A Master of Reinvention
An entrepreneur dubbed the poster boy of the Celtic Tiger, former O’Brien’s sandwich chain boss Brody Sweeney talks to Emma Deighan about his return to the hospitality world with expanding Thai food takeaway chain Camile
Ulster Rugby players Rob Herring and Paul Marshall with Camile owner Brody Sweeney at the launch of Camile Lisburn Road
When Brody Sweeney, the man who headed O’Brien’s sandwich shop chain, reflects on its rise and fall, he’s honest and modest.
The entrepreneur who was once hailed as one of the top businessmen in Ireland when the economy was booming, simply says: “Ultimately I take responsibility for my own actions. I took my eye off the ball, acquired too many properties and, when the downturn came, we were in a bad position.”
Perhaps it’s this stark accountability and realist approach to business that has been the backbone to his newfound success as the founder of Camile, a chain of Thai takeaways with healthy food the main USP.
Last year he opened his first outlet on Belfast’s Lisburn Road and, just recently, his second unit in Ballyhackamore in the east of the city.
Camile was a bit of a labour of love for Brody who says, had his first empire of sandwich shops not failed publicly with him at the helm, he may have taken a career break.
He says of the period between O’Brien’s and Camile: “It wasn’t great, I needed to get another business. I was financially wiped out. If I’d a choice, I would’ve taken a break. The new business didn’t really work well at the beginning, and then I spotted the move in online food sales with Deliveroo and the likes performing well. I thought that was the place to be – online – but a quality takeaway.”
And last year, Camile reported profits of €651,703, considerably higher than the previous year’s €479,087.
Today, there are 14 Camile takeaway restaurants with the majority across the border, one in London and two in Belfast.
And he’s not stopping there. Brody is on the hunt for franchisees to help him expand the chain operating a ‘laptop-to-lap’ delivery philosophy.
Investors seeking to enter franchise agreements with Camile are looking at costs of between €200,000 to €250,000 to set up a new restaurant.
“We’re trying to create a bit of interest in franchising,” he told Hospitality Review, ahead of a recent franchise exhibit in Dublin.
“The big thing is there is good growth in this industry, and people are spending more but what’s driving our business is broadband penetration and people looking for more convenience and it’s a fundamentally challenging time.
“In the UK in the last number of years, foodservice has been flat but the growth in home delivery is growing 10% year on year,” says Brody.
But back to the chain making him the business model for the Republic’s burgeoning economy.
“I wasn’t bankrupt but I had been completely wiped out,” he says. “I had a Celtic Tiger-era mortgage and no money coming in at all. Not a penny. All I had was an old Toyota Prius with a prang in one side.
“I had been hanging onto O’Brien’s by my fingernails. I really thought I could turn it around and it was completely crushing when in the end I had to let go.”
He sold O’Brien’s to the owners of Abrakebabra in 2009, which is why the brand is still present on most high streets throughout Ireland.
He describes it as a battle he lost but, rather than mope, he researched the industry and Camile was born.
“Eventually you get the bones of an idea and you start trying to build around it again. I decided that it would be a good idea to start a Chinese takeaway.
“The difference would be a higher grade of food – to restaurant standard – and that there would be a brand, a Domino’s for Chinese food,” he says.
That concept evolved into Camile and social media here in NI is awash with restaurant-goers singing the praises of a long-awaited healthy alternative to Domino’s and its contemporaries. And Ballyhackamore’s launch has created 20 new jobs.
But he’s struggling still. Not financially, but more on the manpower front, citing industry skill deficits and Brexit’s threat to an immigrant workforce as a worry for his outlets here.
“There is a shortage of chefs in NI and RoI and these positions are mostly filled by young immigrants,” says Brody.
“We would be the first to employ NI natives but there’s none there. In our London and Dublin outlets, we are staffed by a young immigrant population but that is drying up because it’s not the place for immigrants with Brexit. We would have it at the back of our minds that Brexit could be part of the reason for shortages.
“Any modern economy needs young immigrants because the local people tend to move up the food chain in jobs and aren’t prepared to work for minimum wage jobs. We need a supply of young immigrants who are prepared to take those jobs,” says Brody, who has now worked in the hospitality industry for 30 years.
While he says the new venture is performing well, the locations are well chosen and its future is promising, “it could do better”, he says.
“Lisburn Road is a super area; the demographic works well for us. It’s where young professionals, two-income households, time-poor, cash-rich and Internet-savvy live. It’s the right area.”
The Lisburn Road branch opened in 2016 and employs 18 people. “Ballyhackamore is fast developing as a foodie area. There are a lot of great restaurants there, which is great,” he says. So, does he feel he’s in a more robust position now, having launched a business during one of the most economically- testing times?
“It’s different,” he says. “This business is different. O’Brien’s was positioned in areas with high pedestrian footfall and, during a recession, it was hit hard. This business is focused on bringing food to houses where property costs are lower.
“The difference now is that I don’t have much cash, so every single step I’ve made has had to be considered.
I did manage to get a loan from AIB, which explodes the myth that the banks aren’t lending.
“As a new business, I probably stood a better chance but it’s a lesson for other people like me who are getting back on their feet – put a good plan together and approach the bank.”
And he does have further tips for those entering the world of business or rising from a fall.
“I think stick to something that is focused,” he says. “Go in focused and do it well. You are going to make loads of mistakes but try to learn from them. I still don’t really know what you should do but I do know what I shouldn’t be doing. Focusing on one niche area in the foodservice area and not trying to be all things to all people is a start.”
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