Chopped founder: 'Every time I've opened up a business I end up emptying my bank account'
Entrepreneur plans to open fresh food restaurants in two major Dublin shopping centres and plans six more franchises in 2016, writes Michael Cogley
AT age 14 Brian Lee was making €1,000 every weekend from his stalls in Blackrock and Santry, selling anything from women's jewellery to DVDs.
Even at that age Lee showed his entrepreneurial qualities as he re-invested that money back into stock. A vital early lesson was that this income was seasonal.
Five years later he had bought his first house, just before the economic crash, something he has mixed feelings on.
Now aged 30 Lee, originally from Kilbarrack in North Dublin, is in talks to open his fresh food restaurant, Chopped, in two major Dublin shopping centres as well as opening six franchises in 2016.
"Before we even opened the doors we wanted to open a franchise where people would believe that we were a big franchise that came to Ireland," Lee said of his business while sitting in his Fairview outlet.
Since opening on Baggot Street in May of 2012 Lee and his Chinese co-founder Andy Chen, have gone on to open three more outlets, including a juice bar on St Stephen's Green called 'Chopped Raw'.
Lee hoped to create a business that would compliment his love for fitness, which stretches into mixed martial arts (MMA).
"In 2011, when we were creating a new business idea where my passion for fitness came in, we couldn't see anything out there to compliment our training."
They then came up with Chopped, which is a healthy fast food company that serves anything from salads and smoothies to green teas and soups.
When it opened four years ago Lee said that the response was hugely positive reporting 'roaring trade, with an increase in business each year'.
It was the brainchild of both Lee and Chen who committed €100,000 each of their own money to the business before seeking a further €50,000 through a bank loan.
"We took a €50,000 loan and the rest was our own cash. We didn't want to take a big loan, because we had the cash there. So we said if we take a loan our money is just going to be sitting in the bank. And what are we doing with it anyway?"
To say Lee holds disdain towards keeping money in the bank is an understatement.
"What do you have savings for? It's just sitting there, what is the purpose of it? To leave it to someone when you die?"
Whether it be investing in a convenience shop that his partner Mr Chen was involved in or beginning his other business, FIT Studios, his dislike of savings transpired across to his investments.
"Every time I've opened up a new business, the convenience shop, the gym and each Chopped, I've emptied my bank account," he said.
Chopped has been designed to a format that will see it rolled out across Dublin with ambitions to take it further.
"We opened in Fairview in May of last year. In the meantime we've been working on the franchise model. We didn't just decide overnight that we wanted to build a franchise model, we had to bring in experts, and we had to create a franchise model that was affordable to roll out.
"It's costing €150,000 turn-key. That includes your franchise fee, your cashflow for your business and that's giving you a model on our Fairview style which gives you a seating area."
While planning permission isn't a major stumbling block for the firm, it is something that slows the speed at which outlets are rolled out at.
"It all depends on planning, because a lot of units are subject to change of use. Chopped is not a greasy fast food takeaway so the planners have been more inclined to accept it. We haven't heard of any complications yet under change of use.
"However, it is something that takes 12 weeks to complete so we're trying our best to get those six open this year and we're in talks with a major multi-national at the moment. If we can get that over the line then you could see us get into a few universities down the road," Mr Lee said.
Lee refused to reveal the name of the multi-national he is involved in talks with but he did say the deal would have significant advantages to Chopped.
"What it would mean for Chopped is that we would have that buying power to reduce our costs.
"It would show the credibility behind Chopped, it also means that it would open up areas like airports, universities, big tech companies. It opens up a few areas that wouldn't have been open already," Lee said.
While 2016 is shaping up to be a very Dublin-oriented year for the firm, Lee says that it has the potential to move beyond the capital.
"We're talking to people in Belfast, Cork, Galway and Wexford. These are all locations that we want to go as well and there are franchisees looking for units in those locations. There might be one in Cork in the next year if a unit can be found.
"Six is the minimum goal but would like to bring it up to 10," Lee said.
One party who has joined the Chopped team as a franchisee is MMA star, Cathal Pendred. Pendred became aware of the business through Mr Lee's MMA trainer, Chris Fields. Pendred, who is still looking for a suitable premises, was announced as a franchisee in November of last year.
Growing up in Kilbarrack it didn't take long for Lee's business nous to come to the fore.
"When I was 11 I remember going to the local second-hand machinery shop and buying a lawnmower for £117 at the time. I printed off business cards, which I still have today, and I went around to every other place cutting grass."
From there he moved from offering a service, to buying and selling, something that worked out extremely well for him.
"When I was about 13, second year in school, I started going to markets and I started seeing stuff that I believed people in school would buy off me," Lee said.
From there he moved from selling in school to selling at markets. He found where stall-owners were buying from and so quickly moved to cut out the middle man.
"I bought anything I felt was popular at Christmas time. From selling in schools and in the local area and the markets, I think I was taking in €1,000 in a weekend at the age of 14.
"I had more money than I knew what to do with. What I was doing every time was that I was putting it back in to buying more stock."
Soon after, Lee realised the ruthless seasonality of stall-selling and so he took up a part-time job in Spar, where he met his now business partner Andy Chen.
Upon finishing his leaving cert Lee went and worked with his father as a carpenter. One year on he bought his first house, also in Kilbarrack, at age 19.
"I had worked up about 70pc of my deposit and then I got the rest of the deposit off my family. At that stage banks were silly they were giving out money to first and second year apprentices, which I wish they didn't.
"Now I'm in negative equity on that house I bought ten years ago, but it doesn't matter, I've had the house rented out and it's more or less paid for itself," he said.
While Lee laments getting into bricks and mortar, he does say that recession did cause some good in the business world.
"In a weird way I kind of liked the recession. It forced people to go out on their own, it forced people into being an entrepreneur. It definitely helped me to negotiate rents to get into the market," he said.
What's abundantly clear from speaking to Lee is that an incredible ambition has driven him his whole life. From an early age he wanted to start making money. Now he maintains that exercise and MMA play a key role in keeping himself motivated.
"I always had an interest in MMA. I got a Thai boxing coach into the FIT Studios gym. Then I got Chris Fields in a year-and-a-half ago. It 100pc helps me with my motivation, I train every day."
Lee joked that the MMA mats are quickly becoming the new golf course in the business world.
He also has an interesting take on hourly pay, saying that it doesn't particularly help towards success in business.
"The idea behind success in the business world is, use money to make money, so when you're sleeping you're making money. So there's always money being earned even when you're not working.
"If you're getting paid by the hour, that's not a way, in the business world, to be successful. It's a way to start your base to get going."
He says that his business has had over 150 enquiries for franchises.
While he accepts that not all enquiries will lead to franchises it shows the prosperous state this healthy business is in.
By the sounds of things Chopped is at the start of a period of continuous progression as Lee says that it is secured by the strength of people's desire to eat well.
"How can looking after yourself be a fad? People eating good food and looking after their body, that's just people getting smarter and more educated in my eyes.
"Maybe the parents didn't eat healthy and whether they're doing it or not now they want their kids to eat healthy, so they're the next customers of Chopped. They're the next generation and they're going to educate the next generation again."