It is 14 years since the Camile Thai takeaway group founder, Brody Sweeney, ran for election for Fine Gael, but habits stick. He never made it to the Dáil, but still he glides like a politician through interactions with random members of the public. Is this what they call the common touch?
We’re on the promenade at Sandymount trying to get Sweeney’s photographs taken before the wind and rain sweeps back in. An older man, a proper Dubliner, notices the scene walking by and from beneath the hat that he holds with both hands on his head, he offers jovial advice on how to proceed. Sweeney jokes with him that he could end up in the background of a newspaper shot.
“Which one?” asks the man. “The Irish Times,” replies Sweeney. “Will I be in it?” “You might.” “Jaysus, I hope that lot up in Mountjoy don’t see it,” says the man rather mysteriously, and off he trots. Sweeney is delighted with the banter. We later set off on foot towards a cafe in Sandymount village, Sweeney’s local neighbourhood.
We have only just taken our seats outside the cafe when he starts speaking to someone else – a woman passing on the street, whom he appears to know. It sounds as if someone is unwell and Sweeney is offering her soothing words in hushed tones. She moves on. Seconds later, Sweeney is waving at somebody else in a car. It turns out to be The Irish Times’s photographer driving away.
This is turning into an Enda Kenny-style walkabout, with all the chatting and waving. I’m half expecting somebody else to just randomly join us at our table. Sweeney probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they did. Given his fondness for shooting the breeze with random people, the mark of a true Irish politician, does he regret not getting elected as one of Kenny’s TDs in 2007?
"I really regret it. I would love to be in [the Dáil]. I'm endlessly fascinated by it all. People like [Minister for Finance] Paschal Donohoe and [Minister for Public Expenditure] Michael McGrath are doing a great job. Smart people trying to do their best – conviction politicians."
It’s not too late, I suggest.
Future political appointment?
“I was 60 this year. I think it is too late, probably. I’d love a job in the Seanad, though. Pádraig Ó Céidigh [a businessman who was taoiseach Enda Kenny’s nominee to the upper house until 2020] did an amazing job there with his perjury Bill. I would have been proud to do something like that.”
Has he asked about the possibility of a political appointment in future? Sweeney laughs. “No, I’m far too modest for that.”
Anyway, he might be too busy running his Thai food chain Camile, which he founded in 2010, the year after his previous business, O’Brien’s Irish Sandwich Bars, went bust. Camile has hit a growth spurt in the pandemic, driven by lockdowns and people ordering more food at home. Dining-in, the only part of the business affected by restrictions, was worth only about a fifth of its business prior to the pandemic.
By the end of this year it will have opened 15 new franchised, delivery-focused outlets in the second half of 2021. It opened in Newbridge, Co Kildare, this week. Next week it opens in the Point Campus near Dublin's docklands and the week after that, former Galway hurler Joe Canning will open his fourth Camile franchise, in his home county. In all, Camile will finish 2021 with about 42 outlets in Ireland, including seven company-operated restaurant/takeaways and 35 franchises.
It costs franchisees about €350,000 to open a Camile outlet. They pay a royalty of about 5 per cent of sales to use the brand Sweeney markets and they also buy about 45 per cent of their ingredients, such as sauces and spring rolls, from his company, which runs a production factory in Finglas.
Camile also dipped its toe in the US market this year, licensing its brand to a local partner that has opened three “cloud kitchen” operations, where it will sit alongside other delivery brands. It also has seven outlets in the London area, including three run by the company. Camile Thai is on course to employ 1,100 staff by the year end, with annual sales of about €30 million and healthy profits.
The group is not far off as big as it is going to get in the Irish market. Britain, and specifically London, is the big play for Sweeney. He is finding the market there “tough” but he remains confident that its investment in technology and its clean-cut brand aimed at millennials, with health-conscious Thai food delivered in compostable packaging, will eventually stick.
“We are very committed to the UK. We have a reasonable chance of opening a few more bricks-and-mortar stores before Christmas and we have a decent pipeline going into next year. It is tough, especially with staffing and Brexit. We have other UK partnerships that I can’t talk about today as they are not signed. But they could lead us to high growth, multiple outlets,” he says.
You mean opening franchises on garage forecourts?
“Yeah, that kind of thing.”
Camile recently had to delay the opening of a new outlet in Epsom, Surrey, by five weeks because the franchisee couldn’t find enough staff. Brexit and the pandemic have caused a huge shortage of labour.
Sweeney categorises the foray into the US market as a risk-free “punt”. Camile doesn’t have to put up capital and it isn’t responsible for the trading performance of the business there, nor for hiring franchisees for the cloud kitchens – its partner takes care of that.
He seems sceptical about whether the cloud kitchen concept – where multiple brands trade from a single location, a bit like retail concessions but with a single operator – will be profitable in the long term. But he is hopeful that just by being in the US, he might learn something new or sniff out an opportunity to find a local partner to roll out bricks-and-mortar franchises. A new outlet is due to be opened soon in Manhattan, on top of others in Chicago and Austin, Texas.
