Every now and then, a fresh X post asking, ‘What happened to Mr Bigg’s?’ pops up, evoking myriads of theories and nostalgic tales from younger millennials and Gen Zs. For most Nigerians in this demographic, the fall of the once eminent brand is simply confounding.
Founded in 1986, Mr Bigg’s upheld its title as the first and best fast-food restaurant in Nigeria for decades. For many Nigerians, stopping at Mr Bigg’s for their undefeated meat pies and Jollof rice and chicken after school, or church on Sundays, was a custom.
Mr Bigg’s was the original family-friendly restaurant in Nigeria, with several of its locations housing play areas where children could keep busy while their parents waited in line to order food for the family. At its various locations, kids could even be inspired and thrilled by the iconic Supa Strikas comics, which told the story of young Shegs Okoro and his intriguing life on and off the football pitch. Mr Bigg’s was one of the sponsors of Supa Strikas in Nigeria, so customers could buy the comics at the restaurant or get the comics along with some meals.
In line with their family-friendly theme, Mr Bigg’s held ‘family days’ and threw the most epic children’s birthday parties in the late 90s and early 2000s. For millennials like Lola, a writer and entrepreneur who frequented Mr Bigg’s in her youth, a Mr Bigg’s party was the apex of coolness. In her words, ‘if you didn’t have one of those [parties at Mr Bigg’s], you weren’t cool. And if you didn’t get invited, you might as well not exist’. The restaurant’s ‘Double Delight’ and ‘Triple Delight’ birthday cakes, featuring Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry flavours were also the stuff of legend.
While it may be the equivalent of going to Chicken Republic nowadays, in the early 2000s, Mr Bigg’s was the ideal date spot—early Nollywood movies can attest to this. Think a charming Desmond Elliott professing his undying love to a blushing Genevieve Nnaji while she nibbles on her ice cream. (Well, that was before ice cream dates became so controversial). Moreso, nowadays, a fast-food restaurant is definitely the last place anyone would want to go for a first date. The typically far-from-intimate ambience and rowdiness hardly provide the right setting for two people getting to know each other.
Mr Bigg’s was the ultimate fast-food restaurant in Nigeria for decades and its reach was made apparent in inter-state travels. Whether you just needed a proper place to use the loo or were in desperate need of quality food to sate your hunger, it was the one restaurant you could count on finding in virtually every city along the way. Abiola, who resided in Lagos and regularly travelled to her boarding secondary school in nearby Ogun State in the 2010s, relied on the Mr Bigg’s joint on the Lagos-Abeokuta expressway for its meat-pies and sausage rolls for all five of her school years. ‘Pizza Inn came and left. Other restaurants came and left too, but Mr Bigg’s never changed. It was always there,’ Abiola shared.
For Lagos-born lawyer, Adenike and her mum, the Mr Bigg’s branch by a lonely road in Egbeda, Lagos was a lifesaver during a 2011 trip. They had boarded a Benin Republic-bound bus, but after making several stops around the city to pick up her mum’s colleagues, they found themselves famished and in need of immediate relief before the journey had even begun—cue in Mr Bigg’s coming to the rescue. ‘Every time someone says “Mr Bigg’s” to me, I remember that trip and how they were just there by the road, and we were able to buy food and use the convenience,’ Adenike fondly recounted. Nowadays though, Mr Bigg’s has been relegated to being a fixture of back-in-the-day tales and a point of surprise for those who are not aware of its current operations.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Although Mr Bigg’s officially started in 1986, its roots can actually be traced back to Kingsway Departmental Stores, which some would say was the ‘Walmart of Nigeria’ back in the 50s to mid-80s. Kingsway was originally set up by the United African Company of Nigeria (UAC or UACN) in Lagos and had several locations across major cities in Nigeria. The prestigious stores had in-house snack and coffee stands which evolved into a small fast-food chain called Kingsway Rendezvous in 1973.
When Kingsway was forced to close down due to the decline of the economy and stringent restrictions on imports during (then) Gen. Muhammadu Buhari’s regime (1983-1985), UACN decided to continue with Kingsway Rendezvous, but this time on a larger scale and under the name of Mr Bigg’s. According to Oby Igodan, who joined UACN as a Management Trainee in 1986 and rose to the ranks of General Manager of Franchising after 19 years, there was a strong expatriate community in Nigeria at the time.
This made establishing the first quick service restaurant (QSR) in the country a golden opportunity. Expats would easily gravitate towards Mr Bigg’s as it bore a resemblance to fast food chains in their home countries. Moreover, Peter Tilbey, a Briton, was at the helm of the Mr Bigg’s establishment and so could leverage his connections with other expats to drive sales.
