From Rice – an unconventional approach to fast, casual dining – Nigerian Rice Bowl, to Sugarcane Lagos that serves you breakfast all day, every day to meal kits that help you recreate your favourite recipes at home, Yanate Banigo’s catalogue of food businesses is a big wheel in the industry.
We got a chance to sit down and have a chat with her about her passion for food, her experience running several food businesses in Lagos, and what the future plans are.
Ed Note: We love to see people following their passion and doing the damn thing so quietly.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
Hi, my name is Yanate Banigo. I own a restaurant called Sugarcane and another called Rice. I also own two other businesses that have emerged since the time of COVID-19, which are Paked and another one called Date in a Box.
I haven’t always known that I would go into food, but I’m from a family that’s into the food business; my mom has been in the catering business for over thirty years.
I think I was just trying to be rebellious because when you’re younger, you kind of want to break free and do your own thing, but food pulled me back in. In my ‘20s, I decided it was something I wanted to pursue.
My first love is baking, and I’m a baker before anything else. I started with a dessert catering company, which is how Sugarcane first started before it grew into what it is known as now.
What was the motivation to go into the food business?
It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do, mostly since I had gone to culinary school. And then after working in a restaurant in London, it was thrilling and exciting to me, and so I decided it was something I wanted to focus on. Other than being from a family that’s into food, and my love for baking and then choosing to be trained in it were a few different motivations. It’s just an innate passion for food.
Did you go to culinary school? If yes, what did you like best about the experience?
I did go to culinary school – The Culinary Arts Institute, Switzerland, which was a blessing, and I feel like if anyone is interested in the industry, they should get that general training. You don’t focus on plating alone, but also fine-tuning your craft. In culinary school, we used to cook for the whole dining hall, so that meant cooking for hundreds of students in a day. There, I learned how to plate for a few people but also learned how to cook for a large group of people. I think that has helped out a lot. In my mom’s catering business, for example, I assume a part-time role, and I’m very hands-on there. It has helped in creating food that still tastes good when made in bulk.
Also, in culinary school, they help you get work experience. So from just working behind the scenes in a restaurant, you only get to see the way things are run in real-time. You see how communication and timing are key. For example, the person who’s working on protein and the person that’s working on sides have to be in sync because you can’t start french fries when the burger patty has just gone on the grill. So just learning that backend helped me a lot when it came to creating my restaurant. It was worthwhile.
What is it like running several food franchises in a place like Lagos?
It’s difficult owning several businesses in Lagos because the reality of running a restaurant or even any business here means that you have to be very hands-on. There’s a lot of micro-managing that has to take place in Nigeria in general, that might not necessarily be the case everywhere else. You could have a few star staff members, but when you have four houses of about 30 staff, one or two good ones are not enough to keep the ship afloat, so for me, it’s quite complicated.
With Rice, it felt like having a second child. I don’t have any children (Ed:Lol for clarity), but I imagine that this is what it feels like to have a second child, you’ve made mistakes with the first child and so you have a chance to do better with the second child, so I feel like opening Rice was much easier than establishing Sugarcane. But I found that when I started giving Rice all my attention, Sugarcane started slacking, so I guess it’s kind of like kids again.
You give one attention, and the other one starts to get jealous, you know? So I had to find a way to balance my day, so I shuffle between VI and Lekki Phase 1. So, some days, I would do Rice in the mornings and do Sugarcane in the evenings. And then some days I just spend the whole day at Rice. So it’s just learning how to schedule the two.
And for Rice, because it’s a simpler model, it can stand much easier on its own. I think it also has to do with expectations: with Rice, it’s more affordable food, so the expectations aren’t as high. And we wanted it to be fast food- but in a nice space with a great experience. The experiences with the two restaurants are varied, because of the different price point. So people go to Rice, and they are like wowed because they expected higher prices, because it’s a nice space and so it’s sort of easier. In contrast, with Sugarcane, the customers are a bit more finicky, and it’s warranted because they are spending more of their money. I just figure out a way to spend time at both places and pay attention to the place that needs me more without neglecting the other.
What do you love most about it?
My favourite part of the experience is creation. It’s creating the concept in my mind and then actually watching it come to life. That, for me, is the most exciting part. Building the menu, planning the space, thinking of what your staff is going to wear, all of that. The whole process of creation: from mind to paper to life. I find that more interesting than any other part.
That’s why I want to go into consulting because I find that more interesting than the day-to-day, which, in my opinion, is more challenging. The creation of the concept around the restaurants is the most exciting part.
