THE BROWNS BONDED BY LOVE AND BUSINESS

It is not often that a stroke of misfortune carries a seed of success that germinates and grows into a plant which offers rewarding comfort. Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha encounter an inspiring couple, Edward and Wondrous Brown, who were drawn together by an unlikely circumstance. There are many ways in which Providence plays a hand in the affairs of men. Take the case of Edward Brown, for instance, what became the defining point in his life started as a result of his father’s illness. The elder Brown who was a prominent lawyer in Anambra State had taken ill and had to undergo surgery in Atlanta, United States of America. To be with their ailing head, the entire family including his mother who was a top shot and a retired Chief Registrar in the Anambra State judiciary had to relocate. Unfortunately, the process went wrong and the ailing man went into a coma from which he never recovered.

A post-mortem would later reveal that the hospital administered an overdose of a medication that led to his eventual death. Devastated, the family went to court to seek redress. The hospital wasted no time in proposing an out-of-court settlement that offered compensation, which included paying tuition up to university level for Brown and his siblings.

Going to America meant starting all over again for Edward who had done one year studying Biology at the University of Ibadan. His father had wanted him to be a doctor. But since he could not get admission to study Medicine, he was ready to kick-start his university education with the study of Biology. Apparently he was not destined to work as a medical doctor, even when he had another opportunity as a result of his newfound home in America and the scholarship that came with his father’s passage, he could not go beyond what they call Physician Assistant. “I couldn’t complete it because I have a phobia for blood. There was a time we were dissecting a frog in the lab and I threw up. I knew then that was not what I wanted to do.”

The relocation to the States was a blessing in disguise in many ways. First, he was able to return to his first love of culinary vocation and also found his true love, Wondrous Carter.

As a student, he worked part time in a restaurant called ‘This is it’ owned by Wondrous’ family. Starting from the bottom of the ladder, he worked his way to the top in double quick time. Within a period of 18 months, Brown progressed from being a mere cleaner to the general manager of the restaurant. His rapid success endeared him to the lady who would later become his wife. Wondrous who was perched on the arm of Brown’s office chair took the narrative from there. Before now, she was content to look on contemplatively, smiling sometimes as her husband told his story.

“My aunt owned the ‘This is it’ food chain. It’s a franchise. At the time, I was the head cook. So when he came in, I told him to go…She paused to look at him with that unuttered question, raising her eyebrow, like should I tell them? and the husband shrugged. So she continued. “I told him wash up the dishes and he said ‘I’m the man, we don’t do such.’” She laughed and continued,

“But we liked each other instantly.”

Touching his head playfully, she unwittingly disclosed that Edward’s macho persona may not only imagine injury when there is a suggestion to domestic duties, it also feels an affront if he is perceived weak in matters of the heart. Wondrous knew how to massage his ego. “He likes to believe that as soon as I saw him, I became attracted to him which I wasn’t. But I liked him. For women, feelings get in the way but when you genuinely like the person, it’s there even before the attraction. We really liked each other first which, I think, is a good foundation for any relationship.”

Another thing that caught Wondrous’ attention was Brown’s enterprising spirit. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, it was easy for her admiration for Brown to grow.

According to her, Brown ran the restaurant and a mechanical workshop simultaneously. “He was amazing. I used to visit him at his workshop. You would see him take a malfunctioning car apart and put it back together. And the best part was that he was self-trained.” Even if his name did not immediately give away his Nigerian ethnic group, his restless entrepreneurial spirit did. Not that he was hiding it. But you needed to probe. “I’m from Onitsha in Anambra state,” he said. “My Ibo name is Okwudili. The Brown family is a prominent one in Onitsha.” Going by the general perception that Onitsha people are traders, Brown’s love for the culinary art was rather curious. He explained. “The main indigenes of Onitsha go to school. They don’t trade. They are more of professionals. They are doctors, engineers and moreover you could hardly find anyone who is a true Onitsha indigene trading in the main market. They don’t trade. It’s just a misperception that Onitsha people are traders. The people who trade in Onitsha market are southerners, northerners, and other Ibo people.”

For the record, Brown could pass for a model or a corporate CEO. There’s nothing about his looks that portrayed his handiness. His braided hair and elegant physique could easily make him the brand image of a company. He would later reveal that he was once approached by a telecommunications company to be the brand face but turned down the offer because the money he was offered wasn’t worthwhile. Brown’s proclivity towards the kitchen was spurred at an early age. He recalled that his mother loved tending the family farm at Onitsha. He frequently accompanied his mother delightedly to pick farm produce. His mother, he said, was also very good in the kitchen and being the last child, he spent most of his time with her either in the farm or in the kitchen. She taught him the basic skills in cooking. Unknown to him, at the time, those culinary lessons would become the bedrock of his vocation.

