Her nightmare began as a love story. Susan Jatto cowered in her bedroom, afraid to breathe because her former husband would come looking for her sooner or later. Daily, she got gagged, tied and beaten up. For 12 years, she was locked in a vicious marriage. For her, thunder appeared to have struck twice at one point when she went into a second marriage of abuse, financial exploitation and seven miscarriages which smacked of uncertain future. Desperately seeking a wellspring of inner strength, courage and compassion, with a survivor’s grit to end the hurt, fear and humiliation, Jatto fled from her first and second marriages. The elegant Chief Executive Officer of Phoebe’s Confectionery shares with Adedayo Adejobi, how she eventually found love
What is your story about spousal abuse?
My name is Susan Aluede Hatto, born in Lagos. I am an entrepreneur and CEO of Phoebe’s Cakes. I studied Account and Finance at University of Greenwich, and have always had a flair for baking when I was younger. I spent most of my life in the United Kingdom. After living in the UK for 35 years, I felt that something was missing in my life. I lived an average life. I had a husband and three children, I did not feel fulfilled and yet I did nothing about it.
During the years my marriage was going through trauma, I put all the blame on myself. The first man I did not love and I thought love would come later, it never did. I made up my mind to leave the marriage. I did not love him and the marriage was abusive and my life was at stake. It took me 12 years to accept the truth. I thought if I left him, no one would provide for my children. I push those thoughts out of my mind; told myself I wanted to go through life happy with a man I love, not with a man that beats me or threatens to take my life if I left him.
I tried to break off the relationship in London and decided to get training on how to do nails and make something of my life in Lagos. I knew with the little amount of money that I had saved up I could start a business in Lagos. But the father of my children kept disturbing me. He found his way into my flat and collected all the materials I had got to start the nail course. He called to rain insults on me that I would amount to nothing in life. I cried profusely that day.
Then a terrible thought came to my mind to commit suicide so that I would be free from him. He didn’t want to let go of me, but if died, it would be over. I quickly thought about how I could end my life quickly. I ran to the balcony in front of my flat in London and I jumped. I landed on the pavement, nothing was wrong with me. So, upset I quickly run up the stairs and went to the back balcony, this time the drop was much longer, there is no way I would survive this fall, I thought to myself. I jumped again, fell and hit my head. I went blank.
When I woke up, I was in hospital with my family surrounding me. I was so upset with myself. I cried so much that day. Later in the evening a young lady came to meet me and made me to understand that life is worth living and that I should not give up. I told her all that happened to me and how I wanted to start a business in Nigeria and do something with my life. She told me not to worry; she would have a word with him to give me back everything he took from me, which he later did. I left the hospital and got counseling, dreamt of opening a nail studio and opened one in 2002 called Unique Nails.
So, how did you pick up the bits and pieces of your life in Nigeria?
It wasn’t easy when I came to Nigeria as I stayed in my mother’s rented house for three months. The landlord frustrated me so I left and got my own flat. Nigeria too had its ups and down but I was able to afford a shop and pay workers. Even though for 6 months after opening, the shop not one customer came. I almost lost heart.
I never gave up. I paid workers salaries for a one year which I had put away in an account. I prayed that things would get better. When things did not get better, I decided to travel for six months and work to be able to pay salary and my rent. I did not know the ways of Lagos as all sorts of people would come to me to help. I was desperate to get customers to come to the shop. I would pay up once anyone came to me with ideas on how to get customers to come to the shop. I did not know that most of them were scammers. As the years went by, my eyes were opened and I then depended on the good services my workers were giving the customers, to bring in new customers to the business. With time I added the hair section and then the beauty section due to customers demands.
While in Nigeria I met my second husband. I loved him so much that I decided he should fellow me to the United Kingdom where he got his stay through me. Unknown to me, for seven years he never loved me. I was used and dumped. In those seven years of marriage, I had six miscarriages, got beaten up and was diabolical. I was so naive and just went along with him because I loved him. But the time I knew that what he was doing was wrong, he had gotten his British passport, packed his things and left the house. I was traumatised.
After he left, I got myself together and started looking for something to keep me busy so that I would not have time to think about him. During the seven years of marriage, my business suffered because he never allowed me to come to Lagos to face my business. I would only come maybe twice a year; he never liked me being in Lagos. I started my cake business and made up my mind that I would never marry again. After all, I had children. I would just have a boyfriend and be enjoying my life.
Little did I know that God had other plans for me in my life. He sent my real husband to me. My husband brought me to God and opened my eyes to what marriage should be all about. The first 2 marriages I never invited God to them. I did not even know God; although I was going to church but the word of God never sank into my heart one day. I am now married to my best friend, a God fearing husband who is fun-loving and filled with love for me.
How did you meet your hubby?
