Out of his passionate love for food, Prince Donatus Okonkwo necessarily married a woman who knew how to carefully construct a pathway to his heart with a good and nutritious meal. However, it was a rewarding obsession that birthed one of the thriving indigenous quick-service restaurants, writes Nseobong Okon-Ekong
Prince Donatus Okonkwo cuts the image of one who does not beat about the bush. And he does not. Take for instance, his decision to go to a higher institution which was taken after he had left secondary school and became fully introduced to business. His older brothers were already doing well in commerce. He admired their outlook to and progression in life.
Therefore, he decided that it would not be particularly wrong to stand on the shoulders of these giants. It was just as well that in his teenage, he started to grapple with the rudiments of buying and selling. This was in Aba, the famed heartland of trade in eastern Nigeria. Having acquired the necessary experience, it was time to advance his formal studies abroad. Without giving it a second thought, he pitched his tent with a business school in the United Kingdom to study Business Technology.
Okonkwo has so much sentimental attachment to Aba, the land where he cut his teeth in business.
However, there is a romantic side to his love for Aba. It was where he entered early adulthood and met his wife, Ngozi – who he fondly calls Nwanyioma, Igbo word for ‘the good or beautiful woman’ – who is also a graduate of business studies from the Abia State University. Their interest in business was not the only thing they had in common. Both of them had a healthy love for food. Theirs was a love story contracted, sustained and preserved with familiarity for food. Nwanyioma may have other qualities he admired in his ideal woman, but her ability to produce appetizing meals was a towered above everything erlse.
Even in the early days of their courtship, it was a strong grip from which Okonkwo could not (and did not want to) release himself. Apart from satisfying him with nourishing meals, he was quick witted enough to appreciate the potential of a future business exploitation of her culinary skills.
Okonkwo himself also had a good background in cookery. Back in the day in the UK, to augment the financial support from home, Okonkwo took up a job at McDonalds, a global quick-service restaurant. The experience he acquired would later prove very invaluable when he decided to venture into food business.
The Ojoto, Anambra State born businessman disclosed that the investment began as a humorous way of advertising his wife’s cooking to the world. If cooking were a game of football requiring 11 players, Okonkwo believes his wife would be in a world class cooking team. Although he cooks himself, having learnt from his mother and from serving his older brothers, his catering artistry was given further verve at McDonalds. However, he readily concedes the crown for the best and most innovative cuisine to his wife. Okonkwo who is a promoter of beauty pageants and entertainment fares, loves and is surrounded by beautiful women. But what would have been a bait to lead him astray has long been settled by his wife who knows that the way to his heart is to serve him a creatively designed meal.
He loves eating “everything as long as it is appetizing and nourishing; whether Nigerian or continental. Once, I settle down to my wife’s cooking, I forget the world. That is when I think deep and draw a lot of inspiration. I love cooking. I’m inspired by my wife’s cooking. She is one of the greatest cooks in the world. She will be in the top 11 best cooks in the world. Her cooking is extraordinary.”
He related how Tetrazzini started. “Amazingly, I don’t know what language it is. But people say it is Italian. I got it from the dictionary. It means the best recipe. When we started the food business, I was searching for a name. I saw it in the dictionary, ‘Tetrazzini chicken’. It means the best chicken recipe; so when we started the restaurant, I named it Tetrazzini. When I was in school in the UK, I worked with McDonalds, a quick-service restaurant. When I came back to Nigeria, I found out that my wife was the best cook. I felt we should showcase to the world what she was doing well in private. Nothing was stopping us from going commercial with it.”
Tetrazzini was established in the fourth year of their marriage. While Okonkwo and his wife have lived together as one in the past 22 years, the business is 18 years. In the beginning, Mrs. Okonkwo developed the recipe and personally worked in the kitchen and behind the counter along with her husband to groom the first set of 17 staff with which they started the company. From their flagship outlet at Ajao Estate off Airport Road in Lagos, the business has since grown to employ 1160 staff in 23 outlets. However, that recipe by Okonkwo, which is still being used across board in all Tetrazzini outlets, remains the winning formula that keeps customers coming back, all these years. Tetrazzini Foods has since given birth to other businesses. From the food company opened in 1999, it has become a group of companies. Today, there is Tetrazzini Total Services, Tetrazzini Properties that develops properties for lease or sale; Tetrazzini Agro is involved in a lot of backward integration. There is a plan to develop its unique agricultural system. “We have a couple of other subsidiary company that I am a board member.”
