Reclaiming chicken wings as a menu item that expands beyond an appetizer, two childhood friends are doing more than serving delicious food, further reclaiming culture and amplifying the community of South London.
Elementary school friends duo Daniel Opoku-Baah and Khamisi McKenzie are passionate about staying true to their humble upbringings and serving up dishes that make people feel good inside at their restaurant Drums and Flats.
Jamaican and Ghanaian Upbringings
Both Opoku-Baah and McKenzie share commonalities of growing up with parents who immigrated to London. McKenzie’s parents arrived in South London from Jamaica in the 1960s, while Opoku-Baah’s mom came to South London by way of Ghana in the 1970s. Being raised first generation, their cultural values played a huge role in molding them into determined entrepreneurs. “My Jamaican background is a massive thing, probably one of the key defining things for me as an individual from the food, music, the way we dress and act,” says McKenzie.
“When my parents came to South London, it was not a friendly place to be, and it definitely was not easy for young Black people. With that understanding instilled in them, they always had increased awareness about their surroundings,” shares McKenzie.
“Growing up in a small flat, we saw how our families had to hustle, make things happen and provide for the family,” reflects Opoku-Baah. Both sets of parents share similarities that heavily emphasize the importance of being aware of their Blackness and the unintended consequences of that identity when raising Opoku-Baah and McKenzie.
“Recently, I was thinking about how for a lot of people there are new norms with social distancing and keeping space from people, for me that has always been the norm. I remember being really young and being on the subway and my mom mentioning not to stand too close to people because I am a young Black boy and don’t want to get accused of anything,” reflects McKenzie. Although both Opoku-Baah and McKenzie’s mothers exercised increased caution in their children’s youth, they still instilled values of perseverance and self-determination into the two future entrepreneurs.
Navigating Adolescence in South London
Raised in estates, otherwise known in America as public housing projects, near each other, the two future restaurant owners ended up at the same school as children. “I grew up in an estate, there was a lot of poverty and crime, but at the same time, there is a sense of community. You may go through a phase where you are susceptible to getting into bad things happening around you, but our parents trained us to navigate our way through,” reflects Opoku-Baah.
Despite distractions growing up in this environment, the idea of supportive communities always holds true. When the community sees passionate young people, they do whatever they can to support those dreams. “Where we grew up in South London, we kept each other from going off on a dangerous road,” shares McKenzie. Seeing the detrimental impacts of South London’s postcode wars pushed many in Opoku-Baah and McKenzie’s generation to desire a different future.
The two quickly became inseparable as children, so much that their middle school teachers made it a priority to intentionally split them up so that they could not be in the same classes. “It is unfortunate because the school did not understand what we could have achieved if they encouraged us instead of trying to separate us,” says Opoku-Baah. Despite this “heartbreaking,” as McKenzie jokingly describes, separation, the duo remained close even as they ventured off to higher education.
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Opoku-Baah attended the University of Sussex and obtained a degree in neuroscience. McKenzie attended Solent University and received a degree in sports journalism and further for his master’s degree in public relations and multimedia communications.
Becoming Culinary Entrepreneurs: Challenges and Wins
Despite not going down an educational path that involved culinary arts, food always remained central to Opoku-Baah and McKenzie’s culture and aspirations. The culinary duo, one day while brainstorming business ideas with a group of friends, knew they wanted to do a business venture that involved food and other cultural aspects such as music that make up the beautiful phenomenon of Black vibes. “Daniel and I started trying wing recipes at home, and then we got to a point where we knew we couldn’t just keep cooking in the house,” says McKenzie.
With over 20 years of friendship, working together did not come with challenges. “If there is something that we disagree about, we just talk about it. I can trust Khamisi with things that are life or death situations. If I can trust him with my life, I can trust him with this business,” shares Opoku-Baah. McKenzie jokingly confesses, “If serious issues do come up, I will just tell on Daniel to his mom.”
The entrepreneurs are in sync, connect well with each other and share the workload. “Daniel is a pragmatic person. If there is a job that needs to be done, he will do it even if it is the worst job. It is the same in reverse for me as well,” says McKenzie. Being pragmatic in the culinary industry is imperative because, as much as there is glamour, the field requires grit.
Opoku-Baah and McKenzie first debuted their wings at a local bar as a pop-up vendor. The co-founders did not have imposter syndrome when pitching the bar owner, which landed them the opportunity to sell their flavorful chicken. “The first pop we did, we had no idea where to buy produce, how to run service or take orders,” says McKenzie. There were many lessons that the business partners had to learn once they decided they wanted to open up a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“We don’t come from a background where there is cash lying around. However, our parents taught us how to be economical and how to make things stretch. Money was a big issue. However, we have always believed that if money is the only obstacle stopping you from doing something, you can figure it out,” shares Opoku-Baah.