For this interview, he tried to look his best. Donning a pristine blue suit and black trousers, he welcomed the journalists into his office. Not quite successful in his attempt to hide his nervousness, he at times placed a mobile device in front of him or occasionally stole glances at his American wife, Wondrous. “I have never been interviewed like this for a newspaper,” He confessed. The first and only time he was interviewed was during the last edition of ‘Eat. Drink. Lagos’ exhibition. Of the numerous stands available, only his stand seemed to attract more customers. This prompted a television crew to interview him. The interview was rushed because he was distracted by a swam of customers who wanted his attention.

But he was surprised to see himself on CNN. The exhibition was aired on one of their special programmes. It was a good milestone for him.

Smiling, Brown revealed how he got into the world of mechanical engineering. The picture he painted was a familiar one. Depending on your neighbourhood, if you are out on the balcony reading this, the scenario may be playing out right before your eyes. “As a child, I loved automobiles, cars precisely. I used to build little cars with used cups of milk, fit them out with rubber tires and roll them down the street. I did all that stuff. In America, the opportunity presented itself in a different way. My brother-in-law was into the car business, so I picked interest. He is a good man. He put me through how to trade in cars. I used to go to the auto-repair shops to watch the guys that fix the cars. If I look at what you are doing, I learn quickly. I started learning how to fix cars just by watching them do it and I became good at it.”
It didn’t take long before he perfected his skill. He was so good at it that the people who used to fix his cars for him now came to him to fix their cars. Not only that, a Honda car company in Atlanta requested for his services.

“They told me to give them my worker to paint their cars for them. And the worker was me but I couldn’t tell them that I was the worker, the CEO of my company. I told them to bring the cars that I couldn’t give them my worker. That was it. In America, if you can paint cars for Russians, then you are a very good painter because these people don’t give their money to nobody. They will never pay you to fix their cars because they are good at it. But for them to come and pay me to paint their cars, I was better than them.” His combined skills became the main sources of his income by the time he returned to Nigeria. From selling cars, he opened a workshop at Ikoyi where he fixed cars. This was before his wife could join him, five years, after he returned to Nigeria. What kept her away for so long? Her family initially objected. As the years rolled by, the ice of resistance melted and the coast was clear for her to reunite with her husband.

By the time she was ready to join him, he was doing excellently well. But having his wife around presented its challenges. The first task was to get her busy. Like her husband, Wondrous had meddled into a few things before she found her calling in dressing hair.

Her first job in Nigeria was at a salon in Lekki. Her presence in the salon was an instant hit. The demand for her to become her own boss was pressing. Luckily, her husband found a place in Victoria Island-Lagos for the salon. Wondrous Hair was born.

For all her skill at making hair, Wondrous seldom touches her husband’s hair. “Family and friends are never the best to fix their hair. My husband complains a lot when his hair is being fixed.” She was laughing as he nodded in agreement.

He decided to manage it in order to help her deal with technical issues and customer relations. Paying more attention to the salon reduced his attention on the automobile business. And because he wanted to be with his wife more, he took the painful decision to close his workshop in Ikoyi. After a while, his wife suggested they open a restaurant. At first, he was reluctant. He later gave in when a space became available in the same building and the second enterprise in their growing business, Smokey Bones Lounge and Restaurant was opened. Both businesses are housed in the same building and they work as a team.

The Browns have their businesses tucked into the serene ambiance of FABAC Close, behind the Exxon-Mobil headquarters.

Smokey Bones is patterned after its inspiration, ‘This is It’ the American soul-food restaurant that gave his wife and fired his ambition.

It is not easily noticeable, except of course to people who either stumbled on the restaurant or know its owner personally. The restaurant has become known for menus that speak to the heart. A trait the owner, Edward Brown is so proud of. Within its three-year existence, the restaurant has garnered an impressive, dedicated individual and corporate clientele. Its services are sought after by the discerning who like to host their expatriates and guests in the top echelon to a palatable lunch and dinner. Increase in demand for his services urged Brown to acquire more space for his teeming clients. What used to be a small dining room is now a spacious setting that occupies a big bar, a band-stand and more seats and tables arranged in an unconventional style. For instance, there are tables for two, four and six; couches for relaxation, and even lounging chairs. Guests could come in during break hours for lunch or after close of work to relax. The interior decor reeks of artistic taste, coziness and homeliness. With colourful walls and soft music playing in the background, the restaurant exudes the right aura for a homely dining experience. Even the menu card is eye-catchy. Starting with intercontinental cuisines, one is attracted to the pictorial representations of the variety of meals on display.

With everything in place, Brown is set to take his business to the next level. He understands the importance of marking his presence in the industry.

by Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha