Turtle Bay founder Ajith Jayawickrema, who moved to the UK from Sri Lanka at the age of 15, has revealed how singer Leona Lewis unknowingly inspired him to launch his highly successful Caribbean restaurant chain.
‘My girls were young and we were watching X Factor – and a girl called Leona Lewis won it,’ says Jayawickrema in the fourth of Piper’s ‘How I Grew My Brand’ podcast interviews with leading entrepreneurs. ‘As an immigrant, I thought it incredible. 22 million ordinary people had voted for her – her race, her colour, her ethnic background didn’t matter.’
Her victory gave Jayawickrema, who previously co-founded Latin American restaurant chain Las Iguanas, the confidence to bring the full Caribbean food and drink experience to the UK. He and co-founder Crispin Tweddell launched Turtle Bay in Milton Keynes in 2010. Today the company has 44 restaurants across the UK and two in Germany, employs 1500 staff and turns over nearly £70m. Piper invested growth capital in Turtle Bay in June 2013.
In an interview with broadcaster Mary Nightingale, Jayawickrema describes coming to Britain with his family in the late 1970s speaking no English, seeing snow and eating Corn Flakes for the first time. Until then, breakfast had been ‘roti and coconut fish curry’.
Jayawickrema also discusses the challenges of growing a business through the critical stages of development that Piper calls ‘7, 17, 70’. As Turtle Bay approaches £70m turnover, he says: ‘Almost all methods of working that were right when we were 20 restaurants are probably wrong now. In the past we only had to talk to 20 head chefs. Now there are nearly 50 across two countries… So almost everything is different.’
The ‘How I Grew My Brand’ podcast series follows on from two successful books Piper has published in recent years containing lessons from some of the UK’s best known entrepreneurs. The first three podcast interviewees were: Cassandra Stavrou, co-founder of Propercorn; Alex Reilley, co-founder of Loungers; and Nicola Elliott, co-founder of Neom Organics.