Brody Sweeney: ‘We were all like headless chickens’
Camile Thai owner reflects on life after the economic boom and bust
Brody Sweeney at one of his Camile Thai restaurants, on Pearse Street in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
His newest offering was born out of the ashes of O’Briens Sandwich Bar, although there wasn’t much to be salvaged when it slipped into receivership in 2008.
“We started with nothing because I got wiped out with O’Briens,” he admits.
Sweeney isn’t bitter. He has started over and is on the hunt for franchisees to sign up for Camile. “We’re in a really hot sector,” he says.
“The home delivery sector is booming right around the world and we happen to be a small part of that.”
Sweeney is nothing if not an optimist. In fairness, this has stood him in good stead. It brought him out of the failure of his sandwich bars to create a brand with franchise partners including Galway hurler Joe Canning. “They were interested in doing a franchise in Galway and so we liked them and a location didn’t come up in Galway quickly so we did one in Limerick. But now they’re planning to do them in Galway and Sligo as well,” he said.
The brand, and Sweeney’s ambition, is starting to take off. The Dublin-born businessman hopes to have 100 stores in five years’ time in both the UK and Ireland. As it happens, that’s the same goal he had when he established the brand.
“When I set up Camile in 2011 I set a goal to open 100 restaurants in five years. We’re six years into that plan and my plan is still to open 100 restaurants in five years.”
Not reaching his targets doesn’t bother him. It’s the principle of having them that counts, he says.
This brand is Sweeney’s bread and butter and it has got to work. He freely concedes that he has made mistakes in the past, but he is determined not to repeat them.
“I took my eye off the ball, really,” he says referring to the demise of the O’Briens brand that made him a household name.
“Writing the books, starting the charity, going into politics and all that, and when the chips were down I was honestly out of ideas as to how to turn it around.”
One of the books he’s referring to bore that rather unfortunate, and ironic, title Making Bread: the real way to start up and stay up in business.
Does he regret that title?
“No, it did sell very well for a while. It’s part of life’s journey. At the time I wrote the book I thought I was a rock star.”
To some extent he was a rock star. He had built up what appeared to be an extraordinarily successful chain, he was wealthy, well known and fancied himself as a politician. The book, he thought, would further build that profile. “I thought it was fantastic, I was having a great time.”
While life hasn’t changed all that much, it was a “real dose of cold water going bust”.
After his unsuccessful bid to join the ranks of the Fine Gael parliamentary party in 2007, things began to dip. By 2008, Sweeney could see the writing on the wall. “I knew I was in trouble. But, when I thought the banks hadn’t a clue what they were at, or the landlords hadn’t a clue what they were at, that was quite scary.
“Everybody thought there was some fella with grey hair in the Central Bank somewhere, or the regulator, who knew what he was doing but it turned out there wasn’t anybody there.
“We were all like headless chickens,” he concedes. But he had a chance to check out when an offer came in to buy the business around 2006. Perhaps luckily, he didn’t take the offer: “If I’d have sold it I would have invested in bank shares and property and I would have leveraged the bollocks out of the property, so arguably I’m far better off having let the thing go into receivership.”
On politics, Sweeney seems glad that he dipped his toes in the water: “I do think its behoven on some people who are in business with some commercial acumen to get involved in politics. It shouldn’t be all schoolteachers and professional politicians.”
Although Sweeney is only peripherally involved in Fine Gael now, he calls himself a “bit of a junkie”.
How does he think they’re doing?
“I actually think they’re doing okay. I don’t think they’re exceptionally brilliant or exceptionally terrible.”
His nonchalant attitude to today’s minority government starkly contrasts with the ire he holds for the treatment businesspeople are subjected to if things go south.
“You can’t go on the dole, which is ridiculous. I was contributing millions to the exchequer and a guy like me, who you should back to have another go because I’m going to create jobs, there’s nothing for me. You’re completely naked, you’ve gone bust and you’ve your arse out the window with no support from the State.”
Throughout our interview, Sweeney is calm and has mostly positive things to say. “We still haven’t had a penny of support from the State, which is fine, we probably don’t need it.”
