finance

The unstoppables: how two small businesses navigated the pandemic and beyond


The Ghanaian bakery Uncle John’s is a north London institution – and after the death of its CEO Sam Mensah, his younger brother Ronnie stepped up to ensure the business continued to thrive in-store and online

People can smell Uncle John’s long before they see it. Ronnie Mensah, now running the beloved bakery in Tottenham, north London, says: “You can smell the fresh bread from down the road, even up to the station. It leads people to us who then buy a sweet loaf, or a chin chin, or Ghanaian doughnuts.”

The business has existed as long as 27-year-old Ronnie can remember; his parents John and Emelia Mensah founded it more than 25 years ago after discovering no one was baking Ghanaian bread fresh in London, instead importing it, stale on arrival, from Ghana.

There was plenty of hard work involved in those early days, as Emelia remembers: “We went through a lot, sometimes John would do 24-hour shifts while I looked after the kids. Then I would drop the kids at school and head straight over to help.”

From the beginning, aside from creating a delicious product, their aim was to establish a generational legacy. “Our dream was that our kids would take over and their kids after them. We were very lucky to have our son Sam step in six years ago to take the business to another level.”

One of the things Sam Mensah embraced was new technology and with it, he took Uncle John’s to new heights. Its products are now available in major supermarkets, sold up and down the country, and exported to France, Belgium and Italy. Sam was also invited to 10 Downing Street to showcase the business.

Quote: "I'm trying to keep pushing things, to innovate. Most of my inspiration comes from my brother."
Ronnie Mensah.

When the pandemic hit, Uncle John’s needed to update its customers online about how it was operating, such as the hours it was open, what safety procedures were in place and that deliveries were available. Using Google Business Profile – a free tool that enables businesses to take charge of their information appearing on Google Search and Maps – proved particularly useful for this.

As younger brother Ronnie says: “People were afraid to come out of their homes, but were trying to get hold of our products. So we made it so they could order through our website. Doing that was my brother Sam’s idea, before he passed away at the start of the year from Covid. Now I’m trying to keep pushing things, to innovate. Most of my inspiration comes from my brother.”

At the same time as the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was also gathering momentum. As well as providing an opportunity for people to learn more about challenging racism, conversations around BLM also led to greater support for Black-owned businesses. This was partly down to Black Pound Day (BPD), an initiative that encourages people to shop at Black-owned businesses – and one that is supported by Google, which also offers Black-owned businesses free online mentoring. “Black Pound Day was great,” says Ronnie. “But it’s not just Black people who support the products. We have every type of person coming in.”

For Ronnie, taking over the business after Sam’s tragic passing, while grieving his loss, was no mean feat, but thankfully Sam’s hard work meant the business was on solid ground. Ronnie had previously worked more on the logistical side of the business so some of the technological side was new to him. But he’s working to upskill himself in that area: “I’ve gotten involved in Google’s online courses and free mentoring and that is helping me get a handle on that side of the business.”

When it comes to selling online and expanding its customer base, Ronnie says Uncle John’s worked with Google and “it really helped us shape our company and look towards the future”.

Looking to the future after a tragedy can be hard, but the Mensah family not only want their business to continue thriving but to serve as an inspiration to others, too. Ronnie says: “The end goal is to inspire the youth and show them it’s possible to start their own business and push it to the heights that they want. Keep on pushing and you can hand it down to the next generation.”

To order from Uncle John’s Bakery, visit theunclejohnsbakery.com

‘The work I do is about prolonging lives’: how a local gym became a community hub

Javeno Mclean.

Javeno Mclean’s J7 Health Centre is not your typical gym, it’s a truly welcoming space that aims to attract people of all ages and abilities. The business grew from the ground up, after word-of-mouth recommendations resulted in hundreds of people attending Javeno’s classes. Here, he explains how embracing online marketing tools enabled him to strike out on his own and find new members – who came together to support the wider community during Covid lockdowns

How did the business take off initially?
It came from a lady called Brenda, she’s the queen! She’s 77 and if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have my reputation and built what I’ve built. I started doing exercise classes for the council 13 years ago and for months it was just me and Brenda. She loved it so much that she told somebody else and then 10 people turned up then 20, 40, 50 and eventually I was running some of the busiest classes in the UK with 140 people.

After a few years of so much popularity I made the decision to open my own facility and it’s been amazing. I find gyms can be the loneliest places, my goal was to have a facility that the whole family could turn up to.

I’ve won Gym of the Year twice and we’ve been able to do work for the elderly and disabled that’s taken the nation by storm.

When the gym closed during lockdown, what did you do to support the community?
I started delivering food to the more vulnerable members of our community. My gym members clocked on to what I was doing and started bringing in food; before long, the whole community was involved and more than 400 deliveries were made.

So giving something back to the community is important to the business?
I’ve never taken a penny off anyone disabled and for the past 10 years we’ve been doing free cancer rehab. I lost my auntie to it and I’d look at pictures of her and just want more time, another five minutes, another 10 seconds.

The work I do for free is about prolonging lives. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of health and fitness, we’re talking about life or death now. People have realised how important exercise is for your mind and your mental health.

Javeno Mclean.
Quote:  "I set up a Google profile to get my business seen by as many people as possible"

How do you use technology to reach more people?
I set up a Google Business Profile to get my business seen by as many people as possible. It’s helped my business grow by enabling me to be exposed to people who would never have found me. If it weren’t for Google a lot of people wouldn’t have discovered the business and the amazing work that we do.

How do you promote the gym online?
We post videos on YouTube and social media of people doing amazing things, like a lad called Josh standing out of his wheelchair for the first time, and then people will post videos of themselves – people who have had strokes or have dementia.

I get rewarded in the comments they post, particularly in the last couple of months. They also post reviews on the gym’s Google Business Profile and send me personal messages that I’d never share, but mean the world to me.

Google Ads have also been amazing for driving people to our videos on YouTube, reaching thousands of people. I feel I express my passion best in the videos. I’m very grateful for that, the reach has been amazing as we aren’t a major corporate gym.

To learn more about J7 Health Centre, visit j7healthcentre.co.uk

Discover the tools, training and support Google provides to help businesses across Britain grow at grow.google/intl/uk



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