Today, with over twenty branches and 2,000 employees, Sweet Sensation is one of the most successful brands in Nigeria’s business community. But the story behind the brand is an interesting one.
Kehinde Kamson got into the food business accidentally. Before she started her first business, she first had an internship and professional training with Price WaterHouseCoopers before she went to work in an oil service company as an accountant. It was her first job outside the occasional holiday jobs she had at either one accounting firm or the other and her National Youth Service. She was young, married and had given birth to three children in three years.
Her job was full time and quite often she needed to go to work on Saturdays and prepare lots of reports on Sundays ahead of Mondays. It was a frustrating situation that didn’t make her favorably disposed to the job.
When you add that scenario to the fact that she had been inspired by her mother’s knack for entrepreneurship and industry and she had developed a heart for service, it was only natural for her to try her hands on a small business by the side. Maybe because she was only about 23 years old and had a steady job, making profit was the last thing on her mind. She soon started her first business called FISHMONGERS in a tiny shop at Akoka, Lagos. She operated that shop (not Fishmongers) side by side with her regular job for five years. Fishmongers died a natural death when she could not sustain the business. Maybe the business model was bad or the location was poor for that particular type of business or it didn’t have her undivided attention. She decided to explore an alternative business and her choice was the baking and selling of pastries and cakes perhaps because earlier in her life she had developed a love for baking and cooking so the idea was one that appealed to her.
So she closed down Fishmongers and started a business focused on selling pastries and cakes and also catering services. She named that business CITICATE – the City Caterers. That was her real first incursion into the ‘food making’ business. She removed the Fishmonger signboard and replaced it with that of Citicate. Citicate went on to have a number of disastrous early days catering performances.
Those were tough days for her. She would bake cakes every other day when she got back from work and bake meat pies and sausage rolls every morning before she went to work. She would roll pastries at about 3am in the mornings for the meat pies and sausages such that by the time she was ready to go to her office, they would have been ready. As soon as she finished making the pastries, she would start to prepare her children for school - bathe, feed, drop them in school and head to work.
The tough schedule brought out the best in her because she had to learn to eliminate idleness and laziness. She developed the discipline of waking up early and focusing on what she needed to do. She learnt to get up in the night to work and cover up for lost hours.
Eventually, Citicate began to be more demanding and she just couldn’t cope with the burden of keeping her day time job, building Citicate, raising her children who were still very young and generally keeping her home all at the same time. So she quit her job to make her schedule more bearable. She became more focused on the business and was able to produce and sell more. Her first car, a Jetta, was virtually a delivery vehicle. She would stack it with cakes and pastries and make deliveries to various customers and resellers. The cakes eventually became very popular at the University of Lagos campus and her customer base significantly swelled.
Unfortunately at about that time she got a quit notice from owners of her shop and was forced to leave. The good thing was that the principal activity (the baking of the cakes) was not threatened but despite that quit notice coupled with logistic problems that had been developing as a result of high demands and the general pressure of trying to grow a small business while managing a family, got to her.
She became confused about everything and started to doubt the wisdom in quitting her job. She began to feel that there was something wrong with someone who was a qualified accountant who, rather than grow in her profession, was preoccupied with baking cakes and going around the city trying to sell them.
She always felt embarrassed every time friends and family’ saw her in the bakery looking messy from head to toe while trying to cope with the daunting demands of baking and attending to a crying child at the same time. Her aprons used to be so messy that she changed them three times a day and always needed to soak each one for at least 24 hours before she could get the stains on them removed. While washing those aprons, all sorts of negative thoughts would keep crossing her mind and she would constantly be close to breaking down emotionally. She needed a change and she needed it fast. The change she desired was one of going from being confused to becoming certain she was doing the right thing and moving in the right direction.
It was at that point that Kamson, who has a remarkable Christian orientation, started to think about how to get divine guidance and the conviction she needed to either forge on in the direction of the food business or go back to her accounting profession. She went on a fast and prayed passionately to know what to do.
After a few days she had a dream that completely changed the course of her life. It was clear and powerful. In that dream she saw herself in a corporate suit walking along a road in the University of Lagos. She was walking in-between scrappy looking industrial cooking equipment lined up on both sides of the road. The equipment was not arranged properly such that some of them had their lids falling off and others were either resting upside down or on their sides. There were bratt pans and big industrial cookers that appeared to have come from a canteen that the University used to operate.
To people who were staring at her, the equipment looked very indecent but to her they looked very useable because she had always appreciated scraps. But in that dream, despite being comfortable with scraps, she was embarrassed to be seen wearing a suit and walking in between those scrap equipment and utensils. When she had gone back and forth several times, she heard a voice. “Kehinde, why are you ashamed of these things? Why don’t you just pick them up and do what you love doing with them? Pick them up and do what you will do with them and you will do great things with them”
That was it. She knew immediately that she wasn’t to go back and continue in the accounting profession. She got up and told her husband that she was no longer confused about what she wanted to do. She told him that she was not going to return to paid employment but rather, she was going to continue with the food business.
After that dream, she attended to business with new vigor and commitment. The popularity of the cake pieces grew to a point when she was distributing up to 150 trays daily. She conquered MEDILAG and started supplying all the branches of UTC and Leventis. Mr. Biggs, Nigeria’s top QSR chain back then, took her four years to penetrate. Breaking into the chain was a major breakthrough for her business.
After she was forced to give up her shop, she continued her business entirely from the back of her matrimonial home - a rented bungalow.
From that backyard space, she moved to the security/gate house at her father’s place and converted it into what was to become the first Sweet Sensation shop. This first shop was only about thirty square meters in size. In it were solid cakes, ice cream, rice, chicken and some Chinese food. Customers kept trickling in and it kept growing. Soon, her business couldn’t cope with the small space for both production and sales. She was again forced to take her business to the next level by getting a better and bigger space. Sweet Sensation soon got a shop at Victoria Island, Lagos and the growth of the company became almost unstoppable. It has since grown into a business with over 1,500 employees.
How Sweet Sensation Was Funded
According to her, in the early days she didn’t rely on loans to fund her business. However, she took a loan of about N5 million during the fourth year of running the business and subsequently at different stages henceforth to fund the business’ expansion. She ploughed back the business’ profits and lived an austere lifestyle to support the business’ growth.
The Name ‘Sweet Sensation’
Kamson and her children spent a lot of time trying to come up with an appropriate name for the new business. They thought of many names like Sweet Temptation, Sweet Treat, Baker Sweet and names similar to those but her children finally came up with Sweet Sensation which she finally settled for.
After she had chosen the name and started doing business with it, somebody brought to her attention the fact that there was a ‘Sweet Sensation’ somewhere in New York. But there was no going back for her, she had settled for the name.
Like many business owners in Nigeria, Kamson faced many business challenges while growing Sweet Sensation. Key among these was standardizing the business’ processes and recipes. It was also difficult to deal with challenges peculiar to the NIgerian business environment such as poor power supply. She also suffered from pilfering issues among staff. Most crucially, in 2009, she faced regulatory issues when the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) queried the company for falling short of regulatory standards in one of its branches. Though she insists that this was a false allegation, this was a trying period for the business as it impacted public perceptions of the brand.