How A Nigerian Bread Company Made It Big In Canada

Grey Matlock Bakery, a Canadian-based business, was established in 2018 by Adewale Rabiu, who relocated from Nigeria to Ontario in 2016. Upon arrival, he noticed the absence of his beloved Lagos food, Agege bread, and began exploring potential business opportunities. Fast forward to today, the company has expanded to include two bakeries, four franchises, and a presence in more than 350 stores across the country.

Adewale Rabiu and his family moved to Ontario, Canada in 2016, fulfilling their long-time desire to live abroad. Prior to relocating, Rabiu worked for MTN in Nigeria, and upon arrival in Canada, he secured a position as a senior business analyst at telecommunications company Rogers. However, Rabiu’s true passion was entrepreneurship, and despite his success in the telecommunications industry, he aspired to start his own business.

“When we were planning the move, we already discussed that if we found a business opportunity, we would grab it,” he says.

Upon settling into their new home city, the Rabiu family quickly realised that there was an absence of Nigerian bakeries, despite the large diaspora community. They especially missed Agege bread, a soft, fluffy, stretchy and sweet white bread – baked as large rectangular loaves – named after a neighbourhood in Lagos where it gained popularity and was distributed from. The potential for a viable business became apparent – if they could capture the market for Agege bread, they could establish a successful enterprise.

Setting up the first bakery

For Rabiu, who had held previous positions in sales and marketing, the first step was to understand the size of the market, the distribution channels available and the best way to get the product to the end customer.

He started speaking to different stores in the region that sold products aimed at the African and Caribbean diaspora, getting an estimate of the number of loaves these outlets would be able to buy from the bakery.

Armed with that information, he then researched the process required to set up a business in Ontario and all the required licensing and registrations. Then came the question of funding. “We were not going to get grants from the government at that time. We also did not want to approach the local banks for funding yet. So, we raised the capital from our own savings,” says Rabiu.

With funding in place, the company was registered, premises were leased and the equipment was purchased. Rabiu was still employed by Rogers but took annual leave at the end of 2017 to go back to Nigeria and learn everything he could about the process of baking Agege bread. Upon his return, the company started recruiting but could not find a single baker.

“I couldn’t believe it. We had set up the business and were ready but couldn’t find the employees! Out of necessity, I transferred all my knowledge to my wife and, initially, we did the baking ourselves,” he says. Later Rabiu took a leave of absence from his job at Rogers to focus on the bakery (he only fully resigned in 2019).

In March 2018, Grey Matlock Bakery produced its inaugural commercially baked bread – a modest batch of 14 loaves. This quantity was sufficient to supply one of the African stores, and the following day, a second batch was delivered to another outlet. As the days progressed, the company’s footprint organically expanded with more batches being distributed to additional stores.

“Four or five months after starting production we found a professional baker, but I still had to teach him the Nigerian way of baking. I needed to be hands-on,” he says.

The Nigerian way, with adjustments

In Nigeria, on the streets of Lagos, Agege bread can be bought as a whole loaf and will usually be pulled apart to scoop beans or soup, says Rabiu. “That is how we grew up.”

Despite the popularity of the bread, Grey Matlock Bakery soon discovered that customers were still opting to purchase pre-sliced loaves from larger supermarkets, as they reduced the time and effort required to prepare lunches for school or work. As a result, the company began offering sliced Agege bread under the name Butterfilled to cater to this demand. The original name was often challenging for prospective customers to pronounce.

Franchises for future growth – across North America and beyond

Currently, the bread can be found in more than 300 Afro-Caribbean stores nationwide. It is also available in more than 50 outlets of large supermarket chains such as No Frills, Real Canadian Superstores and Loblaws.

The original bakery in Brampton, Ontario, produces bread going to Quebec, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and even Saskatchewan. Grey Matlock also opened a second bakery in Calgary, in the province of Alberta, that distributes as far as British Columbia.

“Even with the two locations, we were disappointing customers that lived far away, and we realised we needed to look at a different model,” says Rabiu. Consequently, Grey Matlock made the strategic decision to offer franchise licences to interested parties.

“We are letting people, who would have been competition, build our brand,” says Rabiu. There are four franchise locations in Ontario, each paying the company royalties as part of the licence agreement.

While the original Agege bread remains the bakery’s bestseller, Grey Matlock Bakery has since diversified its offerings to include other types of bread and baked goods such as whole wheat bread and bread buns.

Rabiu is dreaming big. A recent viral video has helped queries come in from as far abroad as Australia. However, the first big goal is to become a national Canadian bread brand that can compete with the likes of Dempster’s and Wonder Bread.

The next step would be to expand with franchises into the US. There has also been some interest from the UK.

“Thanks to the growth we’ve seen, that is how our vision has shifted already,” says Rabiu. “In the next couple of years, maybe we will see if we can sell into every part of the world.”