A man known by many names, Jemal Peters knows the streets of London only too well. Motivated by the arrival of his daughter, the now savvy businessman picked himself off the streets to form Big J’s Kitchen, a business that blends elements of London culture to offer ‘Da Flavour of Da Street!’
Hi Jemal. Can you start by telling us a bit about your background?
Where do I start? I’m south London born and raised. I’m a go-getter with a passion for food and drink,
I grew up with my mum and two brothers, and since I was a child I’ve always been known for having entrepreneurial ways and a go-getter attitude… I’m known for making things happen (smiles).
Have you always been known as Big J and who created the name?
(Laughs), no I wasn’t always called Big J; I’ve also had a few different names… Chuckie, Glasses, Harry (don’t ask), Bigz, X-man and Gigantic J… and that’s just the names I know of – but my mum calls me handsome. My name is Jemal, I’m 6ft 4 tall and wide! Big J and Gigantic J is just the best way for people to describe me I guess… I liked it, so I ran with Big J aka Gigantic J.
What aspects did you learn from your childhood that you have taken into the business?
Most of it! The obvious things I’ve taken into business are my cooking skills, the ability to taste and mix flavours then create something special.
From early on I learnt how to hustle and I knew that if something cost me £1… I’d sell it for at least £2, which to me is the fundamental point of a business. Certain situations happened in life which enabled me to realise from a young age that the world owes you nothing but at the same is willing to give you anything and everything you want… all you’ve got to do is go get it! So I’ve had a saying that I created from a young age: “A dream’s worth nothing, if you leave it on your pillow!”, so anything I want in life… I pray for it then work hard to get it.
There are not many Caribbean focused eateries or restaurants in the UK. Can you tell us why that is?
Where I’m from there are plenty! In some areas there’re more yard shops (Caribbean food shops) than McDonalds! (laughs) It depends where you are I guess. Don’t worry, just grab some Big J products and you can have authentic eateries in your own front room!
What is your favourite Caribbean dish and what do you find sells well in the business?
I don’t have one… I don’t even have a favorite dish in general… I’m a big lad – I like plates full of meat with a little veg or salad, as long I’ve got that I’m good. I don’t believe in having a favorite dish; my passions are too big for that! There are too many styles of food and varieties. I’ve grown up in London… it’s full of diversity and a beautiful blend of cultures; that’s allowed me to enjoy street food and home cooked meals from all different cultures and that’s why even though I’ve got a Jamaican family heritage, Big J’s Kitchen represents London. London represents a wide range of cultures which allow me to enjoy and authentically represent a wide range of cuisines that myself and others love and grew up on… From British to Chinese to Indian to Mexican to African to American and of course Caribbean.
Okay so we’ve heard you might ‘steal the crown’ for the King of Caribbean food in the UK from Levi Roots this year… have you met Levi?
The question is, has Levi met me?! (laughs) I’ve seen him once or twice at a few events and we’ve spoken… he’s a cool guy, I still haven’t seen the infamous guitar though!
It’s a massive compliment; what are your thoughts when people say this to you?
It is, he’s done well for himself… but I’ve seen a few tricks that I think he’s missed. I get told that I’m gonna take Levi’s spot at least once a week and I’ve got a lot of respect for Levi and what he’s done; he got off his behind and made it happen, but Big J’s Kitchen’s the future and I’m coming for it all! Big J’s Kitchen is the first food brand to represent London and show what we’re really about out here. Levi and no one else in the food industry has done this.
Admirably you support young offenders through some social programmes you’ve implemented. Can you explain more about how these work?
Yeah, that’s something close to my heart. Growing up, I was classed as a young offender, I did a lot of crazy things. Thank God I’m still here and I never went to prison, but that was just because I was lucky!
Anyway to cut a long story short, I managed to flip the script and before starting Big J’s Kitchen, I began working with serious young offenders in Wandsworth borough going from sessional worker to manager in two years. The passion for working with young people kept me there, but the more I progressed the more I didn’t want to be stuck in a job. So when I had my light bulb moment and created Big J’s Kitchen, I made a vow to myself to help young people with the aim that once my products go into major supermarkets I’ll take a percentage of my profits and fund a programme for young people. I created a programme called “OR?” where young people involved are given mentoring and support around business or career plans and ideas, then at the end of each year, three young people are given tailor-made awards to help them achieve their goals.
What difficulties have you experienced setting up these initiatives?
At the moment the main difficulty is that my company is a start up. I’m in some top quality stores but the turnover is small so there haven’t been any substantial profits to be able to run the programme. So currently I work with a few local organisations and a few young people directly and help where I can.
Why is it important to you to support young offenders?
As I mentioned, it’s close to my heart. Young people are the future of this country and this world!
How I look at it, when you’re young you’re allowed to make mistakes, it’s a part of growing up. It’s not fair to be judged on that forever. You’ll be amazed at the talent and skills that young offenders, and young people in general, possess! It’s just that sometimes circumstances have them using those skills in the wrong environment. When your fridge at home is full, Its easy to tell a hungry man he’s wrong for doing what he does to feed his family and turn your back on him. I prefer to help a man find a correct way to feed his family so we can all live well. If I can genuinely be a part of giving someone a chance to a better life that they deserve… I’m involved!
