Each month, FoodBev will be interviewing a business leader from a different corner of the food and beverage industry. To kick it off, we spoke with Damien Lee, the chief executive of Mr Lee’s Pure Foods, which is striving to make instant noodles more premium.
For Lee, the main inspiration for the brand came from a period of serious ill health. When battling cancer, he craved one thing: instant noodles. But because many rival products were so unhealthy, he had to stay away from them during his recovery. Later, when he had overcome the disease, Lee set his mind on starting his own, healthier instant noodle brand.
Mr Lee’s Noodles are gluten-free, low in sugar, and have the lowest salt content in the category according to the company. This is all down to the process of freeze-drying the ingredients to retain more of the nutritional benefits, without letting up on flavour.
We spoke to Damien to find out more about his role in the company’s success.
Has running a start-up been more challenging than you initially anticipated?
Having run businesses of all shapes and sizes, around the world, you might think running a start-up would get easier for me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! You see, I don’t do myself any favours, in that every industry I take on is previously unknown to me; prior to Mr Lee’s Pure Foods I had never worked within the food industry, and so it’s all been fresh learning.
The reason I do this, however, is because the thrill and self-fulfilment of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and trying something new is what gets me out of bed in the morning, and I’d also attribute all of my success to this point to that fact. Approaching new sectors with little knowledge of the field allows me to innovate and bring new ideas to the table, I’m not aware of the industry dos and don’ts, which allows me to get creative.
How long did it take for you to gain the real traction, or the funding, that you needed?
Mr Lee’s Noodles (now named Mr Lee’s Pure Foods) was initially incorporated in 2015, but there was a lot of work to be done before the product was truly ready for the world. This meant a long build, and a lot of people believing in me and my journey, summed up beautifully in our Seedrs campaign last year.
I’d say crowdfunding is a vital part of any start-up nowadays, not just for the funding but because of the exposure it allows, people wanting to be a part of ‘the next big thing’. After our campaign, the ball really started rolling for us, our new branding was revealed and we took to the sky – quite literally, having been stocked onboard one of the major Australian airlines.
What were the major sources of inspiration for you?
The inspiration for the business came from my close call with cancer. I was in the midst of starting up a new tech business when I was diagnosed with late stage-4 chest and stomach cancer and given weeks. The doctor said I could start the treatment, or not, as most people at that stage don’t want the treatment but a better quality of life to see it through. As a single full-time dad of two young boys, I couldn’t give up!
I’m a fighter so I said ‘hell to that’, and set upon the chemotherapy and a strict raw food diet, cleansing both my body and mind. It was during this time I realised I couldn’t eat my one guilty pleasure – instant noodles – as they’re so full of nasties I just couldn’t put them in my body. I then thought to myself, if I get through this, what if I were to make a brand new noodle – one full of goodness with no nasties that even I could eat?
After successfully fighting off cancer, Mr Lee’s Pure Foods was in full swing, with healthier instant noodles taking over the globe.
The range consists of Asian-inspired flavours like Hong Kong beef and Malaysian chicken laksa.
How do your products differ from other instant noodles?
Mr Lee’s Noodles are the perfect balance between health and taste, convenience without compromise. We’re one of the lowest in calories, fats, salt and certified low in sugar, whilst being high in protein, gluten-free and we’ve even got two vegan-friendly products.
The key differentiator, our ‘secret’ if you like, is our freeze-dried ingredients. The rest of the competition only uses dehydrated vegetables and meats, which have all the goodness stripped away from them, and require a lot of salt and additional sugar to make the taste pop.
Freeze-dried ingredients keep a whole lot more of the nutritional goodness, whilst also tasting fantastic and looking great too. You’ve only got to visually compare our noodles to another product to understand why we’re so different.
What do you prioritise on a monthly basis?
To be perfectly honest, every month when I sit back and look back at the previous, I don’t have a clue how my team and I have managed to accomplish everything that’s been done so soon. We all have a very up-and-at-’em attitude, and struggle to refuse opportunities on account of being busy – we love to make it happen.
