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Filipino food-inspired business won P21 M investment in UK reality show

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By Roy Mabasa

A London-based Filipino and his Irish partner, operators of street food BBQ Dreamz, bagged a staggering €350,000 (approximately P21 million) investment in a popular reality show on emerging food businesses aired over BBC Two in the United Kingdom early this month.

Filipino Lee Johnson and his partner Sinead Campbell of Tuam, Galway met 13 years ago in the university and began running the BBQ Dreamz for four years now. Johnson migrated to the UK when he was eight.

The duo entered BBC Two’s “My Million Pound Menu” reality show by introducing Filipino food in the highly competitive British food industry.

Johnson and Campbell awed the panelists-investors with their signature lechon kawali—a 24-hour cooked crispy pork belly with radish, coriander and celery, grilled satay duck hearts, sticky adobo chicken wings, and their vegan adobo-glazed crispy cauliflower and sesame green beans.

“Filipino food is sort of difficult to nail down because it comes from a lot of different cultures,” Johnson said when asked to describe Filipino food.

In a newspaper interview, Johnson echoed the opinion of the investors that Filipino cuisine is only starting to become popular in the UK.

Campbell, for her part, has developed a deep familiarity with Filipino cuisine over the years.

“When people first saw me, an Irish girl does Filipino food, they were quite judgmental. They would ask me straight out, why are you cooking this food? And that’s why I used to hide a lot behind Lee. But over time now I can say that I’ve worked really hard and I know what I’m doing,” she said.

Since starting the business, the couple has been innovating Filipino dishes from traditional recipes that Johnson learned from his mother and grandmother while growing up.

One of the investors, bar and restaurant owner Charlie McVeigh said: “In a business investment, you need more than a good idea.”

“At the very least, you need a good idea, a great team, and in this case, we already got what we already know, is a sensational product. So to put money behind that doesn’t feel like that great a risk.”

Other business people who expressed interests in investing to Dreamz BBQ during the episode included Nando’s Group Strategy Director Jane O’Riordnan, bar and restaurant investor behind the success of big take-out brands such as Domino’s Maurice Abboudi, and MEATLiquor Managing Director Scott Collins.

McVeigh and Abboudi each offered to invest in BBQ Dreamz after a preliminary round and a two-day road test in Manchester. Johnson and Campbell eventually accepted McVeigh’s offer to establish a permanent restaurant.

The reality show host and presenter Fred Sirieix said there is still a “big ask” about Filipino food which is virtually unknown in the U.K., and the public needs educating.

BBQ Dreamz is a regular fixture at the popular KERB street food markets all over London, at their Paddington site on Wednesdays, West India Quays on Thursdays, and King’s Cross Granary Square on Fridays. On Saturdays, BBQ Dreamz cooks at Brockley Market.

In a statement, Philippine Ambassador to London Antonio Lagdameo said, “food is a powerful way to tell the story of culture.”

“It becomes the starting point of a conversation and for many, a springboard towards knowing more about the culture that shaped that cuisine. Every time people dine at a Filipino restaurant or experience one of the many monthly Filipino supper clubs, they often emerge knowing a little bit more about the Philippines,” he said.

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