Five years ago, Lee Johnson and Sinead Campbell borrowed £10,000 from friends and family to launch BBQ Dreamz – serving Filipino-inspired street food.
Now, fresh from their success on the BBC’s My Million Pound Menu, the Kerb regulars are searching for a venue in Hackney or Islington to launch their own restaurant. The £350,000 investment they bagged through the show should make that a smoother journey.
The Local Buyers Club caught up with the Hackney couple to hear their remarkable story.
They met 13 years ago through mutual friends, when Sinead was studying fine art print at university in Camberwell and Lee was studying commercial photography. Sinead went on to work for Victim Support and Lee became a restaurant manager at Mayfields in Mare Street.
He said: “We’d always loved cooking for friends and serving big banquets – our lives revolved around food and we decided we wanted to do our own thing so in June 2014 we quit our jobs, borrowed money from friends and family, bought a van, gazebos and grills and set up our first market stall at Hoxton Street.”
Lee was born in the Philippines and, though he lived there from the age of eight for a couple of years while his family followed their dream of running a pig farm, he spent most of his life in the UK. His mum is Filipino, and his dad was from North Shields. Sinead, who does most of the cooking, grew up in Ireland – her first introduction to Filipino cooking came from Lee’s mum Leah but she’s largely self-taught.
The couple quickly realised they needed a more steady cash-flow during BBQ Dreamz’ first year and went back to work full time. They spent every night prepping food and every weekend serving it. Within a few months they’d landed a pitch at Kerb (with stalls in Paddington, Kings Cross and West India Quays). They put much of their success down to the support and mentoring they received from the Kerb team.
Lee describes their food as: “Philippines-inspired.” He added: “It’s meant to bridge the gap for people who have never been to the Philippines or tried the food.”
Dishes include grilled satay duck hearts, sticky adobo chicken wings, 24-hour cooked crispy pork belly and subtly spiced curries and stews sprinkled with peanuts, chillies and spring onions.
Lee added: “At first it was challenging to get people to try Filipino food – if there was a burger van next door, they’d always go to that, but we quickly learnt to change our marketing – instead of calling one dish ‘Liempo’ we started describing it as ‘Grilled, Sticky Pork Belly.’ We started describing the dishes rather than calling them by their name and that made a big difference.”
Lee and Sinead were delighted when the Million Pound Menu team first approached them: “Then we found out they’d approached everyone,” joked Lee.
He described the filming as: “a cool process but stressful as hell.” The couple were filmed for around 40 hours in total – for days at a time, while trying to run a pop-up and with potential investors dropping in to ask questions. They beat off competition from the likes of The Duck Truck and Leeds-based Jah Jyot.
Lee said: “It felt amazing to win – we went into it thinking it would be great exposure and a good experience but didn’t expect to win!
“A lot of people are doing amazing work to get Filipino food out there but it’s amazing to think that we’ve had this exposure which has helped push Filipino food forward.
“The funding is massively life-changing – it opens up a load more doors, allowing us to take the business where we want. We plan to open a restaurant, but we haven’t found the perfect place yet. We’re looking in Hackney, Shoreditch and Highbury - we have a good following there and the demographic is right for us.”
As well as landing a popup gig at MEATliquor, which has sold out every week, the Million Pound Menu has brought a raft of new opportunities. BBQ Dreamz is booked to attend various festivals this year including Jam on Rye by Kerb, Pete the Monkey in Normandie, Port Eliot, BST, All Points East, Lost Village and Big Feastival.
Local Buyers Club members save 20% at BBQ Dreamz at Broadway, Brockley and Victoria Park markets.
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