife — so still very small.”
Be sure to grab a few recipes and tips from Bim’s Kitchen for you next African-inspired meal.