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The small fry taking on the big fast-food guys

Your Friday Entrepreneur Fix this week features Mark Koronczyk, the founder of vegetarian fast-food chain Lord of the Fries and the small fry with McDonald’s in his sights.

If you’re Victorian, no doubt you’ve been swept up in the Lord Of The Fries (LOTF) craze.

This vegetarian fast-food chain was established by Mark Koronczyk and his wife Amanda, after the pair met while teaching in Taiwan and decided to do something about the lack of good vegetarian food at festivals. They scraped enough cash together to buy a van, hit the festival scene and the business took off.

With demand for its quality food soaring, the next logical move was to set up shop so Koronczyk’s brother Sam came on board as an investor and the trio opened their first store on Melbourne’s Elizabeth Street in 2005. Since then, LOTF’s food has achieved cult-status among both vegetarians and carnivores, and the business has seen explosive growth, becoming a franchise with six stores in Victoria and two more in the works. And the Sydney market is next on Koronczyk’s expansion hit list, with fans demanding the business expands to new locations around the country.

How has this entrepreneur managed to create a wildly successful vegetarian fast-food chain in a market left uninspired by bad vegetarian food and one dominated by big multi-nationals like McDonald’s and Burger King? He shares his recipe for success with Dynamic Business.

Q. You’ve changed the reputation of vegetarian and vegan food in many people’s minds to become a must-try eatery in Victoria, is this the biggest challenge your business has overcome?

Starting out, our biggest challenge was try and change people’s perceptions on vegetarian and vegan food, but we didn’t want to be aggressive about it. There’s a lot of baseless negativity around being vegetarian – everything from the food being tasteless, to including weird and wonderful ingredients that sound unnatural. We decided to use our status as a 100 percent vegetarian eatery as a bit of a secret weapon, we entice our customers in with great burgers and chips and only afterwards let them discover that our meals do not include any meat.

We’re always coming across customers who have been eating LOTF for years, and haven’t realised it contains no meat products. Some of our customers know us for our vegetarian and vegan stance, and they’re passionate because of it. So we have the best of both worlds!

One of the unexpected challenges for us was that we didn’t anticipate other hurdles the business would face, such as how to deal with our quick growth, as well as operational and service issues. We’ve learned from these setbacks and we are now better equipped than ever to take on the challenge of opening four new stores in 2012.

Q. How do you manage to balance your working relationship with your personal relationships with Amanda and Sam? Any tips or tricks for keeping the peace?

It’s essential to keep lines of communication open and we try not to talk about work at home (although that doesn’t always work!). It’s also important to have respect for other’s expertise.

Making time to go away together overseas is also integral to our working relationships, as it allows us to spend time away from work and also works well for the business as we get inspiration for our dishes. On one of these trips we developed the Canadian fries, served with gravy and cheese which is a best seller.

Although it can be tough at times, we’re proud to be a family owned and operated business. Keeping our business in the family is an important part of the LOTF brand. We come from a long line of entrepreneurs, so it must be in the blood!

Q. How hard was it to let go of full control when you franchised the business? Is this a decision you still stand by?

We have discovered that franchising is about finding the right people who match and understand what Lord of the Fries means as a character and brand.

As our product and service offering is so niche, it can be difficult to get the fit exactly right. But it’s also extremely helpful because we know what we’re looking for. We get a lot of enquiries, but we don’t want to work with people who aren’t going to live and breathe the brand. Our fans are incredibly selective and perceptive – they would sniff it out if the wrong franshisee was running a store at a hundred miles off!  Therefore our franchise selection process much more rigorous and painstaking than we think a mainstream brand would undertake. But we wouldn’t have it any other way, as when we find the right people they do carry our vision.

Q. What business achievement are you most proud of?

We have a store in a large shopping centre, Chadstone, which has really demonstrated to us the power of the LOTF brand. As we have very clear values about the environment, alternative living and freedom of expression, it’s natural for our stores to do well in places like Fitzroy, where our heartland audience reside. More challenging is opening a store in a mainstream environment, where we are competing with household name fast-food outlets and our audience is harder to find.

However, we have been prepared to give it a go and stand by our choices, and in the long run, it’s been a worthwhile investment. We are being discovered, and we’re also discovering our audience is also living in the suburbs! They find us and we find them.

Q. Do you think it’s important for an entrepreneur to admit they can’t do everything themselves?

It’s important to work with people you trust, you can’t do everything yourself but you can certainly try! That’s why we’re entrepreneurs, as nothing appears too difficult for us to take on. However, but it boils down to choosing people who are likeminded, so we can trust them to act as extensions of ourselves.

Q. Any hints about what’s next for Lord of the Fries?

We are steadily branching out across Australia, increasing our footprint and taking our quality product offering into the areas where there is demand for our trademark quirkiness and locally-sourced produce with vegetarian, vegan, kosher, Halal and gluten free options.

We just opened a retro diner style store on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy and we’ll also be opening up two new stores in Melbourne at Southern Cross and on Swanston Street. We also plan to bring our brand to Sydney, which our fans badger us for almost every day! 2012 is the year of growth for Lord of the Fries.

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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