Former investment broker turns street food entrepreneur

A former investment broker who quit his job to set up a street food company in Leeds is on track to turnover £1m this year.

James Ooi set up Little Bao Boy after becoming disillusioned with his job, which involved regular travel to Hong Kong.

Little Bao Boy makes and sells bao buns through its own outlets in Leeds, to wholesalers and to franchisees. It has three outlets in the city, three trucks to go to festivals and franchise partners in London and Scotland.

Ooi had moved to the city to study media at university from his home town of Middlesborough and stayed on after his degree to join an investment brokerage company, where he lasted five years before finding the job “soul destroying”.

A chance conversation with his sister about what to do next led to the creation of Little Bao Boy, which has been helped by business support programme AD:VENTURE.

In November 2018 North Brew Company, which is opening a tap room in Leeds, asked if Little Bao Boy would join it to do the food.

“We’ve never left,” said Ooi. “And it has gone from strength-to-strength.”

Lockdown turned out to be a busy time for the company. Ooi said: “We won an award for being the most sold product in Leeds via Deliveroo. And all that from a 7ft by 7ft kitchen, and just me and my partner, as everyone else was on furlough.”

To keep up with demand he needed to expand manufacturing, so he turned to AD:VENTURE for a grant.

The business support programme, which is part-funded by the European Development Fund,  helps businesses in North and West Yorkshire that are up to three years old.

As well as the grant of £25,000, which helped create five new jobs, Ooi was given help with creating a business plan.

Each week now Bao Boy makes 10,000 bao buns for its outlets and another 10,000 for wholesalers. The plan is to increase the number of outlets in Leeds from three to five, and to have about 50 franchisees, all buying supplies from the business.

The core staff team consists of eight people, with plans for that to rapidly expand too.

Ooi said: “The grant was pivotal. It was a crucial part of us being able to do what we do. It would have been a big financial risk for us to take in our early thirties, so it relieved a bit of stress and pressure and allowed us to have more breathing space.”

As well as the ERDF, AD:VENTURE’s funding and delivery partners include Leeds City Council and the region’s eight other local authorities, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds Trinity University, the Business Enterprise Fund, and the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership.

Councillor James Lewis, leader of Leeds City Council, said: “James has created a very successful company from his passion for great food and hospitality. And by doing that he has brought jobs to the region, and I am sure there will be many more to come.”