That said, and in mind of that, the thing I make sure to prioritise is the communication of my business, both internal and external. A machine without lubrication won’t run, and that’s exactly what communication is to a business; the better the flow of conversation, the more efficient the business. Be that speaking one on one to a member of staff, team meetings or all catching a drink together after work, keeping the communication going is vital.
When it comes to the company so far, what are you most proud of?
One of our most recent achievements, which just so happens to be something I’m the most proud of, was seeing Mr Lee’s Noodles stocked on the shelves of Woolworths, Australia, in my home country. Being half-Singaporean and half-Australian, this was my business, my product, coming home. The instant noodle market down under is so much more advanced than it is here in the UK, and previous to us there was pretty much no healthier option, whereas in the UK there’s a couple brands who have ‘had a go’.
The response we’ve had from our new customers out there has been nothing short of fantastic, and a real achievement for the team and I. Four flavours, almost 900 stores and plenty of scope to expand, I can’t wait to see where it will go!
What are your growth plans?
“We’re going global!” has been something of a catchphrase of mine since the start of the company, and that’s exactly what I intend to do. With the success of Australia being fresh in our history, I intend to further our reach around the world with Asia and America one of the next on the list.
In the UK, I’m looking to further develop our product within the travel catering industry, flying with more airlines and expanding across the rail networks. We’re also getting excited to announce our first UK supermarket next year!
As a start-up, how do you measure your success?
To date, the team and I have measured success through each and every win – be that a product reaching a new level through NPD, a new travel catering contract or a new store, a new award won. Every little thing is exciting, as each one is huge when you pour as much heart into it as we do.
That said, things are getting bigger, the wins are increasing in size, and they’re coming with less time in between, so my eyes are starting to move away from that and more to a strategic vantage. It’s easy when running a start-up to get caught up in the everyday, and so it’s important at some point to back away a little, trust your team and focus on the bigger picture, as ultimately that will steer our successes.
Is now the best time for food and beverage start-ups to exist?
I’m not alone when I preach that the world is changing drastically. There’s a multitude of reasons why, be it rising obesity or the toll our culture is having on this planet, but people are really beginning to wake up and think long and hard about what they eat. The giants of the market simply can’t keep up with the demands of the consumer, or simply don’t care enough!
That’s why it is right now that food and beverage start-ups have the biggest opportunity before the big brands wake up. We have the ability to change the future of food, and the right type of consumer in front of us to make that change a reality. You’ve only got to browse the first page of Google to get an understanding of just how much the current demographics are willing to go out of their way to find foods that are healthy, companies that are ethical in their practice, and businesses with a story behind them. People want to know where their food and drink comes from, they want to be able to buy into the movement, not just their next meal.
What was your route into the market?
From the very early onset of Mr Lee’s Pure Foods, I decided to take a very different approach to launch our product, taking an indirect route to market in order to raise brand profile before entering the stores. This came in the shape of travel catering, placing our noodles on the trains, planes and station coffee shops of the world. Our first big win was one of the Australian airlines, which meant my noodles flying all across Australia, the Pacific and Asia. From there, we jumped aboard several train lines in the UK, followed by flying on the wings of TUI Airways in Europe.
This meant for hundreds and thousands of people around the globe, seeing our brand for hours at a time, getting curious and giving us feedback and demand. This then allowed us to turn to the supermarkets, not only with a great product but with a story and obvious indicators of demand, leaving buyers eagerly asking for more information. We’re now at the point where I intend to initiate our mainstream retail rollout, having started with Woolworths down under, with more to come here in the UK and in Europe.
What are the main challenges facing food start-ups like yours?
I’d say the main challenge in the early days is building a brand profile. Being seen as a brand worth investing in, be that in a literal sense or simply just purchasing product, is a lot of work just to start out with, and not one we got right straight away. Image and story is equally as important as a great product, and so I’d say that’s the first challenge food start-ups need to conquer, and can be the most difficult. From there, it’s just about talking to as many people as possible, getting them to be just as excited as you are about your story!
Damien Lee was talking to FoodBev Media’s Harriet Jachec.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2019