Small business sees growth despite pandemic

Raphael Uduhiri of Naije Grille. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

When Raphael Uduhiri opened his small business, Naija Grille Spice Mix, in July 2019, he had no idea a worldwide pandemic was coming.

“It’s hard already to open up a business, and then you talk about the pandemic — that just makes something that is already an uphill battle even harder,” Uduhiri said.

The first pandemic-related disruptions for small businesses, such as temporary closures and employee layoffs, began just several weeks after the pandemic’s onset in 2020, according to a July 2020 economic study.

An estimated additional 200,000 small businesses permanently closed in the first year of the pandemic, which is roughly 25% to 33% above historic business exit rates, according to an April 2021 study done by Federal Reserve economists.

Despite this, Naija Grille Spice Mix has managed to consistently grow during the pandemic. And it’s due to Uduhiri’s business strategies.

“The first thing was making sure that I had an online platform. Of course, because of the pandemic, in-person events were limited,” Uduhiri said.

Naija Grille Spice Mix is available on Amazon, Etsy and even Walmart’s online store. On Etsy, it boasts over 100 five-star reviews.

In addition to utilizing online selling platforms, he posts consistently on social media to spread the word about his business.

Uduhiri also sells at in-person events, most recently taking his business to the five-day Maricopa County Fair. He sells in Glendale at the Arrowhead Farmers Market on Saturdays and in Phoenix at the High Street Farmers Market on Sundays.

Uduhiri said that each method of selling, online or in person, has its pros and cons — but that he loves selling in person because he gets to see the reactions of people sampling his product.

“Even little things, like maybe you have two people and one person tries it and their face lights up and the first thing that they want to do is to give one to the person they’re with, like, ‘Here, try this, this is amazing,’ and the other person tries it. Just seeing those reactions, that’s amazing,” Uduhiri said.

Uduhiri started his business with the encouragement of his friends, family and co-workers who loved his spice mix. He said that he came up with the recipe by tinkering with different spices, creating a blend with “the perfect combination of heat and flavor.”

He provides samples, in part, because of his collaborations with other small businesses.

Uduhiri discovered one day that his spice worked with popcorn. So, he reached out to several popcorn businesses and collaborated with Go Popcorn in Philadelphia, KD’s Popcorn in Georgia, and Maddie B’s Chicago-Style Gourmet Popcorn in Phoenix.

Uduhiri’s background has also inspired some of his collaborations.

He collaborated with RollinC Chinchin, a small, Georgia-based business that makes chin chin, a fried Nigerian snack food that is buttery, crunchy and slightly sweet. Uduhiri named Naija Grille Spice Mix for Nigeria, where he was born.

“In Nigeria, we use a lot of different spices and like heat and flavor, and that was me really trying to recreate the taste from back home,” he said.

Uduhiri said that there’s a power in Black-owned businesses coming together and promoting each other.

“I’m all about highlighting Black businesses and working together to highlight the work they do,” he said.

Uduhiri’s ambitions go beyond selling his spice mix. He wants to someday turn his spice mix company into a restaurant: Naija Grille. He envisions Naija Grille serving a variety of cuisines — enough to match the versatility of his spice mix.

But with inflation rising, Uduhiri is facing new challenges.

“Everything has gone up,” Uduhiri said.

Naija Grille Spice Mix started out being part of the Arizona Department of Health Service’s Cottage Food program, which allowed Uduhiri to make and package his mix right in his home kitchen. As his business expanded, he was able to start having it manufactured — but he has already seen manufacturing prices increase.

The consumer price index, an index often used to measure inflation, rose 8.5% across all industries over the past 12 months, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

He has not raised his prices, and is instead trying to find creative ways to keep his prices low, such as by buying materials in bulk. He wants to avoid raising prices because “customers are also dealing with the same issues.”

But he has advice for people who’d like to start their own business but are worried that the timing isn’t right.

He emphasized that new business owners need to be consistent — even though it’s sometimes difficult — and not get discouraged by the ups and downs of business.

“Things tend to work out when you’re consistent,” he said. “All you have to do is just keep at it full time. And especially if you believe in your product, usually it will work out.”

Naija Grille Spice Mix