Rant over, we change tack and discuss succession planning, although it’s probably a bit premature for that. Sweeney is just 56 and he doesn’t seem to be itching to retire.
“Retirement for me is where you do what you want to do as opposed to what you have to do. Arguably up until this point I’ve had to do this because I needed to get myself back on my feet financially but I’m reaching a point now where I don’t have to do it but I like doing it.”
He seems to be genuine when he says he likes doing it and although he doesn’t profess to being a workaholic, he says he doesn’t take enough holidays. Nonetheless, he has his hobbies. “I’ve got a 17-foot fishing boat with two lobster pots [and] I’m into sailing. I’ve got a half share in a J24 racing boat . . . My fleet of boats wouldn’t be worth €6,000 between them,” he says. Still, it’s nice to be able to call it a fleet, at which point we move back to talking about his business interests.
Sweeney mentions his involvement with Bord Bia and his chairmanship of the Little Museum of Dublin – this is something he’s quite proud of and appears to enjoy.
I wonder if the idea of the Little Museum has worn off on him and whether we’re likely to see him donning an apron in a little hipsteresque cafe where he markets his fresh bakes.
“We’re all built differently. I often admire people who have just one restaurant and do a fantastic job with it. We have a lot of sacrifices to make because we’re a chain. Sometimes you walk into here and I think it’s a little impersonal. I’m not putting me heart and soul into this one restaurant, I’m splitting my heart and soul over all of them . . . I’m not a millennial, there’s lots of really cool coffee shops and that’s not me,” he says.
Sweeney is noticeably meticulous and walks around his restaurant noticing everything and anything that’s out of place.
“I’m a bit of a stress bucket. If you put me in there now at lunchtime, I’m not a good person to have around. I make everybody nervous, so I’m better off out here.”
He aims to visit every one of his outlets at least once, if not twice, a week and always has a list of things he’s not entirely happy with. “You wouldn’t notice them but I notice them and I think that’s my job – to be the guardian of the brand.”
Sweeney begins to detail how he checks the staff toilet every time he visits his restaurants. “If the staff toilet is anything less than spotless it feeds through,” he says.
Sweeney spends a lot of time in development and is keen to gain market control in London. “Arguably London is the most sophisticated restaurant market in the world . . . We’re focused on the home delivery of Thai food and there’s nobody else doing that in the UK.”
The London move is something he seems proud of. “We’re a bunch of Irish guys running a Thai restaurant business in London. Sure that’s ridiculous.”
Camile is targeting a high-end customer who is likely to pay that bit more for a better service. Deliveries from the Thai chain come from a driver in a white shirt and dickie bow – it’s a bit of a gimmick but Sweeney is trying to change perceptions.
“Traditionally, the independent take-away sector hasn’t been really well marketed, hasn’t had high customer service standards, has a perception of poor service quality and not very healthy food and we’ve tried to take all those things and turn them on their head and do a more 21st-century version.”
Sweeney’s ability to fail and rebound appears to have been inspired by his father, who he calls “an entrepreneurial guy”. Although his father was a lawyer he dabbled in the business world.
Sweeney fondly recalls his father’s daily routine: “[He’d come] home to be greeted by my mother as though he was after slaying dragons and he was put in the sitting room with a gin and tonic and we were told not to disturb him as he unwound from his day. It was really funny when you think of it. It was, for professionals, a different life then . . . People did their work in the morning, then got stewed, then went home.”
Is that possible now? “No, I’m afraid not. I can’t have a drink at lunchtime, I’m useless for the afternoon,” he says.
In any event, he doesn’t seem like a man that would be willing to waste an afternoon. Times are changing and Sweeney believes there’s no better time to be in business.
“The food business has been absolutely turned upside down at the moment. The way people are eating, consuming, because of the amount of time that they’re spending on screens, is fundamentally changing. And for me that’s really exciting because that’s the business I happen to be in.”
Name: Brody Sweeney.
Position: Owner of the Camile Thai restaurant chain.
Family: Married with four children.
Education: Blackrock College and DCU, which he dropped out of.
Something you might expect: He loves Thai food.
Something you might not expect: He has two lobster pots and plans to buy a third.