John Otagburuagu founded Black Cowboy Coffee in August 2015. As the name might suggest, the street cafe serves coffee and waffles (as well as smoothies and other foods). As for the black cowboy, well that’s John.
Why a ‘cowboy’, you might ask? The simple reason is that John has been obsessed with cowboys since he was a child and when living in the United States he discovered that Afro-Americans were central to the legend of the cowboy, so wanted to continue this legend.
Prior to setting up the business, John was working as truck driver in the US and living in Richmond, Texas. When working in Texas, John’s cowboy persona unsurprisingly didn’t particularly stick out. However John had plans to move to the UK and knew things wouldn’t be so easy to express himself as a cowboy – he realised he’d need to be his own boss if he wanted to continue having fun as a cowboy.
When John arrived in London, he was, in his own words “destitute and living out of a room in a hostel.” He was not used to this and wanted to change his situation. At his local job centre he was told about the Start Up Loan scheme, and so he applied for a loan. Since receiving it he has not looked back. As John says, “the loan was a lifesaver, I came back here from the US, I was living in a hostel, but I found out about the loan scheme. I was so pleased to get this as I didn’t have credit records or a house in the UK.”
Initially after hearing about the loan, the question for John was ‘what business could he set up?’ Having thought about it, John decided to set up a café – he had prior experience in the service industry and had a love for good coffee, particular as it was a favoured drink of cowboys. John also had a love for Belgian waffles and wanted to make Liege waffles – which are denser, richer, sweeter and chewier than other Belgian waffles. He discovered theses waffles in Liege when he and a group of friends bought an old Mercedes and travelled throughout Europe. “Your first experience of a Liege waffle, will last in your memory.”
Once John had received the loan, he immediately started the street café in London. It was, however, a challenging start. John was a lone parent for the first two years of the business as his American wife was still awaiting a visa to move to the UK. This meant that John had to do the school run for his three young daughters before heading to Elephant and Castle to set up his homemade stall. By the time John was able to do this he would have unfortunately missed the busy morning commuters grabbing their coffee on the way to work.
John had to attract new customers, and decided that the best way to do this was by being himself. He would dance and sing, and soon he was drawing in customers who became regulars at Black Cowboy Coffee and Waffles.
Now that John was getting a regular crowd of customers and turning over a profit, he wanted to grow and develop the authentic cowboy experience. After being advised by his mentor that he could apply for a second loan, John went out and bought a horsebox trailer kit. Working from 4am until 12am every day, the horsebox trailer took John two weeks to make. It has allowed him to increase his capacity and saves him valuable time in the morning now that he doesn’t have to set up his stall.
Elephant and Castle is a rapidly changing area, with gentrification bringing in the big coffee chains. John however believes he can hang onto his spot by providing a unique and valuable experience to his customers. This enthusiasm is shared in some of the glowing reviews from customers he has received.
John has great ambitions for the business. He is in the process of hiring a new pair of hands, and within a year he would like to acquire another horsebox. His ultimate aim is to buy a horsebox lorry, which would allow him to travel to concerts and festivals to sell his waffles and coffees whilst (dancing and singing, of course!)