If she was human, at 18 years, Tetrazzini would be an enticing and promising young lady today. Good to note that Okonkwo is not disappointed in his investment. “I have been a creative entrepreneur. I have been involved in wealth creation and building my businesses. I have been in the private sector. I have pioneered a company called Tetrazzini to be listed on Nigeria Stock Exchange. Tetrazzini Food Company which I am the chairman of the board is being listed on the stock exchange as a secondary platform. In no time, as the economy stabilises, it will be listed in the primary platform and it will be traded as a stock and blue chip company. Tetrazzini Food Plc has become one of Nigeria’s Fortune 500 companies. I grew the company from one outlet. I have been in the private sector for the past 21 years, creating opportunities, wealth, businesses and employment for the citizenry.”
Okonkwo whose business acumen has been celebrated with several recognition and awards has created a couple of platforms to give back to society. He is passionate about education and raising leaders in business. There are several mentees who look up to him. “That’s what I do most. I believe that success without succession is entirely a failure. I have built a lot of entrepreneurial network to mentor people. Regrettably, it’s very difficult but I never give up. It’s extremely difficult to mentor the young people today because their psyche is very disturbing. They are all looking for shortcuts. So mentoring them step-by-step, line-by-line is very difficult. But I can’t give up. We have the AES, Academy for Entrepreneurial Studies, where I’m an executive member. They have a monthly, quarterly and yearly programme which I teach and sometimes I have the opportunity to teach at the Lagos Business School. I’m one of the Nigerians who didn’t have the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the university.
I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be an entrepreneur; so I did not waste time studying anything else. I went straight to a business school in the UK and studied Business Technology.”
To celebrate his 22nd marriage anniversary and the coming of age of his business, Okonkwo has decided to do something different. He is planning a huge youth summit in Awka, Anambra State. The meeting would be a conclave for as many young people who have enjoyed his scholarship, either at Ojoto Boys High School where he built several classroom blocks, renovated and equipped the science laboratory or those who were baked in his entrepreneurial oven.
He has a surprise for them. They will have the rare opportunity of learning the Seven Life Lessons from the undefeated boxing champion of the world, Floyd Mayweather! “It is going to cost us a lot of money, but I believe those who will be there cannot ever be the same again after listening, first hand, to the grass-to-grace story of Mayweather. This is somebody who was not given any chance, but he beat all the odds against him. The lesson is, if Mayweather can, you can as well. He is coming to Nigeria between June 12 and June 14. The Igwe of Ogbunike, one the ancient kingdoms in Igboland, will confer him with a chieftaincy title. We are also taking him to Lagos and Abuja; after which he will continue his tour of West Africa to Ghana.”
With his fame and excellent reputation, Okonkwo believes Mayweather who is flying out of his Las Vegas base in the United States of America will immediately bring the attention of his over 15 million followers on Anambra State. Although, he was taciturn about other plans to which the Mayweather visit may be converted, it is generally being touted that Okonkwo who has his eyes on the governorship ticket of the All Progressives Congress, APC, Anambra State could be showing off the extent of his connection to persons with global influence. One of the emerging enterprises from the Tetrazzini group is Zzini Media. With this platform, Okonkwo intends to aggregate all his entertainment, leisure and media related pursuits. Already plans are afloat to bring to Nigeria a world class female American musician in the last quarter of the year. Okonkwo loves, listens and dances to all kinds of music. He is also looking forward to the day he can muster enough rewarding partnership to stage a Floyd Mayweather fight in Nigeria. He also loves watching basketball; plays table and lawn tennis actively to relax. His love for sports is highlighted by the fact that he has attended many Olympic Games and World Cup events. One of the leaders of his community, Okonkwo, is however, well known and appreciated beyond his immediate community of Ojoto or Idemili. “
I’m the greatest community developer. I’m talking about my immediate community, that is, Ojoto and Idemili. I take a very strong concern in developing and supporting education. In the state, I have many students who are on my bursary sponsorship that I’m giving a lot of financial aid all over the place. I have developed a school in my community to become one of the best secondary schools in Anambra State. It is called Ojoto Boys Secondary School. We built it back. People are now trooping into the school. When I met the school, there were about 30 students. It used to be our pride, but it went down to zero. We rebuilt the whole school. I missed attending the school by one year or so. I would have attended that secondary school. The school was not opened the year I was entering secondary school. They didn’t commission it then. So, I felt that school that used to be our pride should be returned back to its glorious years. It is now the pride of Anambra State.”
Apart from that school, Okonkwo has contributed his quota to the development of his community in several other ways. “We have committed unprecedented financial support to the community. But I’m focused. I know my people love business, entrepreneurship and trade. I believe a good entrepreneur is one that has a sound foundation because if you cannot calculate your money, how do you succeed? A good educational foundation is the best you can give to any entrepreneur. That is why I built the secondary school, so that even if you can’t make it to the university, you can read and write and be able to conduct your business”.