Eleven years ago, she looked more stunning. Her head was in the clouds. She was at every party in town that boasted of the who’s who. Many musicians and other entertainers were close to her. All of that living on the fast lane changed in a twinkle of an eye, under circumstance which was not clear to many. Aramide Bello who has now assumed a totally different persona as CEO of one of Nigeria’s fast growing quick-service restaurants told Nseobong Okon-Ekong that she moved out of the spotlight to live an exemplary life for her children
The way she talks about food, one may think she is such a glutton.
Far from filling her stomach with as much nourishment as she can find, Aramide Bello is actually a nibbler. She is very fussy and hard to please when it comes to what she eats. However, she loves to cook. Nothing gives her as much pleasure as watching people relish her meals.
Looking through the window of the second floor of her new multi-storey office complex, it is not immediately clear if she is distracted by speeding cars on the busy Oba Akran Street in Ikeja-Lagos or she is buying time to ponder the question. She returns presently with a multi-layer answer that requires more probing. This has been going on since the interview began. She is trying to play around penetrating the parley with a playful disposition. She wants to talk. But she does not want to reveal too much.
She wants to avoid disclosing the years she was on the grind. She switches into a serious mode. It is almost like a flash. Only a keen observer can catch it. There is something about those years that she has dumped into a coffin, nailed and buried. She doesn’t want to remember. That past is dead!
Not quite. Let’s say, she wants to recall it on her terms.
For now, it is safe to say that she was not born with a silver spoon. Getting her to talk about the period when the lines fell in pleasant places for her is not as difficult as encouraging her to confront the years of grinding poverty. Credit to her increasing affluence goes to her mother, a woman she understandably calls her champion. “I watched her grow from nothing. When people see us today, they may think that we have always been wealthy. That is not true. We struggled. I was not born into money. We went through very tough times. I do not want to open a can of worms. It is better to forget or allow a more opportune time to tell that story. My story is a whole lot deeper than I am willing to tell.”
Scratching the surface of her life from a cautious side, she reveals that her mother used to own a restaurant. That is not the interesting part. It is attention grabbing to know that she went on to find her place in the oil and gas business. Aramide was a student of Economics at the University of Lagos by the time her mother inched her way into the upper echelons of business in Nigeria.
The University of Lagos is also where she found her passion for food. The institution helped her establish an ability to mobilise people. This led to her emergence as the Chair of Madam Tinubu Hall before she graduated from the university. By this time, her mother was no longer a restaurateur. Her investment in oil and gas had grown in leaps and bounds.
Aramide moved to the United States of America, where she found the opportunity to give an expression to her passion. “I was working in restaurants all over the US to get myself the experience and expertise. I am a certified Kitchen and Restaurant Manager. I am a certified Nutritionist. I am a certified Food Professional. It is about 20 years ago since I started dreaming of owning a chain of restaurants. Owning an eatery is a small dream.”
She looks around at the surrounding, as if in disbelief. The Aramide of today is calmer and more reserved; a totally different person from when she came back to Nigeria from the US 11 years ago, when she looked more stunning. Her head was in the clouds. She was at every party in town that boasted of the who’s who. Many musicians and other entertainers were close to her (she still keeps an acquaintance of some of them).
All of that living on the fast lane changed in a twinkle of an eye, under circumstance which was not clear to many, as she took the conscious decision to slow down her pace. “I thought of my daughter. There are certain things that are better taught by example. I needed to inculcate certain values in her. If I failed to do this at a particular age bracket, I have lost her for good. Popularity has a price. I am not willing to pay that price because of my daughter. Some people don’t care how the public views them.”
Her quick service restaurant business, Tank and Tummy, started in 2006.
The name sounds like a joke. It is indigenous. It is different. Many laugh at it. While they are yet laughing, they are drawn in by the curious name. But who gives that kind of name to a quick service restaurant? Funny as it sounds, there is no denying the fact that it immediately drives home the message. The explanation is intoned in her husky baritone. “The name came from my mother. She came up with the proposal for a one-stop place for food and petrol – a place where you can fill the tank of your car and your tummy simultaneously. The name just stuck.”
From one carefully nurtured outlet in Amuwo-Odofin area of Lagos, Tank and Tummy has sprung a huge surprise by unveiling an imposing four-storey building in Ikeja. Like a bolt out of the blue, no one saw it coming. The second outlet took 11 years to grow, but its sheer commanding stature has been worth every day of those years. “This land was purchased a long time ago. It has been in our plan that the second location is going to be here. It just took us time to get there. The market is here. The need is here. The demand is here. But there is a big disconnect between me and the people I want to serve. There is this thinking that they cannot afford to come in here. The reason this building is so beautifully done and gigantic is because we want to match cheap price with class. We want people to come in and feel the coziness of the environment.”
Although things have stabilised, the early days were challenging. She had to understand the mentality of the average Nigerian. “Manpower was my biggest challenge because putting people through and then having them conform to instruction is a big deal.”
Her opinion of how things work in Nigeria changed with the unsolicited honour bestowed on her restaurant for a few consecutive years. Tank and Tummy was adjudged the cleanest by the Lagos State Government. “I don’t value awards. I value appreciation. Awards can be bought. I think the award is just a signal to tell me I am doing the right thing, not that I do not know that I am doing the right thing.”
Rather than reading about it, Aramide has been directly involved in all the processes leading to acquiring foodstuff and preparing them for serving. “What do you learn in school? Interestingly, you find that at the end of the day, we can’t really remember all that we were taught in school. Even if you are an accountant, at the end of the day, it is the calculator that is working. I am a hands-on person. I know it all. I teach it all. All my cooks are trained by me. I guarantee that our food has the same taste at the two outlets. I am a good tutor of knowledge. I impact people easily. I can motivate easily.”
If there is one thing that she is so particularly proud of, it is the transformation that she has witnessed in her staff. “My Kitchen Manager used to be a cleaner.”
Her community service engagement has been carried out with the utmost tact and discretion in the last seven years. To date, she is responsible for training five primary school pupils. She opted to start from this crucial level, in order to measure the impact of her intervention. “I want to see them up. All the way up. I cannot give money to charities in Nigeria because I don’t believe the money is going to get to the right persons. Nigeria is so corrupt. I make my contribution to the needy directly to them. When I can, I take bags of rice and other foodstuff to them. I feed the homeless. I pray I can have a soup kitchen, but I have not got their yet.”
In the food value chain which begins from farming all the way to ready-to-eat meals, Aramide rates cooking as the most critical link in the chain. She states her reason. “Cooking shows the beauty of the farm and the people selling foodstuff. Cooking is what satisfies the people. If you cook good materials, the people who buy it also are happy. Cooking is what brings out the end product of either the material or the service.”