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Emeka Onugha

I’m a lifelong entrepreneur, predominately in the area of the food and beverage business. I started my career initially in the cosmetology business, we had a unisex hair salon in South Orange, we opened up in 97 and I got into the food business in 2001 and that’s been my primary area of concentration ever since.

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Podcast Interview

UzimaOne Podcast #3

Frederick Neal: We have a very very special guest with us today, this gentleman is really, really into nutrition, I mean from a natural stand point. He’s going to share with us many of his thoughts, his ideas, his believes about his life, his business and his love for food. We’re at Freetown Kitchen where Emeka Onugha is co-owner and founder, so we are going to get right into the interview right now.

Lisa Neal:  Emeka, tell us a little bit about you.

Emeka: Ok. My name is Emeka Onugha, I’m 40 years old. I’m from New Jersey, predominately Essex County, different cities within it. I’m a father of two, a son and a daughter, nine year old named Emeka Onugha the second and my daughter’s name is Amala Onugha, she’s two and a half and my son is nine years old, they are the joys of my existence. I’m a lifelong entrepreneur, predominately in the area of the food and beverage business. I started my career initially in the cosmetology business, we had a unisex hair salon in South Orange, we opened up in 97 and I got into the food business in 2001 and that’s been my primary area of concentration ever since. I have my law degree, I went to law school between 2003 to 2008, I also did a year at Rutgers Business School and Rutgers Law School of Newark is my law school and I’ve yet to practice, but I have practiced the culinary arts before and, hence, it’s been a wonderful journey and I’ve learned a lot and evolved as an entrepreneur, and I’ve evolved I guess you could say as a Culinary artist and Freetown is the combination of both of those things.

Lisa Neal: Tell us about Freetown, where did that name came from?

Emeka: Freetown is a bit of a story, where the came from, but my muse is Edna Louis who hails from Freetown Virginia. She’s a very famous cook, very famous black female cook and her grandfather was an emancipated enslaved African who along with a few other emancipated Africans started Freetown. And they named the town Freetown, so that folks know that this town is owned and occupied by free people. Which during that time you had to make that distinction. And it was the stories the way in which she described the stories and the rituals that surrounded the farming, the harvesting and the food preparation that to me was so inspiring and it reminded me a lot of my culture. My family is from Nigeria and I witness a lot of customs and I guess you could also say rituals around food, so it really, really, really resonated with me. Since I’m also a big proponent of farming and growing as much as you can, the whole Freetown mantra, just really stuck with me. So even though we haven’t necessarily put it forward as to what it means, it’s meant that in my heart and auntie Edna has been guiding us ever since.

Lisa Neal: Tell us a little bit about the food at your restaurant.

Emeka: Ok. Our food falls under what we call, pan African, it’s just pan African barbecue on a mirror but it’s expanded a bit beyond that.  It’s Pan African Cuisine, and for us is a gesture, is more of a gesture than a description. Because we believe that underneath the Pan African umbrella, are so many styles of cuisine that we could never do it justice. But it’s our way of showing how we are all connected through our food, although the majority of us might be of African descent, there has been this continuum in our cuisine, whether is Southern cuisine whether is Caribbean cuisine, whether is West African, East African, there are certain vegetables cooking techniques, flavors and spices that are pervasive throughout those cultures.  And we look to highlight those things and show what connects us, while putting our spin on it as well. But we are unapologetic about the origination, we’re unapologetic of what culinary flavors we’re looking to put forward, but essentially we’re showing that there’s a lot more that brings us together, than takes us apart, separates us.

Lisa Neal: Ok. Tell us a little bit about your garden.

