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How a 25-year-old opened 14 restaurants in three years

The New Investors video series brought to you by Yahoo Finance reveals the secrets of the most successful entrepreneurs and business people in Australia today. This is the first episode of the second season.

If you’ve been down to Sydney’s Bondi, Chatswood, CBD or inner-west, you may have encountered a Fishbowl restaurant – a Japanese take on a fast-food-style salad bar founded by Nathan Dalah (now 25) when he was just 23 years old.

From small beginnings in a 30-square metre space in Bondi to 14 restaurants across Sydney and Melbourne in the span of three years, Dalah’s Fishbowl franchise is an empire – and it all started with a trip to the US.

“I was spending quite a bit of time in the United States, and I noticed a new wave of eating that was popping up in terms of the health food scene, specifically salads and value-based cuisine. I thought it was something that personally I resonated with quite strongly,” he told Yahoo Finance’s New Investors host and editor-in-chief, Sarah O’Carroll.

“I came back and thought to myself: ‘how can I apply some of my own values to what I thought was working over there?’ And we had this idea to incorporate the flavours people know and love from Japanese food and cuisine into a salad bar.”

Creating the Fishbowl brand

And so Dalah took his first step: create the product.

“The first thing was making sure I had a product that I felt people would enjoy,” he said.

“I put a lot of effort and spent a lot of time just in my own kitchen, between the fruit markets and the fish markets, Japanese or Asian grocery stores, sampling different flavour combinations and the kind of system I felt might work in a shop.”

When Dalah settled on the product, his next task was to put together a business plan and find a location – something he said, naturally, had to be in Sydney’s iconic beach suburb.

Nathan Dalah opened 12 restaurants in 2 years. Source: Fishbowl/Yahoo Finance
Nathan Dalah opened 12 restaurants in 2 years. Source: Fishbowl/Yahoo Finance

“I wanted it to be in Bondi,” he said.

“I wanted to attach our product, which was food, to a particular set of people – a particular lifestyle – because I felt like that was the right way to build something long-term.

“I felt like being a part of Bondi, which already had its own brand, I was putting myself in touch with an audience that cared about health, cared about sustainability, cared about quality, and that was really discerning.

“I thought, if it works in Bondi, I think it can work anywhere.”

Using savings from his previous mobile boat-cleaning business and other work, Dalah put $150,000 towards his first Fishbowl restaurant.

That, combined with a contribution from the landlords to his first space, helped Dalah open the doors.

“We opened in the middle of July in Bondi, which is the middle of winter. But, we were like, if we can make it work in winter, well then summer will just be a bonus.”

From 1 to 14 Fishbowl restaurants

Now, Dalah has 14 Fishbowls, and another concept called Side Room, which opened in the original Fishbowl location in Bondi once that restaurant outgrew the space.

“The first store funded the second store just through some really healthy cashflow. The first two stores funded the third,” he said.

“You hear so many stories of people getting out too far ahead, or taking on this amount of debt, or bringing in these investors or equity. We were like no, let’s let the food and the popularity drive the business.

“I was really passionate, I really cared. I was always organised – I think that really helped.”

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