Another thing is seeing people appreciate what you’ve done. It’s rewarding because you know how much work you’ve put into it. And for the customers to taste something and say it’s delicious and because you put the menu together, it’s your recipes: it’s rewarding.
What don’t you like about it?
Just harsh realities about having employees, and being aware that not everyone you hire is necessarily going to care for you. When I moved back to Nigeria, I had a kumbaya mindset: like we’re all going to be one big happy family, but I quickly realised that I needed to be stern, and discipline staff when it’s needed. There was a lot of theft when I first opened Sugarcane. Initially, I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt, but over time I just learned that I have to be stern. So I have a no-theft policy: any employee who steals from me, leaves. I’m a woman of my word and that means when I say something, I stick by it. I don’t ever want to come off as being partial or biased.
You always hear about how hard it is to build a business in Lagos or Nigeria, so it’s things with power; being harassed by the state and different state agencies. Situations like that can be daunting, and so that’s my least favourite part.
Any memorable experiences in particular?
The most memorable experience for me was opening Sugarcane. I remember how nervous I was, and I know everyone says they have imposter syndrome, but I definitely suffer severely from it. When opening Sugarcane, I just kept thinking; Will people like it? Am I capable?
And I remember my friend, Bukky just making fun of me because I kept postponing the launch. If it had been up to me, I would have pushed the opening to two months later than it was supposed to be, because of my nerves.
I had made a flyer with a tentative date, and my friends just kept pushing it, without listening to me. And then all of a sudden, it was everywhere, people were reposting all over Instagram and so it sort of forced my hand.
I remember feeling grateful and moved emotionally after the opening because it had been a crazy evening; the place was packed. We even ran out of ice and were making frozen Chapman with no ice which makes no sense, but that’s how crazy it was. And so I felt very grateful to my friend for forcing me to open when I did because what I wanted for so long finally came to be.
What is your favourite thing to cook and why?
For me, I love making new things. It’s always exciting for me to try our new recipes, so I don’t think there’s any, one thing I particularly like to make. I’m just trying my hands at something new and then if it tastes good: trying it again and again until I get it right—just new things in general.
How involved were you with menu development and overall design?
Yes, I was very involved in the menu: all the recipes at sugarcane are mine. So yes, I’m very hands-on in menu curation, because of my love for creating and trying new things, making the menu was incredibly exciting for me.
What was the inspiration behind the meal kits?
I think it was the times, with COVID and all that. In general, I believe food is best when it just comes off the stove, and because nobody could go to restaurants, for me, it was just a way of making restaurant food at home. And yes, you could order in, but it’s just not the same, you don’t get the whole experience. And of course, meal kits have existed since forever like in many restaurants abroad. My favourite restaurant in London, Blue Apron, started making meal kits as well. It just seemed like a good idea.
It’s funny because when we started Rice, somebody messaged us and said they had this same idea. So if you don’t act on your ideas, the world can just leave you behind.
And the week we planned to launch, we saw so many meal kits popping up on Instagram, but I believe there’s enough room for us all. And what is essential is longevity, who is willing to stick it out and weather the storm.
Tell us a bit about Rice & Sugarcane Lagos
Rice is something I call a fast, casual restaurant. The idea is to build a Nigerian rice bowl. So when you come in, you pick a base which is either Jollof, Coconut or Fried Rice, and then you pick different toppings from either Moin-Moin to coleslaw to plantain, to boiled eggs. You can also choose a sauce from Ofada to a curry. So you just build a rice bowl from typical Nigerian food that’s eaten with rice.
Sugarcane is a casual dining restaurant in Lagos where you can have breakfast all day. I feel like some of our best dishes are the Red Velvet Pancakes, Chicken and Waffles and the Mongolian Beef.
What is the one thing you’re most proud of?
One thing I’m most proud of is still being here. The restaurant business and food industry are very competitive, even outside Nigeria. And it’s complicated because you’re dealing with people and their different tastes and palates, coupled with running a business in Nigeria which is stressful with government agencies. So still being here, being able to even through the hardest and toughest times and criticism, just forging ahead, even opening a second restaurant. It’s my calling, my passion, so I’m most proud of the fact that I’m still here.
Any plans to expand?
I plan on expanding. Abuja is a place that I definitely want to expand to and even in Lagos, have different locations with Rice as well.
Thank you so much for your time. We can’t wait to see what else is in store for you and your catalogue of businesses.
See more about the restaurants and meal kit by clicking the links below:
Paked: Order via Instagram DM