It was his grandmother and father who instilled the value of money in Dublin entrepreneur Brian Lee — he insists those life lessons serve him well to this day as his Freshly Chopped health food brand expands throughout the country.
Founded in 2012 by Mr Lee and his long-time business partner Andy Chen, Freshly Chopped was developed to serve increasingly health-conscious Irish consumers.
Lettuce selections, garden fresh vegetables, and more than 30 ingredients are chopped with its signature mezzaluna curved blade and freshly dressed into Freshly Chopped’s salad bowls, sandwiches or wraps.
From the first store on Baggot St in Dublin, it grew to two in 2014, and three in 2015.
Another 16 were opened in 2016 and Little Island in Cork is the county’s first and 27th overall.
Cork is firmly part of expansion plans as the businessmen look to have 40 outlets open by the end of the year. The UK is the next port of call.
Like a hybrid of Conor McGregor and Bill Cullen, the 31-year-old Kilbarrack native learned entrepreneurship as a youngster.
“When I was young I was always showing entrepreneurial signs. I started off because I wanted the few pound and my father John Lee wouldn’t give me it for free. His mother Elizabeth Lee grew up in an orphanage, they queued for soup kitchens.
"The value of money was instilled in me. She reared her family and was able at the age of 75 to finally buy her own house.
“She was a cleaner for the Department of Education all her life. There’s great pride in my family in the way she managed it, and the value for money was always in me.”
If Mr Lee wanted money like his friends, he had to work for it.
“My father worked for himself all his life, is still doing so at 69. That’s where that work ethic comes in. I had friends who had pocket money but if I wanted money, I had to either go off working with him as a kid, or cut the grass or wash the car.
“Only looking back on it now do I see the traits that were being instilled in me. It’s great because your folks can give you life advice, and I can do so with my son Logan, who is nine months.
"Every generation in my family has moved on a little than the generation before. I had a great upbringing and I want to provide a little bit more for mine.”
At 16 and working in a local Spar, he met Mr Chen.
“Andy had barely two words of English but was able to sell me phone covers. A bell rang in my head and I took 50 off him to sell in the school. That led to 50,000 phone covers from China.
"That was our first venture, and our friendship blossomed. In the meantime, I served my time as a carpenter and did it for 10 years, always thinking of what I could do on the side.
“We both invested in a store when I came back from Australia, where I noticed how health conscious people were becoming.”
Building the brand was key, he said. Customers would follow, the duo believed. A mixture of company owned and franchised outlets followed. More than 2.5 million salads are sold by Freshly Chopped every year.
“We needed to secure all the shopping centres in Dublin, looked at what other brands were as big as they were. Shopping centres were a major factor. We needed to take all the high streets. We needed airports, universities. If we got students, they’re our traffic drivers,” Mr Lee said. Now national expansion is the next part of the Freshly Chopped’s plans.
“Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Kerry — everyone is calling for us. We’re going to all of them. We have five people looking at opening units in Cork. Our ideal is to have
standalone Chopped stores in Cork. People say we’re only for students but we get the postman and the local priest. We get all demographics. We have kids aged six eating salads.
“Besides the business part of it, that’s what we wanted starting out — we are passionate about making a difference. The big difference is this is educating the next generation.
“It’s up to us to be the leader in
the industry, we’re trying to be the innovator.”
There is no better education
than life experience and taking a calculated risk when you are young, according to Mr Lee.
“You have the vision, the goal and the strategy. Most entrepreneurs don’t study it and get all these degrees in it. I know I didn’t. I learned on my feet as I went. There’s no right way and wrong way — it’s a
degree in common sense and what works for you. You take a common sense approach to everything and apply it.”
He added: “I want to grow this as an international business. I need to make my mark on this country, to show that I can do things. My biggest piece of advice is to take your risk now when you’re young. Make your calculated risks now.
“I’m usually about 80% sure and I find out how to get the other 20% to get there. We’re only here for one life, you might as well live it.”
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