How pandemic has turned into a wok in the park for Camile Thai founder Brody Sweeney

Brody Sweeney, the boss of Camile Thai, is feeling lucky — and guilty. The impact of Covid-19, which sucker-punched many food businesses across Ireland, has barely registered at his takeaway chain.

After a short blip in March, the business is trading ahead of last year. Like-for-like sales in Ireland are up by 6% for the first half of 2020. Sales in London, home to five Camile locations, have increased by 35% during the same period, albeit from a lower base.

The business expects to turn over €30m this year across its 33 outlets, most of which are operated by franchisees.

Sweeney, who was involved in the Save our Restaurants Coalition that lobbied the government for supports for restaurateurs, is well aware of the pain endured by his colleagues in the food industry.

Founded in 2010, Camile has established outlets in mostly suburban locations and prioritised home delivery over dining in. It is a business model that has proven to be pandemic-proof.

“We’re managing the business quite well, but the fact that we picked a model that was home delivery and suburban-based, that’s just luck,” says Sweeney.

In recent months the company has developed a lower-cost conversion franchise model to allow troubled but well-located food businesses in regional towns to offer Camile Thai deliveries. The first of these recently opened in Sligo and cost the franchise owner €50,000 as opposed to the €300,000 required for a conventional Camile franchise. Sweeney expects to open five or six such outlets in Ireland and possibly the same number in London.

To fund its ambitious growth plans Camile, which counts Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave and venture capitalist Brian Caulfield as shareholders, is planning to launch a €10m external funding round within the next few months. The money will be used to increase its presence in London to 50 locations. While the company has been approached to set up in Dubai and is eyeing up America, Sweeney is focused on the UK capital. “We need to be pragmatic. We need to make London work before we really go to other places,” he says.

The €10m, which will be topped up by about €6m of internal investment, will also be tunnelled into developing new technologies. The company’s delivery app was developed in-house and generates more than €1m in sales a month, but it needs an upgrade to keep up to speed with the likes of Deliveroo and Just Eat.

Camile is also looking to add robotics to its production line. “If you think of the process of cooking on a wok, it’s very repetitive and replicable mechanically,” says Sweeney. “We’re looking at replacing our manual wok cookers with a semi-automatic version. The objective of that is we would reduce our labour cost and speed up the service.”

Then there are the drones. It was announced this year that Camile would launch drone deliveries with entrepreneur Bobby Healy’s drone start-up Manna. Customers will be able to use Google Earth technology to set a meeting point where meals will descend on a biodegradable string from an automated drone capable of travelling at 80kph.

Those plans, which require clearance from the aviation regulator, have been derailed by the pandemic as Manna shifted its resources to trial prescription deliveries by drone for the HSE.

Sweeney expects to deliver his first meal by air next year. “The drones are absolutely no-brainers from a business point of view,” he says. The cost of delivery will be halved, customers will get their orders more quickly, and the service ticks Camile’s sustainability box.

It is fair to say that Sweeney is having a much better crisis this time round compared with the last recession, when he lost control of the O’Briens sandwich bar chain that he had established during the late 1980s.

“The grey hair is worth something,” he says, running a hand through his silver mane. “Having been through absolute shitsville with O’Briens, we didn’t let that happen again. We got out of the blocks early in terms of how we’re going to respond to this, rather than letting things happen to us.”