How Tantalizers Started

Could firing be a blessing?

All big achievers are big dreamers. More often than not, their dreams are bigger than who they are and what they have while dreaming. And one classical example of big dreamers are Bose Ayeni and Folu, her husband. They co-founded Tantalizers, one of the biggest and most popular fast foods restaurants in Nigeria.

Bose Ayeni - Tantalizer's CEO
Bose Ayeni – Tantalizer’s CEO

Tantalizers is a leading Nigerian fast food restaurant chain that opened its first location in Festac Town, Lagos. That first branch of Tantalizers was opened on the 1st of May, 1997. It was initially conceived as a small neighborhood restaurant serving just beef-burgers. Success at that first location however led to an expansion that has seen the company open additional locations in cities such as Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja, Abeokuta, Akure, Ado-Ekiti, and Port Harcourt. It now has 53 outlets and over 1,000 staff on their payroll.

Frequently Asked Questions

Mrs Bose Ayeni is the founder of Bose Ayeni. She received some support from her husband who later became the co-founder

Tantalizer was founded in 1997 by Bose Ayeni. She started from 24 Road, Festact Town by first selling burgar and later added other delicacies.

Bose Ayeni was working at Unilever (then Lever Brothers) but was sacked after she had secondary infertility from her second child and could not resume work in time. She was stranded and left to go no where from there. But after thinking much and hard and weighing all her options, she decided to venture into entrepreneurship - Tantalizer is the product of that decision.

Bose Ayeni was 38 years old when she started Tantalizer following her sack from then Lever Brothers PLC

Bose Ayeni’s Background

Bose is the fifth in a family of six children. Though her father is from Degema in Rivers, her mother is from Lagos state. Bose was born in 1958 in Ibadan, Oyo State. She grew up, and had all her education in South West Nigeria. She married a Yoruba man and that probably explains why the Yoruba part of her has been so dominant to the point that many people are usually surprised to learn she is not Yoruba by birth. Bose recalls spending more time with her grandmother since her parents lived abroad for most of her early years. She went to the University of Ife where she studied Language Arts and graduated with a Second Class Honours degree in 1979.

What will you do if you lose your job?

After her graduation in 1979, she joined Lever Brothers Nigeria Limited (now UNILEVER PLC). She started as a Marketing Management Trainee in August 1st, 1980. She was there till 1991, and by then had risen to become a Product Group Manager in the company. Among major brands she handled are Omo, Lux, Close-Up, etc. In 1991, she left Lever Brothers Nigeria Limited quite suddenly.

Why did she leave?

The circumstances that led to Bose leaving the company repeatedly raises this question within me: “What will you do if you lose your job?” Kill yourself? Go get additional degrees? Go beg your boss?  Resign to fate and watch things happen by themselves?  Create another job for yourself and maybe others? Well, the answer depends very much on your personality and where you are coming from. For Bose, though she did not have an initial flair for entrepreneurship, a job loss changed her story and ‘forced’ her to think otherwise. Her decision to leave Unilever was not a pre-planned one. She shares the experience that led to her leaving.

Listen to her story

“I had always seen myself as a career woman until I lost my job in 1991. I was at Unilever for about 11 years. After my first baby, I had secondary infertility. Then, I got pregnant and was away from work for about three months because of some pregnancy complications. At the tail end of it, my employers asked that I quit. I felt very bad and resigned my appointment, though there was a caveat that I could come back after having my baby. Well, I was not mentally prepared to go back to the company because I felt they did not stand by me, at such a critical moment of my life.

“When I left, I deliberately stayed at home for one year because the baby was born premature. During that period, my husband and I were looking for something extra to augment the family income. I knew it was going to be difficult to lean on a single income at that point. Initially, I did some trading and thereafter moved into some form of marketing consultancy. I got job offers, but I was reluctant to take a full-time job because of my baby. After I did some trading, I saw that it was not for me. We thought of several other businesses and were almost opening up a supermarket/pharmaceutical store, when we changed our mind.  We  decided to settle for a burger shop instead.’’

How Tantalizers Started

Bose’s burger was so “tantalizing” that there was always a very long queue of people waiting for it. It was the long queue that called the attention of a business consultant. The consultant say what was happening and cautioned Bose with the statement “why do you want to limit yourself? Won’t it be great if you can add rice and other delicacies to your offer?” Very typical of Bose is the fact that she has always been willing to consider every useful advice and suggestions. And after she reasoned with the husband whom she maintains was a huge part of the entire project, she decided to implement the idea.

Folu had foresight and saw that this will eventually go beyond a place for Bose to earn something to support the family. He foresaw that this is going to become a major brand eventually. So he insisted the business plan had to look beyond the present. Bose recalls they had to do lots of brainstorming over several issues, including choosing the business name. They were looking for a name that will not just be memorable and easy to recall but that will also connote the service they render.

