Featured Business: Kanum Thai
Name: Marc Fitzharris, Managing Director of Kanum Thai, authentic Thai food and noodle bars and outdoor catering units
Since: July 2009
They say that one of the best ways to get a grounding for any business is to work in the industry. For Marc Fitzharris, this is certainly true. Co-founder of Kanum Thai, Marc had built up five to six years’ experience both behind the counter and as a delivery driver for takeaways, mainly during his time as a student.
Having travelled around the world working on building sites, he returned to Ireland in his mid 20s with the intention of setting up a food business. He explored buying a franchise and, while he was considering a pizza outlet, he got chatting to the owner of a Thai food restaurant.
At around the same time there was a move towards healthier food, and pizza was getting bad press, so Marc turned to Thai food. He asked his Thai food contact to come in as a project manager to develop the menus and brand.
Marc and his brother Niall established the business in Ballsbridge, Dublin with their uncle, Michael Loftus, whose business acumen was helpful initially. Michael has now stepped down as a director and their mother, Breda, has since come on board as a director.
The company’s expansion has been steady since 2009. Kanum Thai’s first outdoor catering unit was purchased within the first year, before a second branch opened in Rathgar. As well as catering at major music festivals, the company has now moved into lunchtime catering for large companies. In 2013 Kanum Thai was nominated as a finalist in the SFA National Small Business Awards – a significant achievement.
With a clear focus on quality food, Kanum Thai employs 11 Thai chefs, including their head chef who designed all the recipes. Fresh sauces are made in-store daily to his recipes, so that they taste the same regardless of the branch or outlet.
Interview with Marc Fitzharris
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
I was always going to set up a food business. The inspiration for Thai food was the health food aspect – the healthy side of Thai food. There were only a few healthy food option takeaways in Dublin at the time. I felt there was a gap in the market for that kind of thing.
How did you initially fund your business?
It was all private funding from ourselves and a private investor. There was a small bank loan too.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
The Mespil Road branch opened in July 2009 and a year later, in August 2010, we opened up another branch in Rathgar village. Since then, we’ve set up an outside catering unit. We’ve three different lunchtime catering units and we cater at seven different lunchtime markets during the week in Dublin. We do all the big concerts throughout the year as well, like Electric Picnic, Castlepalooza, and Forbidden Fruit. We’ve also started to get into doing a lot of in-house catering for the bigger companies around Dublin. They bring us in to cater for their staff for their lunches.
What have been the highlights to date?
Being nominated as a finalist in the SFA National Small Business Awards was a big achievement. Getting the big catering contracts with large companies around Dublin to do their lunchtime gigs has been good. They’ve a lot to choose from, and they chose us.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
The daily challenges. Every day there’s a different thing to overcome.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
It’s very hard. You have to structure your time; set a roster for the week and stick to it. When it’s your time off, it’s your time off.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
In our sector of business, Domino’s is the perfect model to follow – if you were to set it up and go down the franchise route. It’s the business model. They’re worldwide and each branch you go into will be the exact same. That’s the way we try to keep it. I know we’ve only two shops, but if you walk into a Kanum you know you’re in a Kanum.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
We have our own app. It’s very technology-driven these days. It’s important to interact with the customer. You can order food directly on the app to your home and we have a loyalty system, which is the most popular part of the app. It’s like a virtual stamp card. Every time you come in, you get a stamp; collect 10 stamps and you get a free meal.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
Facebook or any of the review sites are vital for this sort of thing. I could spend hours at night going through all the review websites or Facebook messages we get from customers to see what people are saying. We always reply, as much as possible, even to a bad review – we’ll ask why or what happened. With complaints in the shop, we’ll follow up the next day with a phone call – to apologise, but also to find out how to better ourselves.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The competition. Even in the last two years, there are five or six different Thai food competitors that were never there before. Thankfully they haven’t hit us yet, but we have to keep giving out top quality food and great customer service and hopefully the customers will stay with us.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
Customers aren’t spending as much as they did five or six years ago. There are no breaks for small businesses anymore – the amount of money we spend each year paying the government rates and water charges.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I think interaction with staff and customers. The staff are there every day doing the exact same thing; you have to listen to your staff, they know what needs to be changed. Listen to your customers – listen to the good and bad complaints.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
The successes. I could be sitting on a bus and hear someone in front of me say, “I had Kanum yesterday and it was lovely.” That’s good for me.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
There was no main catalyst. It was just over time; good marketing. And it’s the type of business we are – if one person eats the food and likes it, they’ll tell 10 more people and it will scale up with good word of mouth.
How did you scale/grow your business?
We opened up the second branch and the outdoor catering units. We will hopefully be expanding to a third.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
The economic climate means people are watching their pennies and not spending as much. They’ve less disposable income.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
Through staff, customers, trawling the internet and thinking.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
The successes and the challenges. There are ups and downs every day in business. When you do get a success, it makes the low points easier to cope with.
What’s your vision for the future?
We’re going to focus on Dublin and get a few more units open. A franchise is an option for us down the line.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
My uncle, Michael Loftus. He was involved at the start and has been managing director and CEO of many big companies throughout the world; he’s always very good to have. He’s still around if I need to ask questions.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
Don’t be a busy fool. Plenty of businesses can be busy, but if you don’t have your costs and your pricing right it’s never going to work.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Stay focused on the product in hand. Don’t try and do loads of things at once. Stay focused on the one thing like we did – just Thai food. There was no diversifying into smoothies, chips or burgers. Focus on one thing and get that right first.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
We haven’t needed to do anything differently, so it’s doing well.
Phone: +353 1 6608616 (Ballsbridge)
+353 1 4062080 (Rathgar)
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