BUCKTOWN — A bakery selling Nigerian bread, meat and chicken pies, cookies and other sweets has opened a public-facing store in Bucktown.
Joba Food & Bakery, 2039 N. Western Ave., is owned and operated by Olugbemisola Olawumi, who has been baking at the Bucktown space for the past several years.
At the center of the business is Olawumi’s fresh agege bread, which she calls Nigerian-style brioche. The bread is found everywhere in her home country, Olawumi said, but can difficult to come by in Chicago.
“It’s a staple that cuts across socio-economic status in the country, because every table pretty much at some point has agege bread,” she said. “It lends well to pretty much anything.”
Olawumi opened the shop for retail customers in December, adding new items and a range of drinks like Maltina, a malt beverage popular in Nigeria.
The store is also a hub for Joba’s wholesale business, which sells to about 10 grocery stores in Chicago and a few more in the suburbs, Olawumi said.
Olawumi has long cooked for friends and family, but she didn’t set out to become a baker when moved to Chicago from Nigeria about 20 years ago, she said.
That began to change when a pastor at her church in Rogers Park — where Olawumi also lives — suggested someone start a Nigerian food business.
Olawumi’s first product was moin moin, a Nigerian bean casserole, which proved popular in her community, she said.
“In the Nigerian community, from church and friends, I said, ‘I now have a business,’ so people will do parties, and [moin moin] is a good party staple,” she said.
She then started making meat pies, which she has for sale at the Bucktown store, before making agege bread.
It wasn’t easy at first. Olawumi said some of her first attempts ended up in the trash before she perfected her recipe.
“I did trial and error in my own mini lab, in my kitchen and all that, getting the right texture. Calling experts back home, I was like, ‘okay, is this supposed to look like this?” she said.
Since starting to bake bread in 2017, demand has grown steadily, Olawumi said. She’s even had stores in Wisconsin and Indiana reach out to stock her loaves.
“Joba Foods & Bakery is the only Nigerian bakery that is in Chicago, if not in Illinois, and we are the only agege bread that is on the market. There are agege-style breads, but this is the real thing,” she said.
Olawumi soon plans more offerings at Joba Foods, including moin moin and akara, the fried “cousin” of moin moin, she said.
As she continues to operate in Bucktown, Olawumi said she wants to both provide Nigerian staples to her community in Chicago while also diversifying the neighborhood’s food scene for people unfamiliar with the country’s cuisine.
But there’s also a more basic function Olawumi sees for her business: making people happy.
“Somebody can come in here, grab a cookie, and that makes their day. Somebody comes in with a smile and you talk to them and they feel better,” she said. “Just making our neighborhood, our city, a better place. One cookie at a time, one pie at a time, one agege bread at a time.”
Joba Foods & Bakery is open 10 a.m.- 4p.m. Thursday-Saturday.
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