Houston voices

Here's what lean startup tips founders can learn from this Houston restaurateur and Rice University MBA

Ope Amosu, a Rice University MBA grad, practiced a lot of lean startup techniques when starting his restaurant business, ChòpnBlọk. Photo via Instagram

It was one of those toasty, 95-degree evenings in late September in Houston, and we were clinking our craft cocktails to a full house at ChòpnBlọk's latest pop up concept – the fifth restaurant takeover in his series. I don't know what was hotter… outside, the vibe, or the spice in the ata rodo (scotch bonnet) maple syrup our plantain pancakes were lathered in. But one thing is for sure, as he prepares to open a brick and mortar location in 2020, Ope Amosu, a Rice University MBA graduate and the founder of ChòpnBlọk, is proving himself to be a mean, lean (startup) machine.

After getting his MBA from Rice Business in 2014, he began traveling extensively for work and was frustrated with his inability to easily access authentic West African cuisine in Houston and beyond. He was able to conveniently experience other cultures through successful restaurant concepts, but not his own. So in order to see if he had what it take to bring high quality, convenient West African inspired cuisine to Texas, he did what every MBA graduate dreams of: he rolled up his sleeves and secured a part-time job working the line at Chipotle.

Chipotle taught Ope the art of restaurant operations, and he made money learning it. Pulling together his lessons learned, he began building out his business plan. He identified a large West African population in Houston that was being under-served and was confident in his ability to address this market gap with his fast-casual concept. From his time working with various engineering groups, he knew that he needed to test his idea early so he could fail early and fail fast without breaking the bank.

This led to the inception of ChòpnBlọk. Ope knew acquiring a food truck would be too timely and too expensive, so he went a more creative, cost–effective route. He began hosting private dinners where his guests experienced a multi-course dining program rich with West African flavor.

Those full and happy guests unknowingly were participating in a fun focus group. He leveraged these dinners to collect data from each diner. What did they recommend he charge per meal? Did they like what they were eating? What was their current dining out behaviors? After hosting over ten smaller private dinners, he had collected valuable pieces of information that would inform his business plan including:

  1. He had market data from over 200 diners.
  2. He proved that there was an appetite for West African cuisine in Houston. His fears that the common stigmas about African culture would hinder his growth seemed unfounded.
  3. He quickly optimized operational efficiency in feeding his guests.

Having validated customer demand, honed in on customer preferences, and demonstrated that the market opportunity he believed existed could be captured, all without taking on investors, it was time to take the next step. ChòpnBlọk began efforts to scale, finding a way to re-engage customers who were hungry for more.

This is how the pop-up experiences came to life. With his restaurant takeovers, Ope is able to serve well over 100 paying customers per dinner and gain all the operational know-how that goes along with such an affair. In a risk-free environment, he gets to test various creative concepts and fine-tune logistics…all with almost zero overhead and very minimal risk.

You can probably guess what is next. It should come as no surprise that ChòpnBlọk has been approached by funders and developers to launch a brick and mortar location for 2020. With hundreds of paying customers, a net promoter score staying high at 9/10, and an entrepreneur's tenacity like his, I have a feeling ChòpnBlọk will be coming for Chipotle in just a matter of time.

Want to learn more? Visit their website and follow them on Instagram.

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Caitlin Bolanos is the senior associate director at the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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Building Houston

 
 

Moonflower Farms grows lettuce hydroponically. Courtesy of Moonflower Farms

A Houston urban farm has earned national recognition for its innovative approach to water conservation. Moonflower Farms won the American Heart Association's Foodscape Innovation Excellence Award, which recognizes positive changes in the foodscape, a term for all of the places where food is produced, purchased, or consumed.

The Heart Association selected Moonflower's submission, titled "Sustainable Farming Through Water Conservation," from 26 entries. Dallas' Restorative Farms earns the Foodscape Innovation Consumer Choice Award.

"These two innovations demonstrate a way of producing food that promotes affordability and equitable access, and the American Heart Association is proud to recognize these efforts," AHA chief medical officer for prevention Eduardo Sanchez said in a release.

Located in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse south of downtown, Moonflower operates what it describes as Houston's first vertical indoor farm. The method both reduces the amount of space needed to grow the farm's microgreens, lettuces, herbs and edible flowers and it eliminates the disruptions caused by adverse weather conditions, which allows the farm to produce year round.

Moonflower uses a closed-loop system for capturing rainwater to feed its crops. The water is treated and oxygenated so that it can be reused. Not having to pay for water from the City of Houston allows the farm to operate more economically and sell its produce at an affordable price to restaurants and individuals.

"Our hydroponic farm uses 90-percent less water than conventional farms," Moonflower founder and CEO Federico Marques said in a statement. "We provide year-round produce to residents in historically underserved communities and donate produce to local charitable food systems."

One of those charities is Houston non-profit Second Servings, which "rescues" food from restaurants and events and distributes it to food pantries and other resources.

"The donations we receive from Moonflower Farms are incredible," Second Servings founder and president Barbara Bronstein said. "Their hydroponically grown greens are so appreciated by the needy Houstonians we serve, who lack affordable, convenient access to fresh produce."

Recently, Moonflower introduced a SupaGreens subscription box that allows customers to purchase greens weekly, bimonthly, or monthly. The box is delivered directly to consumers.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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