Why did they settle for Tantalizers?

According to Bose, they decided to settle for First-Bite, but just a few days after that decision a business opened up with the name Bits and Bites on the same road, just a few meters walk from them. They reasoned that it was too close, sounds a like and might be misleading for those seeking to locate them. Then for no explainable reason they opted for Tantalizers which had actually come forth in the name test.

The business was starting at exactly the ‘right time’. It happened to be around the period when double income family was becoming rampant and couples regularly would choose to eat out after work. This helped the business to grow faster than Bose anticipated. The husband again, filled with foresight, moved quickly to secure a location in CMS. He considered CMS the heart of Lagos for a second branch within the first year of operation.

Challenges even before starting

There are usually a lot of issues to overcome before any startup can kick start. For Bose and Folu one of such was the startup capital. “Our greatest challenge then was raising the capital. We didn’t have the money required for the kind of venture that we had in mind,” she revealed. But rather than give up their Tantalizers vision, the couple took off the hand breaks and threw in their savings. All they had in savings was just about Three Hundred Thousand Naira. Adding for good measure was some soft loans from family and friends.

But the dream was still threatened by lack of sufficient funds because what they had was not enough. With their backs against the wall few weeks before they started, the couple turned to the banks for a loan. If the Ayenis had expectations that their ‘friendly neighbourhood’ banks were there to help when loans were needed, they had to wake up and smell the coffee! Bose tells the story:

“I recall that there was a bank where we (my husband and I) had maintained an account for so many years.  And through that you would think you had a good relationship. And the truth of the matter is that when you approach them for a loan for a business venture, you are disappointed (because they won’t grant you a loan).

Even collateral was not enough to convince the banks

“Even when we brought collateral, we were not given any loan. The bank was afraid because we were a new venture. But we felt that a bank that we had been with for a while should be able to give us such a loan.

“And I remember that my husband closed his account with one of those banks out of annoyance. He was just not happy with the way we were treated,” she recounts. If you look at the way Bose was smiling throughout the interview session, you would struggle to believe she is the same person that was stressed to the limit then, including using her car as an office.

But the couple did not stop knocking on doors and asking for the bank loans. Their dream was for them, much too precious to give up just because they couldn’t get a loan. And as they say, persistence pays, and according to the former Unilever staff, eventually, one bank (the then Chartered bank) took the risk to loan them the money with particular assistance of a family friend working with the bank.

She finally heaved a sigh of relief when the bank officials, after several meetings and demanding for countless documents and assessments, decided to grant her the loan she and her husband needed to start the fast food business.

Other challenges Tantalizers and Bose Faced

Though Tantalizers has grown into a multi-million dollar company today, getting a loan from the bank was by no means the only mountain they had to climb to reach the ‘Promised Land’ they now occupy.

First, they had to deal with Shylock landlords.

Bose recollects that, “When we started we were renting the premises that we were using. But along the way when we also saw that when you rent a property, our experience has shown that, for our kind of business, you will have to completely redesign the premises to the level or the standard you want to operate.

“And the landlord is watching you improve the state of his house. Once your lease expires you can be sure that you will come back to pay double. He is looking at how well your business is doing so that he can be a partaker of whatever profit that comes.

Tantalizers Outlet
Tantalizers Outlet

“Overtime we have had such experiences. The option they give you is that you can move out if you can’t pay the increase. And on your part you would not want to move because you have already established your business in that location. Not just the money you invested in upgrading the facility but the name you have made there. After such experiences we decided that maybe we should look at acquisition of buildings or land. We wanted to build on our own rather than having problems of landlords.” She said.

Another major challenge they faced in the business also include the issue of power supply.

The company has had to rely heavily on generator sets. And according to Bose it significantly increased the cost of running the business. Not only are you contending with the issue of massive diesel consumption, you are also looking at replacing your generators almost every 18 – 24 months.

These prevalent problems notwithstanding, the company has achieved some astronomical growth. Even amidst growing competition from local and international fast food brands. Bose and her husband (who eventually joined the company full-time in 1999) have been able to steer Tantalizers in the right direction of growth and expansion. Tantalizers currently has over 30 outlets in Lagos alone. And a total of 53 including franchise stores across the country. Those outlets have created jobs and livelihood directly to over 1,200 people.

Moving to Tantalizers to new heights

As we entered Bose’s office for this interview, one of my first observations was award plaques littered all over the place. This is a testimony to the fact that her contributions to the food service industry and solution of unemployment problem through the offering of excellent services have been duly recognized both at home and abroad. This was affirmed in February 2010, when Tantalizers forged a strategic partnership with The International Finance Corporation (IFC), an arm of the World Bank which granted it $7million loan and took $1.5million equity in the company to help take the fast food company to the next level. This has aided Tantalizers to outwit competition posed by foreign eateries like KFC, Barceló’s, etc., in Nigeria.