McKenzie adds, “When we opened our first location, that experience was one of the toughest times.”
Remaining True to Themselves
When Opoku-Baah and McKenzie opened their first Drums and Flats location, they were excited because they secured a partnership with a property in South London that promised in exchange for their tenancy that they would give back to the community. Unfortunately, the restaurateurs learned that this was not the case. Rather than keeping their restaurant in this location, they decided that they did not want to be a part of the new development property. Gentrification is a huge issue facing many low-income communities. Many developers take advantage of the inexpensive properties and completely rebuild the communities without considering the people currently living there and their needs.
“This put a downer on the whole experience of opening up our first restaurant. Gentrification has been a huge issue in our community for the past ten years, and we were not going to be a part of an organization that was causing that problem, so we had to leave,” says Opoku-Baah.
Opoku-Baah and McKenzie’s integrity is a priority. Even if this meant incurring the costs of finding a new location, they knew it was necessary to preserve their authenticity and moral values.
In 2018, the co-founders opened their restaurant for a second time at BOXPARK Wembley, a hip food hall. Being young entrepreneurs, getting the opportunity to serve their food in an environment that many young people frequent food and drinks was all they could have dreamed of.
“I remember standing there looking at my shop and thinking to myself, wow, I really have a place in BOXPARK. That was the first moment where I felt like I achieved something in the right direction,” shares McKenzie.
When visiting Drums and Flats, patrons can anticipate trying various intriguing flavors of chicken wings, such as the South London Fire wings, which are developed for people who crave spiciness. “We did a year of product development trying to refine the recipes. Some are family recipes, some are recipes based on foods we grew up eating,” shares Opoku-Baah.
With Drums and Flats serving something as simple as chicken, there is a long-standing bittersweet history with the food for the Black community. Some Black people face embarrassment eating fried chicken in public due to all of the stereotypes associated with the dish. However, despite the racist stereotypes, there is also a very empowered untold history of the fried chicken being cooked and sold by entrepreneurial Black women in the 1800s in Gordonsville, Virginia, to gain financial freedom.
“A negative stereotype should not be a reason not to pursue something,” says Opoku-Baah.
“Even in London, there is this big stereotypical thing of young Black kids going to the chicken and chip shop. We spent plenty of time there when we were growing up. Our food is a reflection of our story,” says McKenzie.
In an industry where conformity to white culture is constantly pushed, the two entrepreneurs did not shy away from being unapologetically Black in their branding and marketing, and that was purposeful.
“When people understand that we are doing this because it is truly a reflection of us, nobody can say anything. It also inspires other people to be authentically themselves,” says Opoku-Baah.
McKenzie reflects on DMX, the rapper, and his passing. “At our first location, we had a plaque outside that read, ‘Thank you to our family, friends, customers,’ and at the bottom, it said, ‘Thank you to DMX.’ There were plenty of times when Daniel and I would be listening to DMX’s song ‘Slippin’ and thinking of how we would get through tough challenges. At the end of the day, we are proud of who we are and refuse to assimilate.”
The Future and Advice for Young Entrepreneurs
While the two restaurant owners plan to continue remaining authentic, they also have aspirations for the future of Drums and Flats. The COVID-19 lockdown provided the two entrepreneurs with time to deeply reflect on what they want the next steps for their restaurant to be.
“We want to respect everyone’s way of life, so on our menu, we want to try to offer more options for people such as gluten-free options and other vegan items are in the pipeline,” says Opoku-Baah.
Opoku-Baah, in his spare time, also grows his own food, which he learned from his mom growing up. He currently farms produce on an urban lot and aspires to incorporate more of these locally grown ingredients onto the restaurants’ menus. “I want kids growing up in estates to know that not everything is concrete or bricks. There is nature out there. I want kids to have a relationship with the food they eat and grow themselves. I want to break down the stereotypes associated with growing your own food,” reflects Opoku-Baah.
“We come from an upbringing where the community supports the community,” shares McKenzie. The duo hopes to begin offering mentorship opportunities to young people in South London.
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Opoku-Baah’s advice to young Black entrepreneurs is to “be true to yourself, don’t ever be afraid to be who you are. Who you are is an advantage because there’s one thing about life: no one else can be you. At the end of the day, if you bring that to the table with pride, that will make everything else easier for you. Being Black in Western society may have its disadvantages but never let that stop you from doing you.”