There are very few business people or entrepreneurs that I come across that genuinely have a passion for what they do and also keep their customers at the forefront of their business.
Young entrepreneur, Francis Opoku (aka Mr Plantain Crisp) from South East London is one of those rare people. His sincerity and business ethos have seen him sell out within hours in popular market stalls to catering for one of the most prestigious law firms in London.
At the start of COVID-19, Francis faced redundancy but took the opportunity to start a business to share his passion for plantain and make people smile with his extraordinary flavours he creates in his own kitchen.
I was honoured with the opportunity to interview Francis on his journey to becoming the “Walkers [Crisps] of plantain crisps.” You would be inspired by his resilience, positivity and humility despite the challenges he faced and continues to overcome.
What were you doing before Mr. Plantain Crisp?
At college I studied electrical engineering because I’ve always loved being a hands-on type of person. Unfortunately, I didn’t get anywhere with it so I started working at a car wash just to start making a living. I then worked at Dominos, Primark and Ladbrokes. Later, I went on to work for a production company as an operations officer for 2 years.
Even though I was an employee, I’ve always been very entrepreneurial and business minded. I always wanted to do something else. While I was at work, I was saving money and I went into investing back home in Ghana. I travelled to there to buy land for a whole cocoa farm to start farming and trading cocoa back to the UK, but that never pulled through.
Instead, I bought a stall in Ghana to buy and sell products. I took a trip to China to research into sourcing materials to take back to the Ghana to sell but ended up not having enough money. So, I thought I’ll try to put something else together. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pursue this due to the pandemic in 2020.
How did you come up with ‘Mr Plantain Crisp’?
Just before Covid-19, I came up with this idea and I’ve always been a plantain lover. When I used to buy plantain crisps, I used to look at the packaging and it wasn’t so appealing. I used to say to myself, “Why are they treating it like this? – It’s just like anything. How about they add some more flavour or add something to it?” And that’s how I came up with the idea for Mr. Plantain Crisp.
When did you start your business?
I thought about the idea for some time but didn’t put it into action until the first lockdown in 2020 when I was on furlough. I said to myself, “Well I might not have a job to go back to and I’m not doing anything. Let me just start Mr Plantain Crisp – let me just try.”
Where did you get the inspiration to create the flavours for your crisps?
When I started, I didn’t know how the flavours where going to taste. I just got up one day and thought, “Oh, how about BBQ? That would be nice!” So, I wrote that down and then thought, “Garlic would be nice,” then all the flavours just started coming to me.
Plantain is usually sweet so if you can have something sweet AND spicy I thought that’ll work. I got the jerk flavour inspiration Caribbean shops I visit. They usually have plantain with pretty much everything.
The inspiration also came from dishes I’ve had before and where plantain just naturally went well with it. That’s essentially where I got inspiration for all the flavours.
Where do you currently make your plantain crisps?
I make all my products by hand in my own kitchen. My business is based in South East London. Sometimes I hire a kitchen but for the most part I make it at home. I make my products in big batches which includes seasoning, frying and drying the chips and then packaging, marketing and selling them.
I pretty much do everything myself. When my mum is around she helps me with the cooking side of things. My partner and my sister support me when they can too.
How did you launch your business?
I actually didn’t do a trial run of my crisps to see how it was going to taste to my customers. I just put everything online and I got a positive reaction. People were saying, “Wow, this is sick When are you launching?”
I launched in 2020 and started delivering it myself. I wanted people to get to know me too and that there was a real person behind the brand so they can also get a feel of my vibe and experience Mr Plantain Crisp. Customers initially thought I was just a delivery driver but It gave me the opportunity to introduce myself as the business owner – putting a face to a name.
My friend also encouraged me to post on social media to make it known Mr Plantain Crisp is also a black-owned business. I was hesitant at first, but I put myself out there and it just took off.
How did you feel about the positive responses?
I got a lot of positive responses, but I knew my products could be much better. It got to a point that I wasn’t really happy and I felt like giving up. I felt like what I was offering wasn’t good enough, so I stopped for a while.
I then came back to it and said to myself, “I’m going to make it better.” I thought of new ways to improve my products. I’ve always been handy and creative. So, I bought equipment to blend the spices better and found new methods to ensure the plantain was seasoned really well. It had to taste exactly as what you see on the packaging. I wanted my customers to REALLY taste it.
I soon got it to where I wanted it. I got so excited and started selling again. The improvements were well-received by customers. They were even asking me when where my products going to be in the supermarkets.
What were some of the highlights of your business?
To expand the business, I started doing my first market stall in Wandsworth. I was panicking at first because I wasn’t sure if people were going to like my products. In the first two hours I had completely sold out! The guy who ran the event actually got upset, like I had paid for a pitch and I sold out in just two hours. I came back the next weekend loaded with more products (200 pieces). Within 3-4 hours I had sold out! The feedback was so positive. The customers said that they’ve never tasted anything like it and they loved the packaging.
