This summer National College of Ireland is launching a new lunchtime series: In Conversation With. The series comprises three free events with Bobby Kerr interviewing some of the best minds in Irish business. The first event takes place on Wednesday 28th June, from 1-2pm where we'll be welcoming Brian Lee, co-founder and Managing Director of Freshly Chopped, on campus. Ahead of this event we sat down with Brian to get to know a little more about how he got started.
Where are you from originally?
I was born and bred in Kilbarrack.
Prior to setting up Chopped, where had your career taken you and what were the highlights?
I’ve always had a passion for business, ever since I was very young. When I was 11 I set up a gardening company. I printed off flyers, delivered them around the neighbourhood and got to work. Throughout my teenage years I ran stalls at the Christmas markets. When I was 22 I set up a property management company and a convenience store in Dublin city centre, using money I saved up by working as a carpenter during my late teens. In 2012 my business partner Andy Chen and I opened FIT Studios in Fairview, which has become one of Ireland’s leading fitness studios.
When did you first come up with the idea for Freshly Chopped?
It was back in 2011. My business partner Andy Chen and I were both going to the gym a lot, but were frustrated at the lack of convenient, quick and good value nutrition available to us. That was when the seeds of Freshly Chopped were sewn.
How would you describe it in a nutshell?
We offer healthy food – served fast. With over a million salad combinations Freshly Chopped is the type of outlet where people can find the exact food they need to fuel their exercise training or lifestyle, whether it’s rigorous or not so rigorous!
When did the business officially launch?
We opened our doors in 2012. Our first outlet was on Baggot Street in Dublin. We always believed in the idea but we had our doubters so it was great to see lunchtime queues forming from the first day.
What’s your target demographic?
The beautiful thing is that our customers range in ages from 5 to 95. Originally our audience started out as those in the fitness community but since then our customer base has grown dramatically. Now we serve multiple demographic groups across the local communities in which we trade. More and more people in Ireland want well-balanced, nutritious meals and we are passionate about providing these people with the food they want. We are also committed to educating the wider population about healthy eating choices. We would love to create a future where families go for a healthy Freshly Chopped meal as a fast food option instead of an unhealthy option. Anybody who is interested in delicious and healthy food is our target market.
How did you fund the start-up from the outset – was it an expensive undertaking?
We funded it from the savings built up from our previous businesses. I’ve always set up new ventures by emptying my bank account. We were lucky in a sense that we started the business during a recession because the most expensive outgoing was our rent which, at the time, you were able to negotiate a fair price for. Unfortunately, this is changing now and we’re seeing landlords making short-sighted decisions that have the potential to kill off high street recovery.
How did you first meet your business partner, Andy Chen, and what clicked there between you?
We’ve been friends for years. I was 16 years old and we were working in a corner shop together and clicked straight away through our shared passion for fitness. However, we then found that we also shared a passion for business. We were always brainstorming and bouncing ideas for business ventures off each other. As a result, Andy was the perfect person to go into business with.
Did you undertake any start-up support courses, incubators or other initiatives to help you with the business? If so, how helpful were they?
We didn’t do anything like that. From our experiences in our previous ventures, we knew ourselves what we needed to do to make this business work. We had a really clear view of what we wanted Chopped to be and wanted to do it our way.
How many staff do you employ?
At the moment there’s over 400 people working across the various Freshly Chopped outlets. It is very important for me to have like-minded staff and partners with as much an interest in healthy food as I have. In order to educate the customers, I need to have staff who know what they are talking about. Having staff with complementary strengths and abilities who can bring something different to the table is invaluable to me.
What would you recommend to other entrepreneurs who might be thinking of setting up a franchised business?
Find franchisees you can trust to deliver a dependability of experience to your customers across your outlets. We will provide a consistency of flavour and quality guaranteed by the skilled team in Freshly Chopped’s central kitchen. We have friendly staff who are willing to help across our stores so it’s reassuring for us to know we have franchisees who provide the same in our new outlets. What we look for in franchisees is strong leadership, a positive attitude and a strong work ethic.
What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of setting up a business (e.g. accessing funding, getting through red tape, building a customer base, managing finances etc) and how did you overcome those challenges?
We opened Freshly Chopped during the recession and as with any other business opening during a recession we faced challenges. In saying that, I kind of liked the recession. It forced people to go out on their own, it forced people into being an entrepreneur. I think the main challenge was creating a brand which would resonate with customers immediately, but I knew that people would be excited about what we offered, so I never doubted that we’d have interest immediately.
What’s the best piece of hands-on advice you would give to other start-ups who are just starting out – what should they do now that will save them trouble later, etc?
You have to trust your instincts. We’ve been able to create a brand that really resonates using only instinct for what would work. It’s important to challenge yourself. You also have to make a commitment. If you’re standing still you’re really going backwards because you’re not growing and you will end up in a position where your success makes you lazy.
To hear more from Brian, come along to our free lunchtime event on 28th June from 1-2pm.