Bernadette George is the proprietress of the highly regarded catering company from Sierra Leone. She’s been in the food business for about twenty years. Her first business; BEST Foods was a deli on Krootown Road in Freetown, Sierra Leone, processing cured meat. She returned to London after a brief illness for which she had to have surgery and Smokey Bites, a joint venture with her estranged husband was born.
What inspired you to open Smokey Bites? I saw a gap in the market. A food processing unit incorporating our African food and realised that this would be a great niche. I come from a restauranteur background. My mother started a countryside restaurant in Bo almost fifty years ago. I learnt from her. I used to make food for parties and we became a hit. We were never short of orders. As I was passionate about it I decided to get formal training and broaden my skills. I first got a Diploma in food processing and meat manufacturing and then went on to study Food Science and Nutrition.
What were your initial challenges of starting up and how did you overcome them? My initial challenge was finance. The banks considered us to be high risk as they were largely ignorant about the venture so we had to remortgage. Another challenge was penetrating the market. This required advertising which comes back to the finances which is the core of the game.
What are your current challenges? And how do you stay motivated? The business is made up of two parts, the catering and the restaurant which is called Across Restaurant. My current challenge is getting the restaurant to be on the same level as the catering business. This is extremely tough as it requires finance. I stay motivated because of the wonderful feedback we get from every catering job we do.
What are your proudest moments? My proudest moment was when a London Television food program was televised on our business premises and featured my food processing method. This led to a radio interview with Choice FM and an order from the Conservative Party to cater for an event hosting 200 guests. I was the first black woman to have catered in their headquarters. That was a milestone for me.
What are your lowest points? I love to speak up and not cover up. My lowest points have been the breakup of my 27 year marriage, a disastrous house fire six months later and finally my son was stabbed for his mobile phone. During that period I had to deal with the personal issues and found it hard to concentrate on the business so I took time out and went to Jamaica for two months. I used that time to start writing a cookbook which I’m still working on. I also trained the Hotel’s barbeque chef and he’s written back to say thank you.
Many businesses have had to close during the recession what is the key to surviving in a recession? I do things slightly differently from others. For example, Harley Street Clinic was intrigued by my cuisine as they couldn’t figure out what part of the world it came from. I combine my restaurant background and food processing skills with a Lebanese twist. Also I look after my customers really well. They’re part of my extended family now.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs? Have a dream and stick to it. Try your best to fulfil it and you’ll eventually get to the end of the road.
What gives you strength? I involve my heavenly father in everything and He perfects my journey in this trade.