Houston's ChòpnBlọk Redefines Fast-Casual Fare With West African Flavors
Jollof jambalaya, stewed plantains, and more.
In the summer of 2016, Ope Amosu worked at Chipotle as a prep cook. He wanted to learn how to operate a quick service restaurant from an industry leader, with the idea of one day opening his own concept. Amosu’s co-workers at GE, where he was employed full-time as a corporate sales executive, had no idea he was working another job.
“Scrubbing toilets and cleaning the kitchen at the end of the night really gave me a new perspective of what I wanted to do,” says Amosu. “I said, ‘If I can do it for them, then I know I can definitely do it for myself.’”
In May 2018, Amosu tested his idea for ChòpnBlọk, a fast-casual restaurant featuring West African cuisine as a pop-up restaurant. While on a business trip, he was inspired by how others found ways to introduce their native foods to a mass market. He hoped to do the same with his restaurant idea.
Born in London, England, Amosu’s family moved to Lagos, Nigeria, when he was two-years-old. A year later, they immigrated to Houston, Texas. Today, Houston is one of the most diverse places in the U.S. where one in four residents are foreign-born. Amosu says ChòpnBlọk is the converging point of all these cultures and prefers to call it a “cultural platform grounded in food and beverage.”
“It’s often said Houston is a little Nigeria,” says Amosu.
Amosu points out that it's "often said Houston is a little Nigeria"—yet, too often he found it difficult to access food, fashion, and music from the culture. He wants to fill this culture gap with his restaurant concept. Amosu partners with similarly-minded friends (who he calls “friends of the Blok”), to ensure every aspect of his pop-up dinners showcase what West Africa has to offer.
When guests walk in, they’re greeted with an Afrobeats playlist. The menu features signature dishes such as a vegan Motherland Bowl made up of steamed rice, coconut curry beans, and sweet plantains; the “Trad Bowl” features jollof jambalaya, chicken, yaji spiced veggies, and stewed plantains; and veggie “Àkàrà Sliders,” a West African honey bean fritter topped with yaji garlic mayo, and served on sweet Hawaiian rolls. Drinks are provided by Sangar Rum, a Liberian-based company owned by Mike Sehzue who Amosu met in the MBA program at Rice University. At the end of the night, guests learn a Ugandan dance choreographed by Ronnieval Kisappenne called a kalaba.
Amosu planned to open a brick and mortar location in 2020. People were buzzing about his appearance on Marcus Samuelsson’s PBS television show, “No Passport Required.” Yvonne Orji, Jidenna, and Wale were among his celebrity fans, and he was fielding calls for notable partnerships and lucrative catering opportunities. Then the pandemic hit. His pop-up model made it easy to pivot, but he says the crash still hurt.
“Being forced to take a step back is uncomfortable, but it also puts a lot into perspective,” says Amosu. “It forced us to build some capabilities that we weren't necessarily thinking we'd have to utilize right away.”
Amosu launched “Rice at Home,” a food delivery service with a name that played on his upbringing. Growing up, his immigrant parents refused his request to eat out because “there’s rice at home.” He also teamed up with Orji to deliver his food nationwide, in celebration of her HBO comedy special launch. This kept him motivated and reminded him of his vision to bring his culture to people beyond Houston. But it also came with growing pains.
“It was amazing to see our food and shipped off to New York and LA and everywhere in between,” says Amosu. “But it was also a big learning lesson. With the success came a whole lot of failures. We're figuring it all out and finalizing the infrastructure build out to be able to offer that consistently.”
Amosu used the last year to step back and analyze the work he was doing. Like many restaurateurs, he saw many opportunities evaporate due to COVID-19. He’s working to re-establish himself in this new era of dining and remind people he’s still here and open for business.
“It’s been a tough journey,” says Amosu. “But we're excited about what we do, and we love being able to create. I believe that this is really still just the beginning. As long as the mission to drive the culture forward is there, by God's grace we will be able to achieve it and more.”