In the wake of winning ‘Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars’, the last thing Victoria Omobuwajo seems to care about is prize money.
In what can only be described as The Apprentice of food, the show gave twelve food and drink entrepreneurs the chance to fight for an investment of £150,000 [$185,000] from Ramsay himself. And Omobuwajo’s plantain-based snack brand, Sunmo, left victorious.
“Going into the show I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I felt well-prepared as I have already had a lot of experience in the food industry and know my strengths and weaknesses, but the Sunmo journey has been a roller-coaster.”
Aged just 14, the financial crisis had left the Londoner feeling like job security wasn’t guaranteed and the best way to make a living—and create a successful legacy—would be to start her own business.
“Sunmo also grew from my desire at a young age to make a difference, not only to my future, but to those around me with a similar background,” she says. “I wanted to prove that we can earn just as much success as anyone else.”
Despite being unsure about where she wanted to focus her attention, her long-term struggles with severe eczema and several food intolerances came with a silver lining: a passion to discover and utilize nutritious foods. Plantain, in particular.
With the idea to create a brand built on naturally-sweet baked plantain crisps, Omobuwajo raised investment of £100,000 [$123,700] through investors she had met during an internship at a private bank in 2019.
“With this investment Sunmo launched into Selfridges, Whole Foods Market and Sainsbury’s, all within two years,” she says, “but I quickly realised that, to launch into large retail, Sunmo would need upwards of a seven-figure investment. The MOQ and staffing costs to launch into retail stores are high.”
To plug as much as she could into the business, she didn’t pay herself a salary but hired staff and worked night shifts to pay her rent.
“Six months into Sunmo’s launch I was studying full-time, working night shifts as a healthcare assistant, and working full-time on Sunmo. It led me to burnout.”
At her lowest point, she was so exhausted travelling home from a night shift she crashed her car on the motorway.
“I walked away with a few bruises and a written-off car. I am truly grateful to be here as it could have been a lot worse and thankfully no-one was hurt.”
Which is why, in many aspects, the opportunity to bring the world’s most famous chef on as an investor was about much more than the money.
“I was approached via email to apply for Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars and was contacted by an executive producer the day after I submitted my application,” she says. “But the process to get on the show spanned two years, starting in 2020.”
After countless Zoom interviews and postponed filming schedules (due to the pandemic), however, her whirlwind Future Food Stars journey began.
“I felt confident from the first day of filming and knew I just needed to show my skills to Gordon [Ramsay].
“He is an extremely caring individual. Behind the scenes he gave us encouragement and tips on how to build our businesses and personal brands. I would love more people to see this side of him. He really wants the best for people.”
The celebrity chef put contenders through a series of challenges to test their personality and business acumen for eight weeks, including branding challenges, cooking challenges and more.
“One of the biggest lessons I learnt was the need to have confidence in your ideas,” says Omobuwajo. “Working with strong personalities meant ideas could often get shut down prematurely and I quickly learnt to trust my instincts and put forward ideas with boldness and conviction.”
With the entrepreneurs’ skill-sets and respective businesses (including small-batch Indian sauces, apple cider vinegar seltzers, brownies, bottled cocktails, artisan smoked salmon and more) put to the test, many found it difficult to deal with the pace. Including Omobuwajo.
“We had really tight deadlines to come up with new products, brand concepts and designs that would normally take weeks for a team to create,” she admits. “Having said that, the pace meant that we could test ideas quickly and adapt, which was brilliant.”
So, too, was the show’s immediate impact on the business. Since Future Food Stars show aired, Sunmo’s online orders have increased by 300% month on month.
“Our biggest sales increase was with episode eight of the show, where the Sunmo brand featured. When I won we had a sales increase of 1,543%!”
In that episode, Ramsay challenged his three finalists to ‘fix’ their business’ weak spots. For Sunmo, Omobuwajo was asked to expand into a new product category. The result—a line of high-protein, low-calorie shakes—went down a storm with consumers and industry professionals alike.
“I actually hadn’t thought of expanding into drinks before the final challenge. The fact that Gordon Ramsay could see growth and potential in the Sunmo brand makes me appreciate working with him even more.”
And, holding strong to her convictions, she still believes working with Ramsay far outweighs the financial ‘win’.
“Gordon Ramsay has established a globally successful brand and to have access to that experience and knowledge is invaluable. Having Gordon Ramsay as a business partner has opened so many more doors for the business and boosted Sunmo’s outreach and credibility beyond anything I could have hoped.”
In the short time since the show has aired, Sunmo has already began exporting into the US and Kuwait, as well as partnering with Picture House Cinemas and Bloomberg offices.
With her ‘catapult’ investment secured from Ramsay, she is also now working towards securing VC funding to turn Sunmo into a billion-pound brand.
“I like to think Gordon is proud to be part of the business, which makes me even more driven to make Sunmo a global brand and provide a huge return on investment.
“I see Sunmo as a Unicorn business and my plans are to make this a reality.”