I then moved to Tottenham market and again I got an insane reaction there too. I’ve been there four times and the same people kept returning. It got so overwhelming sometimes. The feedback that I got, I often didn’t believe them. I’m so focused on creating products that I forget how good it is until someone tells me.
In November 2020, I was approached by a law firm, Hogan Lovells. My auntie works there and she asked me to make some crisps for their event. The company’s chef contacted me and initially I thought they’d order a few hundred pieces. I sent them a sample of my limited edition sweet cinnamon crisps because it was Christmas-y flavours.
To be honest, I actually didn’t even taste it before I sent it over to them as a sample. I didn’t even have the correct packaging, but they told me they really wanted it. They asked if I had the packaging ready. I said I did when I actually I was still working on it. It took a while for them to get back to me to confirm exactly how much product they needed but I just went ahead to get 800 packets printed.
They got back to me and then said they wanted 1,200 pieces! I couldn’t believe it and I had one week to complete the order. It was so last minute but my auntie encouraged me to find a way to do it. So, I put pressure on my suppliers for the extra packaging. I even recruited my sister and my parents to help with making and packing the sweet cinnamon crisps. I gave myself a target to make a certain amount each day. It was so tiring and my family have jobs too. I was behind sleep for about 2 days – I had to make it happen. In the end it was a success! I managed to give them the products 2 days ahead.
On the day of the event, the feedback I received was crazy – everyone loved it. The same law firm contacted me again for more of my products at their Easter event.
What are some of the challenges you face as a business owner/entrepreneur?
One of the challenges is the feedback I get on the pricing of my products. Some of my own people say it’s too expensive. I believe in my product and I am offering something different and exciting, from the flavours right down to the packaging. The crisps are handmade and the packaging is resealable to keep the contents fresh. This also gives the customer the choice to eat it all in one go or save for later. It’s a flavourful and healthy product too. I know my competitors price their products cheaper, but I believe I offer something different.
Scaling the business has also been challenging. Everything is very labour intensive but it’s worth it. I also work at Amazon Fresh as a supervisor whilst managing my business. Some days, I start are 5am to get what I need for my business.
I’m looking for funding to invest in a marketing team to take the brand to the next level as well as product development and finding manufacturers to scale production. When you try to sell to retailers, they expect a certain level of production. There are times when I feel discouraged and I need a lot of support in terms of networking with the right people. It can be challenging to find the right people to help me take my business to the next level.
My dyslexia sometimes has a knock on my confidence. I can barely spell sometimes and I have trouble articulating myself which has been challenging when doing interviews. It’s something I’m improving on and I’ve been building my confidence.
Who or what inspires you to keep going?
I have a note that I’ve written that reminds me to challenge myself to be better than Walkers. I want to be in the top snacks market.
My mum as well encourages me to keep going and, day by day, I try to do something to make the business work. I’m not a quitter too and I’m not stopping.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a business?
The advice I would give is that they need to ask themselves the question, “Is this what I REALLY want to do?” If it’s something that they love, then they should definitely start. If they start, they need to stay consistent. It’s not an easy route. They’ll need to open themselves up for a lot of sacrifice whether it be financially or emotionally. They’ll need to sacrifice their time but they need to always ask for help and never feel like they need to know everything. They should always reach out for help and never feel shy to say, “Hey, I don’t understand this. Is there anyone out there that knows this.” It takes a team of people to make things happen.
I’d also encourage them to network and step outside their comfort zone such as working with people, joining programmes, studying, researching and always learning from people who have done what you’ve done. There were times I felt like avoiding conversations, but I’ve learned to force myself out of my comfort zone in order to build relationships with other people to progress my business.
Expect failures. You shouldn’t feel discouraged but take that as a learning curve.
Also, take advice from other people and be open-minded. Never feel like your way is always the best way. Listen to what other people may have to say. Listen before you speak. Even if you don’t want to do what the other person is saying, try it anyways.
What future plans do you have for your business?
The aim is to work on Mr Plantain Crisp full time and to be known as the experts of plantain. So, when people look at Mr Plantain Crisp, they see more than just the plantain itself. For example, I want to educate consumers to see plantain more than just a snack like crisps or a simple side dish that is typically served with Afro-Caribbean dishes. There’s so much more you can do with plantain, and Mr Plantain Crisp is going to inspire people to use it more creatively.
I’ve got some crazy stuff coming up, like expanding the product range. I’m just waiting for funding to come through for things to start coming into fruition.
What are you most proud of about your business?
That I just started a business – that’s what I’m most proud of. I thought that I’d just give it a try and I’m proud that people love my products. Honestly, as tired as I get sometimes, I can imagine someone tasting my products and be like, “Oh my gosh! This is just amazing!” and that puts a smile on my face. I’m so happy someone loves something that I took a chance on and that people love something that I love.
Find out more about Francis and his business
Click HERE to discover more about Mr Plantain crisp and to purchase his incredibly delicious crisps!