Emeka: Ok, that is one of my proudest, yet best kept secrets. The garden of Freetown is something that we started, actually almost a year before we actually opened and this space came along with a small outdoor space – outdoor spaces are small – but a small soiled, for lack of a better word, description space that gave us the ability to start a little garden and I’m a believer, anywhere you can grow, grow. So we took that opportunity to plant a few things that we knew we’d use in our cuisine as well as some things that we had no idea we would use or not, like our grapes and blueberries and raspberries, that wasn’t necessarily a part of our recipes, but it was decided that we wanted to have fun growing. What ended up happening which is amazing, it stopped being only our project. We had a neighbor from the jewelry across the street who came over and was responsible for planting marigolds for us and some additional rosemary and some thyme, it was unbelievable, some squash, it was unbelievable. Not everything strived, but the notion of someone want to take it upon themselves to add on to our garden, which potentially added on to us having a bountiful harvest of sorts. It was just amazing, it was just amazing and another testament that the earth can constantly provide, being in the form of the fruits and vegetables we harvest or the wonderful people that contribute to us every single day.

Lisa Neal: How do you personally feel about the connection between nutrition, physical and mental health?

Emeka: It is a un- you cannot doubt the connection between what you eat and how you feel. I think sometimes we minimize the extent of it.  There is a clear understanding through, let’s say, we even joke about the itis for instance, like you eat something, you have this lethargic feeling. There’s a direct connection between what we eat and how we feel. But I think that there are even more subtle connections than that. Like when we eat something that was fine ripened. When you have a fruit or vegetable that was ready to be eaten and you plucked it and ate it in that moment. I mean granted, you’re eating something that is absolutely delicious and there is no question about that and the impact that that has, as a matter a fact, it is something that taste grate. But when you have something that is, when you have something at the moment at that perfect moment in which was design, divinely design to be consumed. It does a lot more than just excite your taste buds. You know, it does something inside of you, you leave, I mean when you’re done with that meal you don’t feel heavy, you feel alive, especially if you consume something in its raw form and I feel that that feeling has a physical impact and ultimately a spiritual impact, cause I feel like it impacts your mood and that’s from an ingredient’s perspective. But I also feel like the spirt behind the preparation also shows up and the person who hasn’t eaten, feels as well. Like when food is made with love, you can tell. And I think a lot of us, with the exception of those who still eat home cooked meals, really don’t know what that’s like. I mean if you are the kind of person that primarily consumes fastfood, you are not having a product that was made with love. Efficiency, cost, expedient, those were the concerns of the people who prepared that food. You are sure to like that because is loaded with fats and of the salt and sugar and the kinds of foods your body responds to and says “oh this is good” but in terms of someone who carefully sourced the ingredients and took time and pride of the preparation, ultimately for the satisfaction of you liking that product. That’s something that we don’t experience much, but once you do is hard not to keep coming back for that.

Lisa Neal: What is the most important thing you want our listeners to know about Freetown Kitchen?

Emeka: We care, we really, really care and it’s expensive to care. Integrity is expensive. We spend more time on our sides, than most people will spend on their main dishes. And it’s not cost effective, by any stretch of the imagination, it really really isn’t, but it matters to us. The satisfaction that we get from our customers when they taste our products and say that it taste real. What we loose in profit, we gained in satisfaction from that moment. To our customers, we want you to know, we don’t always put all the details of our preparation on the fore front, because a part of that is personal, although it can be very valuable from a marketing perspective for people to know the extent that we go to for some of our things, for us is more of a personal pledge of integrity to ourselves and to our customers. For us just to know that we care about what we do and we care about you. Just come to have that experience some people love.

Lisa Neal: I don’t think I have anything else. Those where all of my questions.

Lisa Neal: Tell us about some of your more positive experiences in this business?

