The first sign that there’s something new going on at Uptown Juice in Oakland is the Nigerian pop music that pours out the door and onto the sidewalk. Whiffs of peppery tomato stew confirm it.
Twice a month, Chop Plentii — an African food delivery service — borrows the small juice shop and transforms the spot into a celebration of African food and culture, complete with the wafting aroma of fried plantains, steaming rice and meaty soups.
Hopping from table to table jotting down orders is Chop Plentii founder, Baba Afolabi. Meanwhile, Ayoola Lawal and Wajiah Bankola, Afolobi’s mother and niece, plop generous portions of steamed black eyed peas, creamy spinach and jollof rice onto customer’s plates.
“African food delivery? Nobody is really doing that,” said Afolabi, who is Nigerian and has lived in Oakland for the last 18 years.
The pop-up dinners are a way for customers to try Chop Plentii’s food before they sign up for weekly delivery. But with a rotating menu featuring cuisine from different African countries, the dinners also serve as spot for African immigrants to taste a slice of home and for others to expand their knowledge of African food.
Here’s how it Chop Plentii’s monthly delivery works: When Chop Plentii members sign up, they choose between three different sizes of monthly meal plans and several different vegetable-packed main dishes and side dishes. Chop Plentii delivers the food every Sunday around the East Bay, and will soon offer pick-up.
“The beauty of Oakland and the East Bay is that, because of the diversity here, people are willing to try new things,” Afolabi said. He added that while African culture has widely influenced music and fashion, authentic African food “hasn’t been exposed to the maximum.”
“People are starting to see that,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do, get people to understand what African food is and understand it better.”
Afolabi is also the founder and owner of the Oakland clothing store and clothing brand Suru, located just a few doors down from Uptown Juice. That’s how he met the juice shop’s owner Janice Yenpasook. Chop Plentii’s pop-up dinners are cross-promotional, and a way to use the juice space when it’s usually closed for the evening.
“There’s a saying in my language, ‘ono kan owoja,’” Afolabi said in Yoruba. “It means, ‘There’s more than one way into a market.’”
The idea for Chop Plentii started in 2010, a few years after Afolabi’s mom immigrated to the Bay Area. At the time, food delivery services like GrubHub were growing more popular, and he saw how in-demand his mom’s authentic Nigerian cooking was with his friends with whom he played soccer.
When Afolabi and his family tested the concept for Chop Plentii with his friends, many became repeat customers, in part because it’s not easy to find authentic Nigerian food in the East Bay. (Oakland’s only Nigerian restaurant, Miliki, will close this year to make room for a beer garden.) While several other African immigrant groups have established their own culinary scene in the East Bay, the biggest populations of Nigerian Americans are across the country on the East Coast and in Texas. That means there aren’t many East Bay restaurants to sit down with a plate of fufu — pounded yam used to sop up stews — or moi-moi, which is made from peeled beans mashed together with bell pepper and onions and steamed in a banana leaf to make what Afolabi calls a Nigerian version of a tamale.
“I was feeling kind of homesick this week,” said Michael Akanji, who has lived in the United States for 15 years and came to a recent Nigerian-focused pop-up dinner on his birthday before heading out to meet friends. “I was missing food, music — you know the feeling, when you want to be around home.”
“If you want to have a sense of home here in the states, come here. It’s comfortable,” said Abusheri Ohwofasa, a repeat customer who grew up in Missouri with Nigerian parents.
For now, Chop Plentii is for the most part a family business. But part of the Chop Plentii’s end goal, Afolabi said, is to grow the small company and create jobs for African immigrants while continuing to expanding the menu to include diverse cuisines from across Africa.