On Kingsland Road, the busy thoroughfare in Dalston, east London, people peer curiously as they pass a newly opened shop. With its bright red frontage, floor-to-ceiling windows and promise of “Gourmet African Cuisine”, Jollof Box is pretty unmissable.
While the shop is new, the family behind the food venture are anything but beginners. Starting out in 2015 with a stall at Old Spitalfields Market, Jollof Box quickly gained a following for its Nigerian and wider West African dishes, served in cute Chinese takeout-style boxes. The menu spans jollof rice (naturally, an old family recipe), but also chicken and beef stews, black-eyed bean and sweetcorn casserole, and plenty of plantain. Each dish is named after an iconic African footballer, giving customers the unique pleasure of ordering a “Drogba” or “Yaya” for lunch.
The new space in Dalston is Jollof Box’s first permanent site.
“I wanted to shine a positive light on African cuisine, that we do it in such a way that it doesn't matter who you are, you can come in and enjoy the food,” founder Matthew Omeye-Howell says. “It’s called ‘gourmet’ for a reason, because we use the best ingredients. We want to make sure when people leave here, they feel wholesome; they feel full but they feel good.”
Despite having practically lived inside the shop for the last month, foregoing many hours of sleep to ensure every last detail was perfect before the launch, Matthew is surprisingly energetic when I visit the Monday morning after opening weekend.
“I really couldn't see anything like this anywhere else,” he continues, gesturing proudly at the light-filled restaurant, its red chairs and minimalist walls matching the logo and signature takeout boxes. “Whenever I went out looking for food from my diaspora, it was very hard to find for one thing, and secondly, for me, it didn't shine the best light on African food.”
Indeed as I found when researching an upcoming book on West African food in the UK, West African food businesses in Britain have historically catered to their local communities, and as such, are often undervalued by mainstream food culture. Along with fellow recently established London food ventures like Chuku’s, the “Nigerian tapas” pop-up, and Camberwell takeaway I Go Chop, Jollof Box represents a new breed of West African food spot – one that serves traditional dishes with a modern approach to branding and service.
“My concept is like an African take on Leon or a Coco di Mama,” Matthew, who is British-Nigerian, explains. “It’s authentic but everyone can enjoy it.”
While Matthew clearly has a passion for promoting West African food, there is another driving force behind Jollof Box. “My mum is a great cook and I want to shine some light on her,” he says. As we talk, mum Sade Omeye-Howell is in the kitchen tending to mountains of jollof rice and stew, occasionally popping out to greet customers. As the undeniable matriarch of Jollof Box, she has little time to talk to journalists.
Jollof Box may have started out as a street food venture, with Matthew’s siblings helping him with the business side and Sade in the kitchen, but he has always had grand plans – not just for a permanent site, but the greater goal of championing West African culture in the UK. “We wanted to have more autonomy over our footfall, theme and identity, so this was always the aim,” he says.
West African food is often heralded as the next big food trend but as Jamie Oliver’s “jerk rice” debacle last year showed, there is still much misunderstanding when it comes to the varied cuisine of the African continent and diaspora. “If I'm honest,” says Matthew, “we’re the only ethnic cuisine to a certain extent that has been in this country for a large part of time, and don’t have anything that we can say, ‘Right that’s our own.’”
Of course, to see such plans become a reality, you need cash. As a means of raising capital, Sade, Matthew and his siblings put Jollof Box forward for Dragons’ Den, the infamous BBC investment show. They were accepted and travelled to the BBC’s Manchester studio earlier this year to pitch their business idea to the Dragons, asking for £75,000 investment.
“It was quite nerve-wracking, to be fair,” Matthew remembers. “We replicated our entire street food business in Spitalfields for the Dragons, meaning we had to transport out the whole setup from London to Manchester, cooking through the whole night.”
Though the negotiation didn't go as planned, with the Dragons turning down the chance to invest, Matthew sees it as a positive experience.
“My faith dictated that you know what’s out of your hands in someone bigger than the Dragons,” he says. “One of the Dragons ultimately gave us that push. They said, ‘Do it yourself.’ It hasn't been easy but here we are.” On returning to London, Jollof Box managed to raise over £3,000 in a crowdfunding campaign. Their Dragons’ Den episode aired a few weeks before they opened the new site.
From its shop in Dalston, Jollof Box aims to cater both to an area with a long-established Afro-Caribbean population, and those who may be less familiar with West African food. The menu includes Nigerian favourites like jumbo African snails; moi moi; and pepper soup with goat meat and egusi stew (a melon seed-based stew, served with pounded yams), alongside a whole raft of plantain- and kale-packed vegan dishes, plus grilled chicken wings.
“A lot of people go to African restaurants and they don't know what to get,” explains Matthew. “So the menu at times is kind of intimidating. For us, it was important that we had some way of translating the cuisine to the uninitiated. You come along and you're intrigued.”
Christening each dish with a footballer-inspired name was another way of drawing in new customers. “It doesn't matter where you’re from in the world, football goes a long away,” says Matthew. He has ensured, however, that such accessibility hasn’t come at the expense of traditional ingredients and cooking techniques. “There are real authentic dishes that are really indigenous to my part of the world as well. We wanted to make sure we cater to the large diaspora who know about the dishes in this area.”
Ultimately, Matthew wants Jollof Box to inspire curiosity – and conversation – about West African culture.
“Food is an initiator for a lot of things,” he says. “Food opens doors to culture, culture opens doors to tourism and that would empower people in my part of the world to bring in investment. I went to Thailand off the back of eating Thai food. Imagine that – we went all the way to Bangkok to eat food!”