After a vigorous phase of market research, the first Mr Bigg’s restaurant was launched in Marina, an area where, in Igodan’s words, ‘the working class had dominance’. The combination of this demographic’s sufficient purchasing power and its demand for quick, quality meals, made it the primary target market for the restaurant. UAC would then go on to launch other branches across the city that became so successful that the company decided to expand nationwide. UACn already had a heavy presence across several cities in Nigeria, so its existing structure could be leveraged for the Mr Bigg’s expansion.
However, UACN recognized that they would have to conduct more intensive research to sustain a truly exceptional national QSR brand. When the Mr Bigg’s franchising model was conceived in 2002, Igodan was sent to Aberdeen, Scotland to study the operations of global QSR chains like McDonald’s—after which Mr Bigg’s was fashioned—and Burger King. When she got back, she advised the adoption of a model that featured a mix of franchises and homegrown branches; about 10 per cent of the branches nationwide would be owned by franchisees while the remaining 90 per cent would be owned by UACN itself. Mr Bigg’s was one of the first companies to adopt a franchising model in Nigeria.
Naturally, the idea did not take much to hit the ground running as Mr Bigg’s had built a formidable reputation in its nearly two decades of operation. Consequently, many people were interested in buying into and being associated with the brand. Franchisees would have to put together the startup capital for their branches and pay a licensing fee in exchange for the rights to Mr Bigg’s established name and access to its supply chain and trademarks. According to Igodan, in the 2000s, owning a franchise could cost between N20-30 million in less urban areas in Lagos, and up to N50 million in more urban areas like Marina and Victoria Island.
Still, many investors flocked towards the brand as it held a lot of prestige and was a profitable venture in its early days. At the time, the Nigerian public relished the level of sophistication they could get in terms of food quality, customer service and ambience at Mr Bigg’s. Believe it or not, eating in an air-conditioned restaurant was a big deal back in the day, and the computerized service was somewhat of a spectacle, especially in the less developed cities where Mr Bigg’s was located.
Additionally, in the early 2000s, Mr Bigg’s forged a partnership with Mobil. Anywhere you saw a Mobil filling station, you could almost always count on having your fill of both fuel and food. The partnership was brilliant and mutually beneficial. For Mobil, it gave them an edge over competitors; it gave customers the chance to kill two birds with one stone by making a single stop for both products. On the other hand, even if Mobil customers were not initially interested in getting food, the sight and scent of a Mr Bigg’s joint was irresistible.
WHEN THINGS FELL APART
Mr Bigg’s’ expansion was initially wildly successful, with the restaurant having over 170 branches across more than 40 cities in Nigeria and even in Ghana, as of 2006. However, things started to go downhill when the brand increased its franchising ratio. While a greater number of franchisees bolstered expansion, it also adversely affected quality control. Franchisees would do things their own way or cut corners to save costs, so there was hardly a unified Mr Bigg’s standard nationally or even across the same city anymore. At some point, UACN even cut franchisees loose from their supply chain and allowed them to find their own.
Additionally, many franchisees backed out after being choked by the hardships of operating a restaurant business in Nigeria. Igodan, who was offered a restaurant upon leaving UACN in 2005 and ran her own Mr Bigg’s branch in Abuja for 9 years, cited issues such as unreliable power supply, cut-throat electricity bills, supply chain issues, local government levies, signboard and radio license fees for playing music in the restaurant, as well as the all-too-familiar issue of workers stealing from the business. These issues were not unique to Mr Bigg’s, but they certainly compounded the already existing problem of a decline in consumer demand due to decreased quality and increased competition.
While many franchisees, like Igodan, closed their branches completely, some converted them to different restaurants or were bought out by other restaurant owners.
THE RACE IS NOT FOR THE SWIFT…
Mr Bigg’s had laid the foundation and established that a QSR market in Nigeria was not only possible but also profitable. Consequently, other fast food chains sprung up, giving the former ‘monopoly’ a run for its money. Aside from its failure to maintain its renowned standard, the once-leading restaurant struggled to adapt to consumer’s changing tastes and ultimately fell out of the race.
In Lagos, consumers turned to the likes of Sweet Sensation and Tastee Fried Chicken, which both started in the 90s. On a national scale, Tantalizers, which was established in FESTAC in 1997, was Mr Bigg’s major rival. However, with only 54 branches nationwide, the Tantalizers never quite reached Mr Bigg’s’ peak. Still, pockets of fast food restaurants all over the country lured away significant portions of Mr Bigg’s market share.