Do you ever find yourself dealing with people that are reluctant to commit to changing their lives, and if so, how do you deal with this attitude?
You’re going to find that attitude anywhere in the world. Luckily I find more people wanting to better themselves rather than the opposite. First thing I always remember is I’m not God… Who am I to tell a man what to do, if I can help I will, but it’s not for me to deal with someone’s attitude, that’s something they have got to do for themselves.
Talking of social, you’ve amassed a high following through Instagram. Tell us how you’ve used the app to your advantage…
I’m always on the lookout for what’s new and ways of doing things that haven’t been done before. My brother takes some top quality photography and about a year or two back he was telling me about this thing called Instagram. He was on it sharing pics and he had people from all over the world contacting him. Facebook was good and Twitter’s cool, I’ll go on them now and then, but I prefer things more visual, so ‘insta’ was perfect for me. I used my name; Gigantic_J and then it all started! I noticed a trend that people would always take pictures of their food and post it… so not only did I start slapping meals up using my products, I also got everyone involved by doing competitions where people put the #BigJsKitchen hashtag on their food pictures and automatically get added to the competition where they could win special Big J Goodie bags and the winning pictures would go up on my website. This took off and went out of control; I got a number of followers and business contacts which led to Big J’s Kitchen products being put in Puma Sports VIP goodie bags for the London 2012 Olympics and many other promotions. This was vital in showing the world that London’s not just tea and crumpets; we have a new food brand that represents the fun, real and diverse urban side on the up – Big J’s Kitchen, “Da Flavour Of Da Street”!
How do you think non-food related businesses could utilise the image-sharing concept to gain a following?
In exactly the same way. Seeing is believing; it allows people to see what you’re about and get involved with you. A product’s a product, whether it’s food, trainers, clothing or technology. Find your community in there and let them see what you’ve got! Also no one likes stingy people, so give something back… prizes, giveaways, discounts whatever. Social networking is major and it’s only getting bigger… you can reach all corners of the world and it’s usually free! You’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.
What can you tell us about your knowledge of the UKs urban streets today?
I can show you better than I can tell you! Big J’s Kitchen is a direct reflection of the UK’s Urban Streets… so what you see here is the streets. It’s a place full of many special things but unfortunately the negative usually gets focused on.
On your site you mentioned that in the past you were involved in doing things ‘you probably shouldn’t have been doing…but due to the circumstances you found it necessary at the time’, can you tell us more about these experiences?
My mum’s the first go-getter I’ve ever known! She made sure her children had, even when financially we had very little, somehow she made sure we ate at night. So as a child I never really noticed that we were quite poor because my mum was such a good mother. But when I was young, about ten years old, she got ill and almost died and she’s been battling with illnesses ever since… My mum and my brothers ensured I got what I could but I felt bad asking for money that was not there. So, in my mind, from the age of ten, I was ready to become my own man and by the age of 14 I thought I was ready to make an attempt at it.
Why were they ‘necessary’?
Let’s get this straight: I was not the worst out there and there were people doing much worst than me!
I was not doing anything for reputation, I was out there making money and going to buy a fridge for the house or put money on the electric key. That’s why I found it necessary, the electricity and gasmen don’t want to hear my sob stories they just want their bill money.
We never had any role models in business, the only successful people in my world were doing crime… luckily my oldest brother had a job and I believe that allowed me to learn that working was normal and that there is an achievable realistic alternative.
What was the moment that made you think, ‘okay, this has to change…’?
Finding out I was having a daughter! It gave me priorities and a new purpose in life. I’d got used to the risk of jail and anything else… if it happened I felt I’d deal with it, but then it was not just about me anymore. I don’t have a relationship with my dad and I don’t want my daughter is not growing up like that. Plus day by day I got wiser. I did not want to live my life on the roads… somewhere in my heart I knew I was worth more and most people on road are worth more too, but it’s like we get caught in a trap and almost become addicted to it. Thank God I fought my way out.
What does your daughter think of the food?
She loves it… she has to!
I’ve always got to make sure there’s a Real Guzzlerz Mango Lemonade dilute in the house.
She’s upfront with me, that’s how I’ve raised her; she’ll tell me her favourite products and her least favourite… and no one can’t say anything bad about her daddy even if they wanted too.
Does she have any idea what she’d like to be when she grows up yet?
Yep, she’s a little go-getter. She wants to start her own dessert shop and business, she’s already started making and selling t-shirts to build her fund for the shop… she’s actually made £100 so far, and she’s only seven years old.
It must’ve been hard to turn your back on some of the people you were possibly friends with. Did you experience any backlash?
Not at all, people have got some horrible view of the streets but it’s not like TV! Yeah bad things happen, but bad things happen everywhere, and as I said before, I’m not a horrible person at all and I give love to all, so usually I receive it back. To be honest I haven’t turned my back on the streets, I’ve turned my back on crime… but my relationship with the streets is better than ever. The streets show so much love! It’s overwhelming I can’t believe it… I actually have people saying I’m a role model and that I inspire them… all I can say is all praise to God! I still don’t even know how to receive compliments properly.
