This is Charles Chipengule, the chef and owner of Jaa Dijo Dom, pictured here (left) with his employee, Abdul (right). Originally from Botswana, Africa, Charles says that he grew up always being interested in food but due to gender stereotypes in his country, he never really got a chance to work in the kitchen. Instead he trained as a mechanical engineer and although he didn’t enjoy the work, he continued to do it professionally because it allowed him to excel financially. After years of working as an engineer, Charles decided to ignore the naysayers and take his shot in the food industry. And when no one else would give him a chance to cook, he decided to give himself the opportunity and used his own money to open up a breakfast food stall. However, he ended up closing down his food stall after a year because he wasn’t making money; and because he had always heard that the U.S. is the land of opportunity, he decided to leave Botswana and pursue his dream. After moving to New York and working in a variety of restaurants for many years, Charles began wondering why there were so many different cuisines available but African food wasn’t being represented. He began doing research into the accessible options and found that the few African restaurants that were open only showcased food from a specific country and catered to the idea of African food that people in the U.S. already had. So he decided to open up his own operation to teach customers about the different types of African food, to introduce them to something new and get them talking about it’s unique and rich flavors, and to get them to recognize the food that he grew up eating.
Charles says that gender roles in Botswana are very rigid so being a man working in the kitchen is shamed and looked down upon because it’s seen as a woman’s place. Even when he opened his breakfast stall, he was only able to cook there for a few months before he had to hire women to work for him because people wouldn’t buy from him since a man was cooking. He continued to oversee operations but since he had his own full-time job working as an engineer, he couldn’t spend much time at the stall and the women working for him couldn’t manage it properly. They were giving out food to friends, which caused him to lose a lot of inventory and money and eventually he had to close the stall altogether. He tried to open another food stall at his father’s compound (his father was also an engineer for a big company in Botswana) but his father didn’t allow him to because he didn’t like the idea of his son working in the kitchen. Realizing that it would be tough to continue working towards being a chef in Botswana, Charles decided to leave Africa and emigrate to the U.S. He says that many people in his country are leaving or trying to leave because the economy is bad, there’s a lot of corruption in the government and the lower class people are not being taken care of. But in order to come to the U.S., you need to have enough money for the process itself and to support yourself once you get there. So he spent the next year working as an engineer and buying as little as he could in order to save money to buy his plane ticket to New York. He applied for a business visa, waited for a month to hear back, went for an interview and then waited for another couple of weeks before being notified that his visa had been approved. After receiving his visa, Charles spent another full year working, eventually selling his house and his car in order to be able to afford his plane ticket. During that year, he says he held onto the visa and dreamed about his future. And every time he felt disappointed, he would look at the visa and know he had already achieved something that many people in Botswana never can.
Once Charles arrived in the U.S., he was planning to fall back on his career as an engineer in order to establish himself. But since he was coming from a different country, his experience in the field wasn’t taken into consideration and he would’ve had to get his GED and start all over again in order to be certified to work as an engineer in the U.S. Because he needed to support himself, he decided to take a job that a friend got him at an Indian restaurant and began washing dishes there. After the Indian restaurant, Charles hopped around, working at different restaurants in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, usually spending a year at each place before moving onto the next one. Once he started working in restaurants, he got even more interested in the industry and wanted to further improve his skills. He enrolled in some general education classes in a free adult program in Brooklyn as well as some small cooking courses, which he paid for. He began learning the basics of cooking, as well as how to use certain utensils and machinery that he didn’t have in Africa (most food prep there was done by hand) and food plating. Because foods aren’t labeled with restrictions in Africa, he also had to learn about dietary restrictions (he didn’t know about much other than the major food allergies) and understand what each one meant so that he could classify the dishes that he created. Working in many restaurants allowed Charles to get familiar with a lot of different cuisines but it also alerted him to the need for African food. He wanted to give people in New York something different to try and make it more accessible to them. He reached out to many people to get them on board with his idea and invest in his plan but no one wanted to take the risk so he decided to take a shot and try it himself. He started Jaa Dijo Dom (meaning “a place to eat”) in June 2017.