Today, there are too many fast food chains in Nigeria to number, but one reigns supreme: Chicken Republic. Since its start in 2004, Chicken Republic has launched over 150 locations across Nigeria and Ghana, in a rapid-fire expansion that’s reminiscent of Mr Bigg’s in its heyday. Moreso, Chicken Republic is widely renowned for its affordability. Despite Nigeria’s devastating economic reality—an 18-year high annual inflation rate of 26.72 per cent as of September 2023—the brand has been dynamic and ingenious enough to keep Nigerians’ wallets open.
THE CONTEMPORARY ERA
In 2013, South Africa’s Famous Brands bought a 49 per cent stake in UAC Restaurants (UACR), Mr Bigg’s parent company. By this time, the restaurant’s sales and national presence had already started dwindling, but perhaps UAC hoped that ‘Africa’s leading branded food services franchisor’ would restore the restaurant to its former glory. Famous Brands made an ideal partner, considering their success with South African and international chains such as Wimpy, Steers and Debonairs Pizza—which they eventually launched in Nigeria under UACR. In a press release following the acquisition, UAC Group MD and CEO Larry Ettah shared:
We are delighted to partner with Famous Brands in this venture. This is a transformative transaction which ensures UACR has the necessary strategic partnership to unlock the considerable value potential in the QSR landscape which Mr Bigg’s defined 25 years ago and in which it still maintains a leading position. UACR will be availed of Famous Brands’ tested and highly successful brand stewardship to enhance and reinforce the Mr Bigg’s brand franchise market power.
Famous Brands was equally excited to be partnering with UACR, in light of their ambition to increase their African footprint. According to then chief executive, Kevin Hedderwick, the South African company was going to add value to the restaurant through their expertise in ‘managing intellectual property, growing brands and optimising supply chain operations’.
Yet, despite the start of what seemed like a promising partnership, Mr Bigg’s reach continued to recede. By 2015, its number of locations had decreased to 153 (down from 171 in 2014) and as of 2023, that number has plummeted to less than 60 locations across Nigeria. In July 2019, the brand tried to revamp once more with the launch of a new model restaurant in Victoria Garden City (VGC), Lagos. The new location also housed fellow UACR restaurant, Debonair’s Pizza, and a kid’s play area. This launch would kick off the nationwide remodelling of Mr Bigg’s outlets into contemporary joints. That same year, the restaurant also made the move to set up express kiosks at a few strategic points in Lagos, taking a cue from Chicken Republic and Sweet Sensation. The kiosks are a brilliant, inexpensive strategy for targeting the city’s high pedestrian traffic.
In 2022, Mr Bigg’s had taken its rebrand further by expanding its menu offerings and introducing combo deals. By 2023, the restaurant had introduced meals like Asun, and Ofada rice and sauce, in addition to its traditional offerings. Plus, customers could get an entire meal for as low as N1,000 with their ‘Chop Up’ package. Taking a page from Chicken Republic, Mr Bigg’s offers the low-cost Chop Up deals, similar to Chicken Republic’s Refuel lineup.
One part of their rebrand I, for one, cannot get behind though, is their new logo, which was adopted circa 2012. I’m pretty sure there was not a single complaint from customers about the former logo, so replacing it in favour of one they thought to be more contemporary—but actually just falls flat—begs the pressing question, ‘Who send you message?!’
Speaking of falling flat, even with a more extensive rebrand, many patrons in recent years have insisted that the food is not what it used to be. To this, one may argue that such a reaction is a classic case of rosy retrospection, i.e., nostalgia making the memory of the food much better than it actually was. Moreover, the fact that for a long time Mr Bigg’s was the only option many Nigerians had could compound this retrospection issue. Mr Bigg’s reach was so vast back in the day that, for many, fast food was synonymous with Mr Bigg’s and Mr Bigg’s alone, so all their core memories about fast food are tied to the brand. Nonetheless, there are also a considerable number of people who think Mr Bigg’s food still hits as much as it used to.
Moreso, while the brand may have lost its pull in Lagos and most major cities in the country, in Kaduna, Mr Bigg’s is still a big deal. They won the ‘Restaurant of the Year’ award in 2019 for service consistency. However, the rubric for which they won beckons questioning. Judges cited features like open charging points, spacious parking spaces and clean toilets in opposition to other factors that one would typically not use to judge restaurants.
In the end, Mr Bigg’s staggering descent serves as a cautionary tale against complacency and ambition without proper planning. Brand loyalty has not been enough to keep Mr Bigg’s thriving, especially in such a dynamic market as Nigeria’s. With their rebrand efforts, the restaurant may have finally realized this, but the pressing question now is, are they too late? Can Mr Bigg’s rise above being a shadow of what it once was? I, for one, certainly hope so⎈
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