I met my hubby through an introduction to him by a friend of mine. We got talking and the rest is history. We first saw each other on Skype and when he set his eyes on me, he said to me you are my wife to be. I want to marry you. I do not want to do boyfriend and girlfriend. When he said those words to me I just accepted it in my heart and it was so.
You studied a totally different course, and ended up as a confectioner. What’s the story behind it?
I studied Account and Finance at University of Greenwich. However, my desire was to bake. I remember my mum telling me I did not send you to London to go and cook. I dropped out at my second year in university to have my son. I then decided that university was not for me and I came to Lagos to start my own business 10 years ago.
How did you cope with your challenges?
Coping with the unreliable staff is a big challenge. Difficulty in getting bakers who can think along my way of doing things in Lagos was not easy at all. Doing business in Nigeria with unstable and skyrocketing price of commodities coupled with epileptic power supply, one can only survive by God’s grace.
At what point did you decide to follow your passion?
I decided to follow my passion after my children started school in Nigeria. My daughter kept telling me to bring cakes for them. On remembering that I had baked all sorts for them when they were younger. When they finished school and went back, I started baking for my customers in my salon. One Sunday, a friend called me up and gave me words of encouragement, as I was waiting to have sufficient funds to get a big shop, before I started. She showed me otherwise and she gave me the needed push and I blessed the Lord for using her in my life.
Share the high and lows of operating your upscale confectionery?
The high point is when customers call to thank me for the wonderful cakes I baked and how I always deliver on time. When they also send me pictures of the celebrants cutting their cake brings joy to my heart knowing that I have brought joy into someone’s heart.
How do you balance work and faamily?
The low point is the ever increasing price of commodities; thus seeing customers pricing lower than before, because they do not want to spend money. We end up meeting at a middle ground, thus giving them what they want without compromising on quality. I now see why some bakers reduce on quality when customers price so low. I am so blessed. My children are in United Kingdom studying and are taking care of themselves. So it’ is just me and my hubby at home. We always travel often to United Kingdom to see them.
What is your least favourite taste/flavor? Why?
My favourite taste is cream cheese and the flavour is buttermilk. I have always loved cream cheese from when I was in boarding school. They fed us almost every day with it.
Who would you most like to share a kitchen with?
I would love to share my kitchen with Jesus Christ, my hubby and cake boss.
What kitchen task do you find to be the most soothing?
The task that I find soothing for me is washing up and cleaning my kitchen.
What kitchen task do you do anything to avoid?
The kitchen task that I avoid doing is washing the butter cream bags after piping with butter cream. It is such a mess to wash. I always have to boil hot water to get the bag and nozzles really clean. Also having to tidy up after decorating a cake.
Where did you discover a taste or flavour combination that completely surprised you?
It was when I started baking. I would just love to experiment. I have different types of cakes that I do. I have so much inside me waiting to be pushed out by customers. Most of the time customers only order for sponge cakes, chocolate cakes and red velvet cake. I just created a red velvet cake for my sister called Nancy with coconut. It was yummy.
What has been your best professional experience to date?
My best professional experience was years ago when I had to make 10,000 dough nuts for encomium white gig in a short notice. How I did it I still do not know. I was pushed. And I thank God I came through it.
What was your biggest professional disaster
My biggest professional disaster was when I had to deliver a cake to a customer in Lekki. That day my driver had a cold so I told him to turn off the AC forgetting that the cake was freshly made and the weather was hot. It took us two hours that day to get there. I normally open the cake to check it before giving it to customers. When I opened the box the butter cream had fallen off at one side of the cake. I was livid. I told the driver that he had to go and deliver it; that there no way was I going to face the customer. So few seconds as he was going with the cake I quickly followed him and met the customer. I kissed her, wished her happy birthday and said short prayers for her. I then showed her the cake and begged her. I was so relieved.
What’s your kitchen philosophy?
It is that every cake must be fresh and prepared to the highest standards. We never do cakes down to keep in the fridge. It must taste and look sumptuous.
What’s your ‘secret weapon’ in the kitchen?
If I tell you, you will not believe me. It is the word of God, my hands and my flavours.
What’s your dessert of choice? Or your favorite meal of choice?
My dessert of choice is cheese cake. My favourite meal is any meal that has sea food in it.
Who’s been the biggest influence on your career?
The person that has been my biggest influence in my career is my daughter, Phoebe, Susan Ego-Honesty and my customer who I know as Mummy Aisha. She pushed me to make a birthday for her daughter even when she new my cake decorating skills at that time were not near perfection. She took the cake off me and called me and told me how wonderful the cake was. She never said a word about the decoration.
Do you have a favorite cookbook? If so, what won you over?
My favourite cake book is Mary Berry. Her ingredients are always simple to follow and each time I use them, my cakes come out lovely.