Emeka: This business in particular, we’ve been open at this location since April. We really didn’t  start opening with consistent hours since May. So we have...t’s been a bit of a slow climb, for this particular project. Some of my former projects, that I can speak about some of my positive experience and I can speak about my previous businesses, one being HLS, which the acronym stands for Health Love & Soul, and one thing I love in particular about that was watching customers go from essentially being uninformed consumers to being informed consumers, to becoming educators, and disintegrate.  So customers would walk in, they’d have all the questions in the world, they look at the menu. Things like wheatgrass and fresh squished juices would be so foreign to them. They’d learn and then next thing you know you see them coming in ordering their meals with confidence, their food and beverages with confidence and then you see them bring somebody else in and now they’re teaching that person what wheatgrass is what this is that. And just watching that happen so many times, to me was so amazing, ‘cause it was just remarkable to see that our food was having that impact and not only it changing lifestyles, but those people were then going on and change others. So that was probably one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve had in businesses within the food business and watching how our customers evolved. As far as this is concern, even though it’s been a short period of time, what I really love watching are people, who have no familiarity with some of the foods that are representative from my culture, like jollof rice, which a lot of people have no idea what that is and to watch people of various ethnicities and various cultures first come in and not know what it is and then come in and order it with confidence and now they are throwing jollof around like is a household name that is everything to me, because growing up in an American culture as a child who had Nigerian parents, there was a lot of cultural differences and the things that I ate every day in my house I didn’t see represented in the market place. You did have African restaurants here and there that sold the product you were familiar with, but in terms of coming to a, what we would call a mainstreams facility, and seeing something like jollof rice, it was just unheard of.  So I feel like we’re that in between now, we’re like that cross over spot that introduces people who would never walk into your typical African restaurant, that are coming here and feeling bold enough to try  something that they would otherwise wouldn’t try, get familiar with it and introduce it to someone else. So that’s the wonderful experience we have at Freetown.

Lisa Neal: Good. Now what have been some of the obstacles in this business or the businesses before?

Emeka: Well I’ve been in business since I was 18, so I’ve been in business for 22 years now, of and on. And when I first started, when I first got into business with the exception of printing flyers and stuff like that, it was you build it and they would come, you build it, you make it nice, you get a good location, you put it in an area where you believe there’s a demand for your product or service and they’d come. I gradually watch that shift. You know, people have become more insular, we do a lot more in our homes, we do a lot more through our phones and the need to go outside and the need to integrate has changed dramatically in the last ten years.  Now we’ve come to realize that is not enough to just put a nice place in a nice spot and assume people are going to come, no, people are looking, people are connecting with businesses virtually first in many instances now. So one of the things we have not done, I don’t necessarily know if it’s a challenge or is really just something we haven’t put a certain level of presidency, certain level of emphasis on. And that’s creating more of an online identity. Like realizing that we are not immune to the fact that people don’t know you exist if you don’t have a strong identity on the internet, realizing that that’s not an afterthought, that’s just something you need to come into the business strategically, ‘cause other than that, so now a days, is almost like not having a phone number, was like in the 80’s and 90’s, that’s what is like, at least that’s what it feels like.

Lisa Neal: OK.

Angela Curtis: My name is Angela Curtis and I just happened to come into Freetown, it was unexpected and when I walked in, I immediately felt pride. I said, wow, I didn’t even know this was an African place and I said, you need to put that on the window and I immediately felt pride for my country, my people, it was just everything, and then when I saw the menu and all the things that were available for the options and chef Emeka even allowed me to taste some of the things and I said oh my goodness this is so delicious, I don’t even know what to choose, I’m so overwhelmed with all the options. So he suggested the Salmon and I got the Salmon Sandwich and it had such wonderful crunchy, delicious ingredients, it had the tomatoes, the lettuce and then this very unique sauces and it just mesh very well with the Salmon and I had plantain fries, never heard of it and I’m so glad I had them. Very different, I absolutely love them and they were so delicious and everything just went well and I’m looking forward to more meals here. It was an unexpected find and I’m definitely glad that I found it.

Frederick Neal: Could you tell us about the, kind of Segway into the last thing you said, you said you’re glad you found this place because I have this organization.

Angela Curtis: I’m so glad I found this place because my sister and I, we have this company called hungry heifers, yes, hungry heifers and we are very proud to make sure that woman know that they are encouraged to eat as much as you want, just as long as it’s healthy. We don’t feel like you should be shameful, you shouldn’t hate food. So when I came here, I said, wow this is definitely a place that represents who we are and what we eat. Everything here is healthy, everything here is fresh. Chef Emeka even showed me his garden, so if you’re concern about where his ingredients come from, they come right from his backyard. So we are so proud that we can come here without shame and we can come here and eat and encourage people to come here, so yes, the hungry heifers are definitely putting a staple in this place.


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