Robotic cooking equipment
“They say you should spend 90 per cent of your time running your business and 10 per cent of your time on punts. The US is in that category for us. So is the idea of cloud kitchens.”
It also operates one outlet from a cloud kitchen – sometimes known as dark kitchens – in London, in a premises set up by the food delivery aggregator, Deliveroo.
“We don’t want to get left behind, which is why we play in these spaces. Other things in our punt category include our investments in robotics and drone delivery. We’re an innovative business. We like to try things.”
Camile is working to develop automated or robotic wok cooking equipment to cut down on kitchen labour, while it has trialled drone home delivery with Bobby Healy’s Manna technology company in Oranmore, Galway – it takes an average of three minutes for an order to leave the restaurant and reach a customer, before dropping the meal down from the sky.
Camile is also busy rolling out smaller takeaway outlets in some Tesco carparks, it recently opened its first motorway services outlet in a Circle K on the M9 and it is due to open two outlets in Dublin Airport in partnership with caterer SSP Group, which emerged from the Scandinavian airline SAS. It has also developed spin-off customer brands, such as Chinese food concept Shanghai Sally, which it has opened in the UK, and Indian takeaway brand Thindi, which it is rolling out in Ireland.
“We have lots of those type of relationships that could explode into something interesting,” he says.
The O’Brien’s collapse seems to have taught Sweeney to be careful about managing expectations. He seems to occasionally feign a faint air of insouciance, the demeanour of a man who wants to be seen as merely tipping away trying to build his business and, sure, if it does well, then great.
But then something like the “explode” comment appears to betray what still lies beneath. Over the years, Sweeney has often been referred to as a “serial entrepreneur”. These people are the dreamers and creators of the business world. They are the wildcatters, always chasing that one big hit, the gusher. Some of that yearning must still reside in him.
Sweeney must have thought he had found his big hit with O’Brien’s. He set up the sandwich bar franchise in 1988 and licensed it through the 1990s, into the zenith of the Celtic Tiger of the early noughties. It grew to more than 300 outlets in 16 countries, before it was caught out in the property crash and he lost it all in 2009. He blames himself for, he says, losing focus and becoming distracted by “writing business books and running in elections”.
Irish society is often said to have a bad attitude towards business failure, compared to countries such as the US where it is accepted as a normal experience and people move on more quickly.
“One of the things coming out of O’Brien’s that shocked me was that a third of my address book dried up overnight. That really, really shocked me. People I thought I was close to turned out to be fair-weather friends,” he says.
“Losing a business is like a death in the family and some people don’t know what to say to you. Maybe it is not a wilful thing. Like, they’re not thinking: ‘you loser’. But it might be: ‘I don’t know what the f**k to say to him’. So they say nothing. But it was also clear that a number of people in my address book just didn’t want to talk to me. It was a short period in my life when I did not have a great time. But I’m lucky I have a positive disposition and I got stuck into something else quickly.”
The “something else” was Camile. And here he is, 12 years after the collapse of O’Brien’s, trying to crack the UK market once again with another brand he created from scratch, with a sales boost from a once-in-a-generation pandemic helping Camile along the way. Revenues rose 23 per cent last year.
“We were in home delivery before the pandemic started. We were almost 100 per cent in residential suburbs, with virtually nothing in town centres. We were always interested more in chimney pots than streets. When I went bust with O’Brien’s, I could just have easily set something up like cafes in shopping centres or town centre joints. I didn’t. That looks like brilliance now, but it was just luck.”
Sweeney, who is a finalist in this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards, hints that, at this stage in his life, he wants to find time for other things. He is chairman of the Little Museum in Dublin and a former director of Bord Bia. He would be “open to doing more things like that”.
After Camile opens its next three new outlets in coming weeks, Sweeney, a keen sailor, will join a crew of eight to sail a 17m (57ft) vessel across the Atlantic. It will leave Las Palmas in the Canaries on November 18th. If all goes to plan, it will reach St Lucia on December 10th or 11th.
“It’s my 60th birthday present to myself. I’ve been looking forward to it all year. It is a bucket list item.”
He says he “feels good” about what he has helped to create with Camile.
“Why wouldn’t I? I have a good life, I’m lucky, my kids are well and fulfilled. I’m in a stable relationship. I work with amazing people. And I’m doing something to feel good about.
“I was almost wiped out 10 years ago, so I’m proud of what we have now. We all have highs and lows. That’s life. It’s abnormal not to have that. But I’m lucky to live in a positive world.”
Name: Brody Sweeney
Job: Founder and chief executive, Camile Thai
Home: Sandymount, Dublin
Family: Partner, with four grown-up children
Something we might expect: He wants to crack new international markets with Camile.
Something that might surprise: He misses politics.