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

 
 

With fresh funding, this Houston and Canada-based company has made an acquisition. Courtesy of Validere

After raising $43 million in funding for its series B round, Validere, a commodity management platform for the energy industry, has acquired Clairifi, whose technology helps energy businesses comply with environmental and regulatory requirements. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.

The funding round was closed in March and was led by Mercuria Energy and select funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, with participation from Nova Fleet, Pioneer Fund and NGIF Cleantech Ventures, as well as existing investors, including Wing VC and Greylock Partners, according to a news release.

“Validere’s mission is to ensure human prosperity through energy that is plentiful, sustainable and efficiently delivered," says Nouman Ahmad, Validere co-founder and CEO. "We facilitate this through integrating our customers’ core business with new environmental initiatives. In order to manage the energy transition well, environmental attributes cannot be managed in a silo, they need to be integrated in the day-to-day operations and commercial decisions."

Validere is based in Calgary, Alberta, and has its United States presence based in Houston. Clairifi also is based in Calgary. According to the company, the purchase of Clairifi strengthens Validere’s ESG (environmental, social, and governance) offerings.

“Companies across the energy supply chain are often burdened by the arduous task of compliance reporting, a time-intensive process that is usually performed manually in Excel spreadsheets by costly environmental consultants,” Validere says in a news release announcing the Clairifi deal. “These issues are coupled with constantly changing environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies, as well as disorganized data, which can cause confusion over meeting reporting requirements.”

Validere says that thanks to the integration of Clairifi, businesses can easily comply with current and future regulations from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and can access a central platform to accurately measure, manage, and forecast emissions strategies.

“The implementation of costs on carbon and emission reduction requirements introduce new immediate and long-term consequences that cascade from the field to head office,” says Corey Wood, co-founder and CEO of Clairifi. “While regulatory compliance is often considered a burden on industry, requiring resources and continuous innovation, if we are well-prepared, these challenges may be used as catalysts to revive, refresh and improve.”

As part of the acquisition, Wood has joined Validere as vice president of emissions, regulatory, and carbon strategy.

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