Sunday 23 October 2016

Fast food with healthy chops

Brian Lee tells Sean Gallagher how he plans to take on McDonald's with his takeaway chain with a difference

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

Brian Lee and Sean Gallagher fill their bowls at Chopped Photo: Gerry Mooney
Brian Lee and Sean Gallagher fill their bowls at Chopped Photo: Gerry Mooney

The interesting thing about entrepreneurs is that they come from different backgrounds, have different life experiences - and yet come up with the most amazing business ideas. Often these can appear simple and in hindsight, even obvious. Yet it is often in their simplicity that lies their brilliance.

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This week's entrepreneur didn't take a traditional or expected route to success yet his passion for business and his innate charisma have helped him build a company that is set to achieve incredible success internationally. His name is Brian Lee and together with Andy Chen, he is the founder of Chopped - a healthy fast food franchise.

Set up in 2012, Chopped currently has seven outlets throughout Dublin city, employs over 120 staff, between direct and indirect, and has an annual turnover of more than €2.7m.

"I am really a health and fitness entrepreneur," declares Brian, as he welcomes me to one of his flagship stores on the Main Street in Fairview. The company's distinctive green shopfronts and sharp-looking branding have become well known around Dublin in recent years - especially among the growing number of consumers who are now looking for healthier options in fast food.

It's just after midday when I arrive to interview Brian and already there's a long queue waiting to be served. Behind the counter, the staff (or 'choppers' as Brian cheerfully calls them) are busily dishing up a mix of soups and salad bowls as well as a wide range of wraps and sandwiches, to hungry customers.

These Choppers are called after the unique Mezzula or half-moon shaped blade which they use to chop up the combined meat and salad fillings. With a handle on either end, the swift back and forth motion serves to add a little drama to the customers' overall experience.

"Our extensive matrix of meat and salad choices allows for up to as many as one million different combinations," explains Brian.

"We have eight separate marinated chicken flavours to choose from, all cooked daily, as well as steak, turkey, ham, pork, pulled pork, salmon and prawns. And everything here is freshly prepared and locally sourced," he adds.

Brian has an interesting background for a food entrepreneur. Originally from Kilbarrack in Dublin, he dreamt from a very young age, that one day he would end up owning his own business.

"My father was a carpenter and ran his own building and shop-fitting business. Growing up, I used to follow him around everywhere. By watching him work, I learned valuable lessons about work ethic, about dealing with suppliers and how best to handle customers," explains Brian.

When he was only 10-years-old, Brian borrowed £117 from his father to buy a second-hand lawnmower which he used to cut local gardens. When he was 16, he met his now business partner, Andy Chen, for the first time when both were stacking shelves in their local Spar store.

"Andy had moved over from China and when I discovered that he was bringing in mobile phone covers from China and selling them here, I began to quiz him about his costs, turnover and margins. We got on so well that we decided to go into business together," explains Brian.

They became so successful that they ended up selling over 50,000 covers and while still in their teens, were making up to a €1,000 a week. At the time, Brian, shrewdly decided to opened an account in his local Credit Union.

"I would borrow some money from them but instead of spending it, I simply held onto it for a short while and then paid it back. I did't need the money at the time but it was a great way of building up a good credit rating for when I would need to borrow," he explains.

After school, Brian served his apprenticeship as a carpenter in his father's shop-fitting business but continued to engage in a variety of money-making ventures on the side, along with Andy. He was doing so well that at the age of 20 he had saved enough money to buy his first house.

Not long after, he did borrow money - enough to buy a share in a Londis store in the city centre. Within two years, he had managed to repay the loan in full and still hang onto his equity stake. Every weekend too, he and Andy continued to meet up to brainstorm new business ideas.

"I had become active in Mixed Martial Arts, and Andy and I used to go to the gym a lot. After training we'd often go looking for convenient nutritious fast food - but couldn't find any. It got us thinking that there must be other people also wanting healthier fast food options and so we decided to open our own healthy fast food business," explains Brian.

The pair committed themselves to getting the name and the branding right so that it would have the look of a real international brand - what you might expect from a successful US franchise.

"Wanting to make an impact on the market with our first outlet, we decided to open on Baggot Street and buried every penny we had into it to make it happen," admits Brian.

The business turned out to be a roaring success, with queues from day one.

Over the next 12 months the pair fine-tuned their processes into an operational manual that they would later use to roll out their business through a franchise model - a typical store requiring around 1,500 sqft and costing approximately €150,000 to €170,000 to open, complete with design and fit out as well as an additional €20,000 franchise fee.

Over the next four years, they opened stores around Dublin. They also recently signed an exclusive five-year deal with Aramark who provide catering services in a variety of educational establishments, as well as in travel locations and large sporting stadiums.

"At the moment, we plan to open 10 more outlets across Dublin before the end of 2016 and will be employing over 320 staff at that point. We also plan to go nationwide by the end of 2017," explains Brian enthusiastically.

"And we are already building the team to break into the UK and expect to open in London next year. Ultimately we would love to see Chopped become as universal as McDonald's," he adds.

Before I leave, Brian invites me upstairs to where he and Andy have set up a new gym business, called Fit Studio. The pair continue to train most days - only now it's in their own gym. In addition, Brian continues to train two days a week with MMA coach Chris Fields and recently won a gold medal. It's a form of discipline he feels helps him in his business dealings.

Having met many entrepreneurs over the years, I recognise just how inspirational a young man Brian Lee is, and just how inspiring his story can be. He didn't go to college. He doesn't have a degree. But the young carpenter from Kilbarrack has grown a business that has the potential to become, not just a national, but also an international success.

Looking back, Brian remembers watching the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards programme every year on TV and dreaming that one day he too, would be a part of that. This year his dream finally came through when, at only 30 years of age, he was selected as the youngest finalist in this year's EOY Awards. Truly inspirational.

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Brian's advice for other businesses

1. Follow your passion, trust your instinct

“Find something you are really passionate about and then build a business around that. That way your enthusiasm about something you believe in will sustain you over the longer term.  Learn, too, to trust your instincts and believe in the things that resonate with you.”

2. Constantly challenge yourself

“We all need to be challenged if we want to grow. This is true in business and in our leisure time. Everyone needs goals. Try to set goals that challenge you. If you’re standing still you’re really going backwards. If you’re not growing you will become complacent and maybe lazy.”

3. Make a commitment

“Committing to a goal helps you focus your time and your energy on a specific target. It doesn’t matter what age you are, it only matters what your attitude is. Even if you can’t give up what you are now doing, find a way - even part-time - to immerse yourself in your dream.”

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