The O’Brien’s founder is taking things at his own pace as he embarks on one of his biggest challenges to date: taking a bite out of London’s ultra-competitive food delivery market with his latest venture, Camile Thai
Brody Sweeney grew up in 1960s Dublin on a diet of meat, potatoes and veggies. It wasn’t until years later, when curries and exotic fare from further east started to become commonplace, that his palate made contact with spices like galangal and lemongrass. When he tried Thai food for the first time, he was “blown away by the flavours”, an experience that later inspired his mission to bring his take on the cuisine – healthy, local and with a Westernised twist – to the UK and Ireland.
Sweeney is perhaps best known for being the man behind the popular O’Brien’s Irish Sandwich Bars franchise. At its peak, it had over 300 outlets in 15 countries and was the go-to destination for a classic sandwich and coffee combo at lunchtime. But thanks to the global financial crash in 2008, the economy took a nosedive and O’Brien’s was one of the casualties: in less than a year a heartbroken Sweeney was forced to put the company into liquidation. With his sunny, Irish charm, he seems unflappable but it was a devastating blow. “Afterwards, I got depressed about the situation,” he admits.
But the end of his sandwich empire didn’t put him off franchising one bit. Within a matter of months the self-confessed foodie was back with a new venture: Camile Thai, a food delivery business with a focus on Asian – especially Thai – flavours. While Sweeney was buoyant, convincing other people proved to be more of a challenge and it was an uphill battle to even find a lease. Finally, he opened his first outlet at Dolphin’s Barn on Dublin’s South Circular Road.
Camile Thai’s model is simple: fresh, healthy and restaurant-quality meals with a blend of western and eastern flavours that can be ordered online. Authenticity in flavours is key and Sweeney makes sure his input is heard in the kitchen. “I taste each and every dish before it’s rolled out on the menu,” he says. Currently the delivery side of the business accounts for at least 70% of sales and is in keeping with modern lifestyles, Sweeney explains. Rather than selling to everybody, he knows his target audience. “People these days want convenience,” he says. “After a long day at work, they want to come home and have dinner brought to them but they want it to be something special. We appeal to the young, urban professional from the Facebook generation who wants food delivered directly to their door.”
The health aspect is paramount and was a core part of the model from day one. “Eating habits have changed a lot and people now want their food to be healthy,” Sweeney says. Looking around Dublin after O’Brien’s went into liquidation, all he saw were fish and chip shops and fast-food takeaways. Whilst he’s quick to stress there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, Sweeney had noticed that young, urban people in particular were becoming more cosmopolitan in their tastes and increasingly interested in wellness.
As a result, while Camile Thai’s dishes may sound similar to those you might find at your corner takeaway, they have a healthy twist: all meals come with brown rice by default, calorie counts are made public and ingredients are as natural and locally sourced as possible. These efforts have paid off and saw Camile Thai crowned the Healthiest Takeaway in Ireland by Just Eat.
But what made Sweeney give franchising another go so soon after his O’Brien’s journey ended – and in the middle of a downturn? “It’s simple: I had run out of money,” he says. “I had no choice. You have to try again.” Sweeney isn’t allergic to failure and thinks British entrepreneurs could learn from America, where entrepreneurs often aren’t taken seriously unless they already have a handful failures under their belts. And Sweeney has certainly had his fair share: he started two businesses in his youth that didn’t pan out, made an unsuccessful attempt to win a seat for Fine Gael in the Irish general election and failed to launch an upmarket Chinese takeaway that didn’t hit the right note.
Rather than being embarrassed by failure, like a chef perfecting a recipe, Sweeney has learned from it. So as he prepares to launch Camile Thai in London, he’s taking a more cautious approach. “It won’t be easy in a city that’s spoiled for choice,” he says. “But we have a very unique offering.” Indeed, Sweeney will have to compete with the likes of Deliveroo, Just Eat and now UberEATS. Does he ever consider partnering with one of them? “We can’t afford the cut they would take from us,” he says simply. Instead, Sweeney is sticking with his direct-to-diner model, focusing on keeping the quality up and slowly pumping money into new technology to help drivers get even hotter food to people’s doors.
Drawing on lessons from past ventures, Sweeney knows how important it is to focus on the customer and tweak things as you go along, rather than waiting until it’s too late. “Early on, we put a sweet chilli chicken dish on our kid’s menu, not even thinking that parents might be put off by the word ‘chilli’ – even though the dish wasn’t spicy,” he says. “But we learned from that and changed the name of the dish.” And with one eye firmly fixed on what’s hot, Sweeney has supported new menu additions like quinoa and gluten-free options in response to what’s trending in the foodie world.
His strategy this time around is also a very localised one. Rather than spreading himself across an entire city too quickly, the entrepreneur is opening branches in small clusters to get a strong foothold in one neighbourhood before slowly repeating the model in another. “Our strategy is to be number one within a two-mile-radius before expanding anywhere else,” he says. “That’s very important to us.”
And this approach has been born out of his painful experience at O’Brien’s, which had too many properties to sustain. “I’ve learned a lot”, he says. Today, four of the company’s 15 outlets are franchises and although he ultimately hopes to have 100 outlets in London, the first won’t be a franchise. Instead he’s happy to take things at his own pace as he learns what Londoners want. “We need to test the model and validate our assumptions, tweaking things along the way,” he says. One thing’s for sure, he’s as hungry as ever.