What issues do you think need prioritising right now on the streets of UK cities?
Genuine opportunity; things put in place to really help, and that might have to be put in place by ourselves (local businesses and influential members of the community). We need more people from “the streets” taking their skills and intelligence and starting to create businesses to build new strong financial foundations for our children and their children. We have morals, creativity, ability and much more, it’s just the opportunity and guidance I think we’re in more need of. Most people I know or speak with are on the streets for money, so if you can find genuine alternatives to get money, things will improve.
You mentioned you received a lot of support during the London Olympics in 2012. Can you tell us how the event season propelled the business?
I didn’t receive any formal support at that point; I went and took advantage of the situation.
With the Olympics came a lot of excitement and interest in London… it was a beautiful summer. There was a lot going on and I just made sure I was everywhere!
I created a special limited edition version of my BBQ City Sauce – with real 23k edible gold inside it!! This was a world’s first and it wasn’t for sale; it was exclusive to people I saw as VIPs – butchers, delis, and companies that supported my brand. This created a buzz and got a lot of people looking at Big J’s Kitchen.
To you, what makes a business successful?
A business that’s something fresh and new even if it’s in a well established field as well as the people behind it, good ethics and values.
How would describe your entrepreneurial approach?
Trustworthy, creative and effective. I make sure I box clever, and I “Keep It 100”. Integrity is important to me and I like to build good relationships.
Apparently you combine traditional recipes with your unique input. Can we have an example?
I have a number of them… you’’ll be able to see them on my BigJsKitchen YouTube channel real soon! For example: My Crazy 3 Bird Chips, Ultimate lasagne, Fruit and Rum Flavoured Jerk Chicken… there’s a lot and the best thing is all these recipes involve Big J’s Kitchen products. You’ve got to have fun in the kitchen.
What sort of dishes are you experimenting with right now?
Not dishes, more recipes for products… I’m all about making products that are one stop and stress free for customers. There’s my new “Dip N Glaze” which is fruit mixed with scotch bonnet… I‘ve got the Real Guzzlerz Dilute Lemonade range – so there’s no need to squeeze lemons any more, with flavours like Mango Lemonade and more, but that’s all I’m gonna say for now, so watch this space.
Are there any health benefits to your food?
I’ve got my “Keep It 100” promise, so no products have any artificial ingredients and only natural preservatives are used when needed. Also small things that make a difference like using natural sea salt in my “Big City Rubs and Seasonings”. This allows me to put half the amount of salt in my products than most seasonings use, without compromising the flavour.
Known as ‘Da flavour of the streets’, do you think you’ve truly reflected aspects of Caribbean culture and yourself or do you feel there is still more to do?
I don’t reflect Caribbean culture alone, that’s been done! I reflect the culture from urban London, where many cultures mix together and create our own unique culture. That’s what I’m about it and what I’m proud of.
There’s always more to do and I’m in the process of doing it now, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Cooking is well known for it’s therapeutic influences. Do you still think of cooking as relaxing, even though it’s directly related to work for you?
Yeah I do. I don’t sell food as cooked meals like a restaurant does so cooking’s still something I find therapeutic and something I enjoy doing for friends and family, it’s a vital part of any way to have a good time together. Plus I use my own products when cooking… you know how good that feels!
Other than cooking, how do you like to enjoy life?
I’m a simple man, I like to love and laugh. I spend time with family and close ones, I love music and I love going out for meals and enjoying other people’s cooking.
There are a few recipes on the site; do you have plans to create a Big J’s Kitchen cookbook in the future?
Yeah I’ve got many plans, that’s one of them.
Assuming they’d be the best judges, has your family helped with the recipes or do they makes comments on what you rustle up in the kitchen?
I haven’t got that old typical my grandma gave me this recipe story (laughs). My mum taught me how to cook in general and she passed those skills onto me, but I create all my recipes myself. My family are always the first people I test on and they give me their honest opinions. They’ve got some great meals from me and they also had to have some real mess-ups, all in the name of love!
What is the five-year plan for Big J’s Kitchen?
I aim to go national and then international, I’ve got a wide range of ideas and plans, it’s gonna be crazy! But as I always say… I can show you better than I can tell you.
Finally, can you offer any advice to SYB readers about how to change their circumstances for the better?
A dream’s worth nothing If you leave it on your pillow! If you want something, get up and get it.
Learn from others’ mistakes and successes. Don’t do it all on your own, there’s no point! Take advantage of the support that’s out there. I made sure I got support and mentoring from people who had done it before that could really help me, I linked up with mentors like Chelsey Baker and Jim Foxhall through the Rockstar mentoring programme and in a few short sessions they taught me a number of things that would have taken me years to learn and things that I may have had to learn the hard way.
For more information on Big J’s Kitchen go to http://www.bigjskitchen.com or if you need funding and mentoring for your business or business idea contact The Rockstar Group www.Rockstartstartuploans.co.uk