More on this, Bose admits that the relationship with IFC is a major boost for the business. She said, “Our association with IFC has pushed us to a higher level. This is because when you have an association with an arm of the World Bank like this there are acceptable standards expected of you.

“So, this association has not only helped in the area of finance but it will also helped in pushing us to the next level in areas of standards and compliance.”

Dealing with competition

Tantalizers’ growth has not been without fierce competition from other fast food companies. The competition has been from both indigenous and international brands alike. Competition and the challenge they pose to Tantalizers’ dominance are however not issues Bose loses sleep about. Tantalizers, according to her, is not resting on its oars in spite of its achievements and desires to continue to expand. This is Bose’s take on that.

“We have been in business for many years now and we have seen different phases of competition. The competition started from where it was largely local. We had a dominant or major player who was Mr. Biggs and the “all others”. People like us, Tastee Fried Chicken, Sweet Sensation were the other ones in the industry. And of course we had lots of neighbourhood outlets too.

From local competitors to global competitors

“But overtime, we found out that the number of the neighbourhood operators was dwindling as some of them shut down. And in the last 10 years, we discovered that the competition moved from being local to international. We have seen the emergence of several international brands in the market space.

“We now have KFC, Domino Pizza, Cold Stone, and some South African brands among others. The face of competition has changed, and demands made on local operators from consumers have also changed. It has changed expectations of the average consumers. And I think this is good for the industry.”

“So what we have now is that the local fast-food operators are working to bring themselves up to the level of the international brands.” But as an astute businesswoman that she is, Bose insists that the competition has been there from day one. But Tantalizers’ concern remains continuous improvement. “Every day we think of how to improve what we offer our customers. For us, the customers are the key to the business and its growth and they must be satisfied” she concluded.

Tantalizers Franchise as a way of expansion

One of the things Bose and her husband had in mind while opening Tantalizers was to help create job opportunities for other Nigerians. In order to further realize this, the former Unilever employee reveals that Nigerians are welcomed to join the Tantalizers family. She explained that being a part of the Tantalizers franchise programme is being part of a great dream. A franchise she explained is a system in which other business owners can comfortably run their own business with Tantalizers brand name with their full consent and approval.

Taking Tantalizers to the global market

Considering the type of success recorded in Nigeria in such a short time one would naturally expect that Tantalizers would soon be operating beyond the shores of Nigeria. That is obviously the next thing the management has set her sight on to achieve. Bose notes that they have plans of launching into Europe starting with the United Kingdom (UK). She explained that the company is first taking its time to familiarise itself with the investment climate obtainable in the area; including the regulations, etc.

They, however, had to make a quick move to register the business name in UK over ten years ago.  They had to do that when they discovered that someone (a Nigerian) was using the name to do business in North London already. Though the company was not ready as of then to launch operations there but they needed to secure the name.

Where is Tantalizers today?

A Company which started as a small neighbourhood restaurant has gone public as we speak. Today, Tantalizers is listed on The Nigerian Stock Exchange.

Bose Ayeni is still the MD of the Tantalizers PLC, with Folu being the Vice Chairman of the Board. Both are still very passionate about the business. But Folu is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations. From the smile in the ever-looking young face of Bose, it is obvious she is enjoying what she is doing. As we sat with Bose for the interview in her office it was difficult to believe that she is a grandmother. Anyone would struggle to believe that she is 63 years old already. She still looks almost as young as the day she left university. From this it dawned on us that health and vitality naturally come from enjoying what one is doing.

From the release of the second quarter report of 2021 Tantalizers revenue for that quarter stood at 616 million naira. This represented 42% increase from 434 million naira made in the previous quarter.

Advice to would-be entrepreneurs

From a dream that was in danger of fizzling out due to lack of funds, Tantalizers has grown to become a fast food restaurant of choice for Nigerians. We sought to know the success secrets of the boss which she could recommend to young entrepreneurs and she lists them carefully:

“I think for me the number one thing that you need is to acquire knowledge”, she begins. “You must have an idea of what your business is. You should understand basic financial principles. Lastly you must know that there is a difference between revenue and profit.”

She also emphasized prudence as an important virtue for startups. Bose advised  young entrepreneurs to be disciplined and ready to delay gratification in business. It might surprise you to know that Bose cannot go to any Tantalizers outlet and take a bottle of water, without having the money to pay for it handy. I don’t know what you call it, but she calls it separating the business from oneself.

Her advise was rather that there should be more investment in staff training and development. As she puts it, “you only get back what you put in people.” This has helped Tantalizers to retain even some of the staff that started with the Company since day one after more than two decades of operation.

Did the story of How Tantalizers started inspire you in anyway?  Let us have your views in the comment section.

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