Forced to abandon his unborn son, John Otagburuagu came to London four years ago with nothing and through sheer determination has built a successful business.Georgina Blackwell has been to meet him and share his tale of deportation and optimism.
John Otagburuagu, owner of Black Cowboy Coffee and Waffles, outside Elephant and Castle shopping centre, stands with his cowboy hat and a wide-eyed smile in his café. Which is a wonderfully decorated horsebox with nick-knacks that his customers gave him over the years.
John moved to the United States from England fourteen years ago to pursue his dream job as a cameraman. He made a stable life as a truck driver, through which he met his current wife and had four children.
He made good money and had a huge house, “leading to the point of becoming a billionaire.” When, after fourteen years in the US, “my friend reported me to immigration services.” He was put on a plane back to England. He went from having everything, to having nothing.
“I saw it as an opportunity, not the end of my life.”
His three daughters came to live with him in the UK however his wife and recently born son were in the US. He didn’t see his baby boy until he was two years old.
When trying to get his wife and son into England, they were constantly refused. John remained hopeful about the situation: “The way I see stuff, everything in life has a reason.” and “eventually they will be here so why panic.” It was three years before they were reunited.
John’s optimism was blinding and his regular customer and friend, Mascha Angoscini butted in, saying, “This is also the optimism he always brings here to his customers.”
After being deported, to get back on his feet, “I contacted Prisoners abroad.” he said, pulling out their business card from all those years ago. When he arrived, they provided him with money and a hostel.
“When I’m in a bad spot I deliberately look for the silver lining.” He told himself: “This is a time to create myself, it’s a time to live again.”
He decided to open up his own cafe which was made possible through an enterprise programme organised by Prisoners Abroad. He chose the name ‘Black Cowboy Coffee and Waffles’ because when living in Richmond, Texas, he learnt about the origins of Black Cowboys. “It’s part of my history as a black person.” he told me.
The coffee inspiration was from being a truck driver and always drinking, “really shitty coffee.” and the waffles were inspired by ones he ate in Liege, Belgium.
He started with a cart he built out of wood and on his very first day “I earned £40 pounds, I put on music and started dancing.”
A year later he had enough money to move into his horsebox: “you know when you wake up in the morning and breathe oxygen?This is how this was for me.”
Four years later John has a thriving business which supports him and his family, and for the future has applied for a shop space.
When asked where his resilience and determination come from he is sure: “In life you have to have passion and my passion is my children, 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.”
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 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 them.
Before sitting with me for the interview John jokes about needing to prep himself for the interview. He asks whether his friend Mascha has his make-up with her. When he finally sits down, he notices that I am nervous and laughs. He tells me not to be with a smile on his face that genuinely calmed me down.
John was born in Nigeria and had always 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. Following his dream he applied for BBC over and over again. Not able to find a way in he told me that he believed the, “BBC at the time were prejudice.”
He decided he didn’t want to return to Nigeria and work for the accountancy firm. He 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. Telling me 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 make more money and so he left to America. He thought it would be easier to get into filmmaking there.
Things didn’t quite go as planned but he became a truck driver. Through which he met his current wife had 4 children. 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.”
After 14 years in the US, “my friend reported me to immigration services.” After suffering in 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, where he could only stay a single night, he remembered about a letter from British high commission. Which was about, “Prisoners abroad.” 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. Telling me 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 horse-box 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. I was thinking this is going to be great because it adds to the story”. Adding that “eventually they will be here so why panic”.
I couldn’t believe how optimistic John was being. 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, as shown above. He is positive it will happen 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.”