From Hotel General Manager to African Street Food Operator

“The UK is on the brink of an African food revolution” – the words of Kwashie Gbedemah, Director of URBANOKA, who only 18 months ago was a Hotel General Manager in London. EP spoke to the adventurous entrepreneur to find out why he swapped the corporate life for one which is very different.

Kwashie, a student of Les Roches International School of Hotel Manager, always held the ambition to be a Hotel General Manager by the time he was 40. But when he got there he realised that what he truly desired was a break from the norms and conventions of corporate life.

When one meet Kwashie they discover a hardworking, fun and considerate individual. A gentle giant who after many years spent working across four continents in hotels, finally decided to make the move that many dream of, but rarely actually do. Naturally the first question is why now? “I wanted the ability to manage my day. When you work in hotels who are constantly looking after people, whether the President or CEO of an important company or the Head of State of a country, you have to be ready at any time of the day for them. There’s nothing wrong with this but I wanted to work outside of these norms and really use my passion to drive and lead. This is why I created URBANOKA.”

Kwashie’s street food offer, which is also available for events and corporate catering, is focused on gathering the best recipes and culinary knowledge, as well as delving into his childhood memories. He explains, “I wanted to create an offer which is built from our African roots and present them in a creative and imaginative way. This is simply delicious and high-quality African street food.” Passion is a word bandied about but its clear Kwashie hasn’t created this business just because it will appeal to the customer but because he wants to create meaningful culinary experiences.

“I’ve been an institutional, 28 days per month worker all my life and had to learn the entrepreneurial life fast.”

One may ask if the inspiration also came from his travels? “I have worked extensively across four core parts of the world – Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean – and have learnt so much from these experiences. I believe these journeys made me a true global hotelier and taught me some of the greatest lessons I still hold so close. The ability to listen, to engage strangers and make them feel like they’ve known you for a long time and to always be emotionally intensive. These skills are what has helped me create this business I love but is only really at the very beginning of its journey.”

At URBANOKA Kwashie combines nutritious ingredients, time tested recipes, culinary skill and traditional African hospitality. He wants to serve the finest selection of street food from the sunshine continent. He explains, “It’s about taking people on - and sharing - an amazing food journey - it’s about encouraging people to seek out new cultures through food and get people tasting African flavours both at home and when dining out. I believe we are on the brink of an African food revolution. There is a longing to try something relatively new, not just re-spun or fusion-ed, but more authenticate with a story behind it; and that’s where African cuisines fills that gap. It's the last continent of relatively unexplored food in the mainstream domain and on our highstreets.”

It’s a clever approach from the former hotelier who openly admits that other street food traders are initially sceptical when he pitches because they haven’t seen African food stalls before. Kwashie believes this revolution is starting and is receiving great feedback from the markets but also events. His dream involves seeing the food on the shelves of supermarkets in UK markets and home he can move the offer away from the mindset of African food being cooked in a home kitchen. He also alludes to the idea that with an African head of state visiting the UK at least every two weeks then perhaps there is an untapped potential in the diplomatic market.

How has he found the journey? “It’s been a tough but enjoyable ride so far. A simple example is I can go for a run when I want to, but I always have to ensure there is enough in the bank to cover the bills. I’ve been an institutional, 28 days per month worker all my life and had to learn the entrepreneurial life fast. You want to succeed with everything and that means you often don’t know where to stop. URBANOKA has given me the opportunity to drive a dream.” Kwashie shares honest answers and with a passion as strong as he possessed clearly wants to continue to take the business onto bigger and greater things. Has he left hotels for good? “I still want to one day own a hotel and have already explored land on Cape Verde and the west African coast. URBANOKA can give me the space to explore and achieve this dream too. For now, the journey continues and so does my passion to bring even more food from across Africa to the masses.”