I've always been very curious about the woman behind the very successful JEVENIK restaurants. Stumbling on this piece on Thisday turned out to be very enlightening.
From a humble beginning in Calabar, now capital of Cross River State, Mrs. Jovita Inyang started baking and cooking foods from her kitchen. At a point, she hawked on the streets and later operated a shop at the University of Calabar campus. Jevinik Restaurant has since grown into nine branches across the country. This mother of three said but for God’s favour, she couldn’t have come this far. That’s the reason she’s thanking God tomorrow at First Love Assembly Church, Abuja.
Media shy, Mrs. Inyang, however sat at the lounge of her restaurant on Agoro Odiyan Street in Victoria Island to tell THISDAY the story of her life. Indeed, it was the need to give her children good education led this woman into the business of cooking good food.
“Indeed I started way back in 1988 from my house in Calabar. I had only N125. Out of this amount, my actual money was N50, while the remaining N75 was items I bought on credit at the market from one of the traders who had faith in my ability to pay back the money.
“I started out with baking cakes, meat pie and other pastries because it was handy to move about and I sold it myself. Things were not going well back then and the children were growing. They needed to go to school and there were many things that needed to be done. So, somebody had to step up and do something about it. I can say that I actually started the business just to take care of our basic needs.
“At the time I started, I asked my house help to assist me hawk the pastries, but after three days and no sales, she returned the third day and dumped all the items and told me she was not ready to sell. Interestingly, I met one of my church members who after testing the cake on a visit to my house decided to take it to the hospital where she worked as a nurse.
“In fact, the second day she came back and told me how the staff and patient at St. Margaret’s Hospital, Calabar wanted more and that was how we took it from there. But at a stage, the hospital management wanted to relief her of her job due to the brisk sales she was making. They asked her to choose between selling pastries and her job. She chose the latter. One of my greatest regrets today is that she did not live long to see what has become of that my little effort.
“Again, the man who gave me the items on credit to make the pastries and pay later also could not be located again after government demolished the market in Calabar. All the efforts to locate him till date proved abortive. I wish he could just turn up today and see how his assistance also turned out,” Mrs. Inyang recalled.
And when her nurse friend stopped selling at the hospital, “God opened another avenue for us. One of my kinsmen who was a student of University of Calabar visited with his classmates. I was actually baking in the kitchen when I asked him to come and serve himself because I was too busy without any house help. He served his friends and after tasting the food, he felt I should come and open a place in the campus to serve the students.
“The students actually wanted to discourage me at the initial stage. I was given a swampy area to frustrate me, but as it turned out, I designed the place with bamboos and it became the number one spot in the school. I named it Pyramid. When I left the school, I moved to No. 125 Goldie Street in Calabar. That was where I really started the brand Jevinik.”
But when it was time again for her to move, “I left Calabar for Port Harcourt. The move to Port Harcourt was exigent. I had orders to serve some companies in Port Harcourt and it kept me on the road all the time. That’s how the Port Harcourt branch started. Ironically, while I actually started from Calabar, I don’t have a branch there again.”
Even if this Imo State-born grandmother is happy where she is now, when she looks back at where she is coming from, she is not through yet. “I feel satisfied, but above all I feel blessed by the Almighty God. I am actually grateful for all He has done for me. This is really the handiwork of God. It is a story of despising not the days of little beginnings.”
Her Victoria Island outfit painted in her trademark colours of orange is a beehive of activities from the staff and customers who had come to eat good food. “I have well over 350 staff. In fact I have a good relationship with all of them. We are like one big family. I know all by their names. And just like in any family, there are good children and naughty ones too. The naughty ones are still good but sometimes they want to bring problems to the family. Then, they would be whipped into shape or molded to be more responsible.”
When one eats at any of the branches of Jevinik whether in Abuja, Lagos or Port Harcourt, it’s the same menu, the same taste. One wonders how she ensures the cooks stick to the very high standard and those dishing the food gets the right quantity at all times. “I personally train all my cooks. I do regular checks and follow-ups. I am like one woman in many places at the same time.
“In each branch that I visit (she left Abuja for Lagos a day before this interview), I start the day with the workers at about 4.00 am. We do all the preparations and cooking together. I ensure that what comes out at the end is what will meet the standard expected by the public in this case my customers. There are periodic assessments of every cook and even the waiters. They are even rewarded. But we do not compromise with quality of our food items and we are very particular about the hygiene. We thank God that for over two decades, we have not recorded any incident of food poisoning. Our operational environments speak for it self.”
Not so many women would like to go into full time restaurant business due to the fact that the trade is very tedious and demanding. Considering the fact that she is a fashionista, one had expected her to go into the fashion or beauty business. Her response is spontaneous: “Cooking is my passion, even when I was growing up, I cooked for my family of nine. Even for relatives that always come to visit all the time. So, back then in 1988 when I wanted to start business, I had to consider my strong points and capitalised on it. I did not want to go into an area or field I was not familiar with.
“Given the amount of money I started with, I can only attribute my success to God. People might attribute their own to hard work, determination, discipline and so on, but I often ask myself, am I the only one working hard? Am I the only disciplined and determined person? There are many people like that, yet they are still struggling with their lives. God is the only one that should have multiplied my initial capital to what it is today. He is the only one that has crowned my efforts.”
Her second branch in Lagos on Isaac John Street Ikeja is doing well. It is the number eight branch - two in Abuja, and Port Harcourt, one in Owerri and Aba. The Jevinik Group is not indebted to any financial institution. “Some people are strong enough to borrow. I don’t have the strength. I want to go to bed after the hard day’s job and sleep without looking at the ceiling to count the boards. On several occasions, I have been approached by banks for facilities but I have always rejected it,” she said proudly.
With eight grandchildren, Madam Jevinik as is popularly called, dislikes talking about her plans for the future. However, she wants to increase the Jevinik network within Nigeria and move abroad. Many of her customers have been urging her to come over to South Africa, United States and UK. “But I am taking my time. I need to get certain things right first before embarking on such a venture. I want to first of all cover other parts of Nigeria where we don’t have branches and then move outside the shores of this country.”