The Rugby Players Association is excited to announce Josh Ibuanokpe as the first Vodafone Gain Line Award winner of the 2020/21 season. The Saracens prop and WingTing business owner has been steadfast in his efforts to improve his personal development both on and off the pitch. After starting his professional career at Harlequins, alongside completing a Physics degree at Bristol University, Ibuanokpe made the move across London to join the Saracens outfit in 2019.
Now in his second season with the club and becoming a pivotal member of the team, the 25-year-old has created his own chicken wing business WingTing. With numerous successful events already under his belt and an important partnership with Southwark foodbank, Ibuanokpe is the epitome of what the Gain Line Award is all about.
What was the inspiration behind starting WingTing?
It all started when I was studying at Bristol University. I realised making wings was fun and cheap as well. I started making them for my friends and received some positive feedback. It became a regular occurrence at Quins and then when I moved to Saracens it was a nice way to get to know people and show them a different side of me. Lockdown gave me the push to think about what else I could do. I decided to start doing takeaways for charity. My girlfriend, who is from Manchester, had told me the foodbanks had been really affected. I am from Peckham, so this pushed me to get in touch with my local foodbank, Southwark. I raised £800 for them and continue to donate where I can.
How did you move from takeaways to pop-up events?
I started to investigate cafés and restaurants that might close in the afternoon and therefore could the rent the space for the evening. A lot of my contacts were through cold-calling, walk-ins and just generally trying to sell them on me and my product. George Street Canteen in St Albans were the first establishment to show interest. They suggested that we run a one-off event. They would sell the food in theory, but I do the cooking and they make their profit from the drinks. The first event I used mainly as a promotional tool, inviting a lot of bloggers and food influencers. I couldn’t have expected what happened the next time around. Due to the food bloggers giving me such good reviews, the next event we had two sittings of 65 people and we actually ended up running out of wings! The next venue, Goode Kitchen in Harpenden, approached me which was awesome. It was a smaller venue, only seating 24. We did four sittings across Friday and Saturday and it sold out in less than two days which was unheard of for them. Due to lockdown my next events are on hold, but I am looking forward to a big summer.
At what point did you think WingTing could be a real success?
My first two events I didn’t actually act as the head chef because I had never done it before. My role was to direct and shadow the chef of George Street Canteen, just to ensure I could familiarise myself with the process of food tickets/orders. For those events I didn’t go out and see the public due to Covid-19, so it didn’t really feel real. But then the second two events I was head chef, I was running the show. I came out and said hello to people and that’s when the realisation hit that actually, wow people do really like it. It is mad to see so many people enjoying your food. I have some people who have come to every event and it is incredible to think that that is happening.
The thing for me which has always been really important is giving back to my community. I’ll look to reinvest some of the profit back into the business and donate the rest. WingTing and I are official partners of the Southwark foodbank, which means if they ever have a list of supplies, we will do our best to help out with a package. In lockdown we just sent money directly for safety reasons.
How do you find juggling WingTing and professional rugby?
I wouldn’t say it is a 50/50 split, although I do spend a lot of time thinking about the business. The way I have set it up means it is fairly flexible. With the establishments I've used my main output is preparation and cooking the day before and day of the event. But other than that, they provide the space, sous chef and waiting staff. This means I am not stretching myself too thin but still getting my name out there. Lockdown has meant I have had to pivot and look at other ways to promote and raise money for the foodbank. We decided to sell WingTing t-shirts, which is just another way to boost their reserves.
What is next for Wingting?
Going forward I would like to have two to three permanent residences, places that will have specific days every month/two weeks which will be devoted to WingTing. My aim is also to hire a freelance chef, someone who I can trust to run the kitchen to the level that I do, so that they can step in when I am not available. I also have sponsorship proposals ready for when things open again, to ensure I can come back with a bang when lockdown lifts. Hopefully in the summer, post rugby season, I can utilise the outdoor venue market and continue to grow.
Do you have a favourite flavour, and have you got any people who are obsessed?
My personal favourite? No, you can't choose one over the other, you have to love all of your creations. What I do like about it though is when I ask the public what their favourite wing flavour is, the answer is always something different. It is nice to know that people are enjoying all the different styles.
Before he left Saracens Will Skelton and his wife were big fans, and Richard Barrington. They are the only two that can really touch me on the food front. One time the Saracens Academy boys had to quarantine and we dropped a delivery off for them, that went down very well. My teammate, Juan Pablo Socino, his wife bakes the vegan cakes on the menu. I couldn't believe they were vegan; they were that good. It's been a brilliant partnership because I have been able to introduce her to the cafes and restaurants in Hertfordshire. And despite lockdown she is still able to bake as the cafes are open for takeaway.
How important has your support network been to your journey?
My family is very, very close and of course my girlfriend, we’ve been together for a while. I have then four very close friends where we have no secrets between us. We talk all the time, always sharing our thoughts and ideas and they encourage me a lot. Whenever I’m doubting myself, they always build me up. They are genuinely happy for me, that’s another thing. When people who are close to you are genuinely happy for you it is something that you shouldn’t take for granted. There’s no sense of jealousy. Some people complain about having jealous friends, but I don’t really know what that feels like.
My RPA Development manager, Ben McGregor, was a massive help. He would call me randomly just for a five-minute check in and then we’d speak for an hour and a half about ideas. He was the one that actually encouraged me to take the jump and register a company, because I was too scared to do it. I was worried about what people may say and think. And he just said why would you worry about failing, you’ve got the ability to do this, which was massive. I needed that from him. It is easy to hear it from the people who are close to you but coming from someone who is independent did a lot for my confidence.
The club has also been brilliant. Everyone asks how things are going, from coaches, support staff and of course players. The boys would have loved to come to some of the events but obviously you are not allowed to at the moment. They’re just counting down the days until they can.
Follow Josh's progress on his Website and Instagram page