Charles started Jaa Dijo Dom as a catering business because he knew it would be too tough to succeed as a restaurant just starting out. He decided to make the menu a mix of all African cuisine to give customers the full African experience with the foods that they eat on a daily basis. He was also inspired by his grandmother, who worked as a cook in South Africa, and always incorporated new foods from the country into their cooking and influenced his desire to create a mix of cuisine in his business. He wanted his food to appeal not only to Americans but also to other African people who only know food from their country and aren’t familiar with dishes from other regions. Most of his cooking skills and South African recipes he learned from his mother and grandmother. But in order to learn the recipes from the North, West and East, he had to buy books to learn the recipes and cooked them again and again until he got them right. He got some African people that he knew from different countries to taste test each dish so that he could make sure that they were authentic and tried different recipes until he was able to do it properly. After launching Jaa Dijo Dom, he did recipe testing, menu creation and ingredient sourcing for the first five months to make sure that each dish was right, not taking any orders until November 2017. He made sure that all of the items on his menu were traditional, inexpensive dishes that people in Africa can afford and that a customer would see if they visited the country.
Charles admits that the first year of business was horrible. It was just him doing all of the prep work, cooking and deliveries and there were times he thought about closing it down and going back to work in a restaurant because he wasn’t making any money. But he kept going because he could see that there were people who were interested in the food; people starting giving him good reviews and customers started coming back. Little by little things started picking up and now, almost two years later, he has five employees that work for him as well as some hourly employees that he hires when he’s really busy. He still cooks almost everything himself and spends most of his days working in their commissary kitchen (he generally works 3AM to 5PM) but now he has two employees that he’s been training and teaching his recipes to so that he can relax a little bit and not have the business rely solely on him. However, Charles does still have to deal with issues in the kitchen, since the space they work out of is over 30 years old and houses six different companies with only one oven and one stove to share. Some weeks he can’t take as many orders as he would like to because the kitchen space is booked up, which is frustrating because he ends up losing business. The companies that work there try to communicate and work around each other’s schedules but it makes it hard to prepare food, especially when he has big deliveries. This commissary kitchen is where most small food businesses start out because the rent is cheap but Charles hopes that in a few years, he can own his own place and have the space and the ability to take on many more orders. He’ll really feel the business is doing well when he’s able to make that move into his own kitchen space. In the mean time, Charles keeps his team motivated by creating a learning environment and encouraging his employees to have their own opinions and ways of doing things, as long as the results are the same in the end. He wants them to enjoy the work that they’re doing and understand that this is valuable experience that they can take with them as they go through the food industry.
For Charles, being an immigrant in the food industry is the toughest part of the business to handle. He’s found that because he’s an immigrant, the chances of him getting a loan or renting kitchen space on his own are low because although his financials are good, once he’s asked about his background, people no longer want to be involved. He feels that how he’s built his business up isn’t being considered as equally as someone who isn’t an immigrant and it’s just another hoop he has to jump through. Because no bank will give him a loan, he’s had to do everything with his own money or borrow money from friends and family, which has been really tough for him. Although he’s still paying some of that borrowed money back, he says that things are getting better because he doesn’t have to borrow money from anyone anymore and he’s able to pay his employees. However, the most rewarding part for him is the personal freedom he has now to grow his business and focus on the dream that he’s had for many years. He has a drive to keep grinding not only for himself but also for his cause: to make African food part of the New York food scene. He loves that African food is now being mixed into the culture of New York and that people are discussing it. The more progress he sees, the more passionate he gets about his business. He also sees progress happening in Botswana, where he says more and more young, male chefs are starting to emerge and he loves that after being ridiculed when he was younger, the culture is changing there as well. He’s motivated to keep working as hard as he can by the financial changes that he sees happening in the business every month as well as the strength of the company and the quick pace at which they’re growing. He knows the business is headed somewhere and it gives him hope. He believes that in the next five years, Jaa Dijo Dom could be something bigger than just a catering company.
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