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It’s an unlikely story: three vegetarians find their fortunes selling faux-meat burgers and flavoured fries at music festivals and end up running a successful fast food chain. It’s a small business with big plans—from four stores in Melbourne, Lord of the Fries (LOTF) hopes to one day grow to the size and scope of a “vegetarian McDonald’s”.

Co-owner Sam Koronczyk says it all comes down to the customers. “People want good chips.” Lord of the Fries offers quality vegetarian, halal, kosher and gluten-free options—which fill a certain niche—“but our focus hasn’t been on the vegetarian side of things, our focus has been on providing good food.” That’s made all the difference, as the brand has managed to attract a wide customer base, avoiding the stumbling block that destroyed vegetarian fast food brands before them. “There’s no reason why you can’t have vegetarian food which is good and does appeal to a broader market.”

When Mark met Amanda

When teaching in Taiwan, Mark met Amanda and a vegetarian romance was born. They started talking about how hard done by vegetarians were at music festivals. “If you were a vego, you were left to eat soggy chips out of bain-maries or you’d get a dahl at the Indian stand.” But everyone likes fries (right?), so the pair set about devising a unique fries offering. Scraping together their mutual savings, the couple bought a van and held tasting sessions with friends to devise a unique range of sauces. Hitting the music festival scene, the business was “immediately successful”.

When enough hungry customers asked where they could buy LOTF chips during the week, it was time to open a store. That’s when Mark’s brother Sam got on board, investing his savings and the profits from the festival van into a store on Elizabeth Street in Melbourne’s CBD.

Chipping away

There’s nothing new about potato chips, but LOTF have brought the traditional side dish front and centre in its stores. The brand also offers a range of burgers. “The fact that we have a focus on the fries, and the fries being fresh and hand cut, not frozen, without preservatives is very appealing to customers and refreshing for people out there.” Quality comes at a cost, however. “We’d probably be in a far better position if we were using frozen produce and we were cutting corners on quality, but we aren’t prepared to do that,” Koronczyk vows.

After a few years of operation, the LOTF team decided to move into franchising to grow the business faster. Each new store on the ground grows brand recognition and “creates a buzz” around the food. More importantly, the franchisees themselves bring a lot to the business. “They bring ideas to the table, they bring a certain ownership to each store,” Koronczyk explains. “They have a vested interest to make sure that the business is improving all the time and expanding. Because the bigger we get the more exposure is created for the brand and then their store will do better.”

Initially, the team found it hard to let go and let the managers and new owners do their jobs. “You have to trust other people to do the right things.” It’s hard to grow the business from behind the counter, Koronczyk says. “That slowed it down for us. It’s important to be able to differentiate between working in the business and working on the business.”

Chip’s Challenge

With more stores come more challenges, however. While the LOTF model works well in high traffic areas (like the CBD) where office-workers grab a cone of fries and move on, it’s a different game in areas like Chadstone where people want to sit down and have a meal. A host of tiny differences presented big challenges to the expanding franchise. “Little things like you need to have extra people on to make sure they kept the tables clean. Previously, that wasn’t a problem because we didn’t have any tables and chairs.”

The group brought on an operational manager to ensure brand consistency across the network. Since Mark and Amanda came from teaching backgrounds and Koronczyk from animation, it was important to bring the right people on board. “Making sure you’ve got the right people doing the right jobs in all areas of the business is important. We can’t do it all ourselves, and we don’t need to.”

Unafraid to experiment, the Koronczyks have tried all kinds of things when it comes to marketing the Lord of the Fries brand. Koronczyk says the name does a lot for the business, (if he does so say himself—Koronczyk came up with the name well before he invested in the business). “We’ve done different coupon deals, different offers through Shop-a-Dockets,” he says. “That’s just been focussed on increasing the foot traffic or getting the awareness out that we are in a particular area.”

Constantly searching for creative ways to engage with the LOTF audience, the founders have also used social media to build a big LOTF community on Facebook. It’s a solid page with nearly 8,500 fans and dynamic content-driven community involvement. Creative promotions such as the ‘International Day of Mark’ to promote the Big Mark burger have also been very successful. Ultimately, the marketing job is just to get people aware of the brand, into LOTF stores and trying LOTF products. “Hopefully then they’ll have a good experience and come back again!”

Fry away home

To make their dream of world domination on the scale of McDonald’s come true, the Koronzycks are going to have to open a few new stores. Short term, the vegetarian entrepreneurs plan to take the brand interstate (there are already stores in the works in NSW). Long-term, Koronczyk sees a place for the brand in India, China and the USA. “We’re still learning but at the end of the day we would like to be an international name.”

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Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake is a staff writer for <i>Dynamic Business</i> magazine. Fascinated with the power of media, she's previously worked for Sky News and <i>The Jakarta Globe</i>. In her time off, she's likely cooking up a storm, haunting vintage stores on King St, Newtown or trawling design blogs for things she can't afford.

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