John Otagburuagu is standing in his horsebox which is surrounded by a small marquee with a set of four tables, each with two chairs. The horsebox is wonderfully decorated with things that he was given by his customers such as art pieces, figurines and plants.
I sit down at one of the tables after ordering a waffle with bananas and Nutella and a ‘Cookies and Cream’ frappe. As I wait and finish eating my waffle I watch John serve around 8 different customers, five of which appeared to be locals, I watch as he jokes around with all the customers, making them all crack up.
Before sitting with me for the interview John jokes about needing to prep himself for the interview, asking whether his friend Mascha has his make-up with her. When he finally sits down, he notices that I am nervous and laughs, telling me not to be with a smile on his face that genuinely calmed me down.
John was born in Nigeria and ever since he could remember he wanted to be a cameraman and work in the filmmaking business. However, his father had an accountancy firm and wanted John to continue his legacy.
His dad sent him to England at the age of 17 where he studied accountancy in Collage. He kept up with his dream and applied for BBC over and over again. He couldn’t find a way in and told me he believed that “BBC at the time were prejudice”.
He decided not to go back to Nigeria and work for the accountancy firm and so became a UK citizen and went into retail and catering. Not giving up on his dream he went to a place in SOHO to learn about being a cameraman, saying how he “caught onto it very quick”.
He worked at Wood Norton and eventually started working for the BBC through someone else, as an assistant cameraman. He covered things such as Prince Phillip as Buckingham Palace, Wimbledon for Swiss TV, an interview with John major etc.
Eventually he started getting a few jobs here and there by the BBC but it wasn’t enough, he needed to be making more money and so he left to America as he thought it would be easier to get into filmmaking there.
Things didn’t quite go as planned and he became a truck driver. He met his current wife through doing this and they had 4 children with. Things started to get good, he was making good money and had a huge house, telling me how he was “leading to the point of becoming a billionaire”.
And then “my friend reported me to immigration services” and after being put into detention for 6 weeks, he was put on a plane back to England. He went from having everything, to having nothing.
While sleeping on the floor of his aunties house, who was unable to have him any longer than one day, he remembered about a letter from British high commission about “Prisoners abroad”. While telling me about this he pulled out the business card that he had gotten from all those years ago.
The company provided him with a hostel as well as some money, he was grateful to be in the hostel telling me that “if I would have gone back to a different place I would be dead”. But he didn’t want this to be his life, he needed to get back on his feet.
“When I’m in a bad spot I deliberately look for the silver lining.” he says with an optimistic smile, adding that “I said this is a time to create myself, it’s a time to live again. I felt like I was born again because I was into UK where I hadn’t been such a long time” continuing on that he felt young and energised again.
He wanted to be his own boss and have his own business. Luckily when reporting back to “Prisoners abroad” they introduced him to the “Enterprise Programme”. All he needed was a valid business plan and he could apply for a loan. He was accepted and given 2500 pounds to work with.
He chose to call the café ‘Black Cowboy Coffee and Waffles’ because when living in Richmond, Texas, he went to the George Ranch and learnt all about Black Cowboys. He learnt about how the word was made to demean Black men by calling them boys, telling me passionately that it’s “part of my history as a black person”.
The inspiration for making coffee came from him being a truck driver and always drinking “really shitty coffee” and the waffles came from a place called Leigi, Belgium, where he went in his 20’s on a car journey with his friends.
He built a cart out of wood and tools which he borrowed from his children’s school and on his very first day “I earned £40 pounds, I put on music and started dancing. My daughter was filming me.”. Everything went up from there.
A year later he found a horsebox and spent 6 weeks building it with his daughters, when talking about it he said “you know when you wake up in the morning and breathe oxygen? Do you think about it? This is how this was for me. You just think, it’s organic”.
While John was going through this, his three daughters were with him in England however his wife and recently born son were still in America, John didn’t get the chance to see his baby boy until he was 2 years old.
Every time he tried to get his wife into England, they were refused. John was very positive about the all the struggles he went through getting his wife and son to England. In fact, when he saw my reaction to the situation he said “The way I see stuff, everything in life has a reason, while all that stuff was happening I was thinking this is going to be great because it adds to the story” and that “eventually they will be here so why panic”.
I couldn’t believe how optimistic John was being and I told him that, that’s when one of his locals Mascha Angoscini butted in, saying “this is also the optimism he’s always brings here to his customers”.
For the future, John has applied for a shop space where he will expand by also selling sandwiches and gelato. He had a UAL student design what his café would look like and he is positive it will be happening saying “showing it to you, you like it, so it will be real”.
Anything important you feel the need to add? “In life you have to have passion okay and my passion is my children okay, I love my children, I don’t even call it love, it’s something deeper than that, I feel like they are a part of me.”