JLife catches up local entrepreneur Charles Burns, former contestant of The Apprentice, to find out more about his appetite to help food allergy sufferers eat out with confidence.
For Charles Burns, conversation around the family Friday night dinner table always revolved around business. In 1958, his grandfather Joel established Burns Jewellers, and grew the business to 10 retail stores across the UK – most famously, the iconic Arthur Kays store on Market Street in the city centre. With a legacy to live up to, the young Prestwich lad swiftly developed a taste for entrepreneurship: “On the school bus every day to Bury and Whitefield Jewish Primary School, I would sell sweets. Then the money I raised from my tuck shop I used to buy into the Livestrong wristband fad, ordering bracelets from China to sell to classmates – I was obsessed with the world of business.”
Upon graduating from King David High School, Charles was faced with the decision of whether or not to enter the family business as his father had done before him. But as the 2008 financial crisis took hold, Charles’ grandfather insisted he tread the path paved with least risk: “I went to university to study law, but within weeks, I realised it wasn’t for me. I’m very academic, but my view was, I’d rather be the guy paying the lawyer.”
Leaving university just in time for peak winter retail season, Charles was given the opportunity by his father to run a small unit in Bury from which to sell off old stock: “I turned over a decent amount of money, and I thought, you know what, maybe I do want to get involved in this business after all.”
Now keen to add value to the family brand, Charles looked around for ways in which he could gain experience: “At the time I was fortunate that Tesco offered a store manager training scheme. I thought, who better to learn from than the second biggest retailer in the world?”
A year later, Charles moved onto the retail giant’s commercial development scheme, based out of its London head office: “Tesco were selling £70 million worth of CDs, and I was put in charge of £30 million worth of buying, which was crazy for a 19 year-old.”
When the family business was struggling, Charles was quick to return to Manchester armed with his new-found knowledge: “I learned to negotiate with suppliers and understand how to use different levers to get the outcomes I wanted. At the height of the recession, the last thing people want to buy is jewellery, but I helped bring the business back to a good place.”
Buoyed with confidence, he kickstarted his own luxury watch trading company, and scrolling Facebook one morning, stumbled across an unlikely investment opportunity: “I saw an ad saying it was the last day to audition for The Apprentice. I grew up watching the show and thought, I can do better than those idiots.”
Just days later, the 23 year-old received a phone call inviting him to London for a face-to-face audition. Charles made it through the process and lasted eight weeks in the competition before he was put in the firing line. Like many former contestants, Charles feels hard done by in the way he was portrayed on screen: “There was one particular episode where we had to plan a tour around Bruges. My colleague misread a sign, which led to us taking a route around the square, and it turned out that we had been in the right place all along. The detour took no more than 20 minutes, but the final cut made it seem like it lasted hours. Being a jeweller, I’m fascinated with watches, so you can imagine the field day the editors had with me constantly checking my watch. I remember speaking to the producers at the wrap party, and they admitted it was a part of the show they felt very uncomfortable editing.”
The young entrepreneur experienced the highs and lows of TV stardom. From the very first episode, he was cast a “pantomime villain” when Lord Sugar branded him a disruptive presence: “My Twitter went crazy, and I was sent an automated message saying ‘you’re trending right now – would you like to filter your tweets?’ I should’ve clicked yes in hindsight, because it unleashed a barrage of trolls.”
The press jumped on the bandwagon, The Sun even running a story revolving around his likeness to Penfold from the DangerMouse cartoon due to his choice of eyewear: “Immediately once you’ve been on the show, people start to recognise your face, but from a business perspective, it didn’t do me many favours because people see you as a bit of joke. But the majority of candidates have good businesses and credentials, and looking back on it, getting through the process was a worthy accomplishment.”
One of Charles’ biggest regrets was not standing up to the trolls, a social media presence he believes would have helped him down the line: “Unfortunately you get into a mindset of by virtue of being on the show, things will happen for you, but like anything you have to actually push for things yourself.”
Following the show, Charles did wind up getting an investment into his watch business to the tune of £250,000, only to turn it down after he realised his benefactor “wasn’t exactly the kind of guy you’d want to take money from.” However, that wasn’t the only gut reaction that stopped the business in its tracks: “I suddenly started having stomach issues, and was diagnosed with lactose intolerance, as many Jewish people are. I was in the Arndale Food Court and trying to navigate an incredibly complicated allergen guide and thought, there has to be something out there that makes the process easier.”
He came up with the idea for the Allergi app, showing users personalised menus from a geo-located list of restaurants based on their dietary requirements. With zero experience of coding, his biggest challenge was finding somebody to build the platform: “It took a year, but I found a great guy who developed the app alongside me. Initially, we were going use a subscription-based model where restaurants would pay a nominal monthly fee. But we scrapped that and are bringing on restaurants for no charge whatsoever. Our main focus is on building a platform and making it usable and useful for restaurants and diners. Once you have x-number of restaurants in the area, others will jump on board – it’s just convincing the first one that’s the challenge.
“Once we have scale, we’ll start looking for advertising from restaurants looking to promote themselves. We’re also looking at monetising our data set – once we know what people are eating, we can help restaurants curate new menus, and show them what dishes they’re missing out on that could bring in tonnes of revenue.”
Following the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, the teenager who died after suffering an allergic reaction to a Pret a Manger baguette, the government will bring in legislation this October to strengthen allergen labelling rules. However, Charles believes the way this information is presented by eateries is often unfit for purpose: “It’s a nightmare, and if you have a serious allergy, you’re probably going to put off from eating out. When you’re looking to book somewhere for a Saturday night out, are you really going to want to call up multiple restaurants and have the same awkward conversation about allergens?”
For reasons that are unclear, rates of food allergies have risen sharply in the last 20 years, and in the UK alone, an estimated two million people are currently living with a diagnosis: “The number of allergy sufferers is growing, so we’re looking at working alongside charities and associations such as Allergy UK and Coeliac UK, to be credited as an official resource for dietary information. Eventually some of our profits will go back to these associations that have helped us on our journey.”
Charles aims to bring 1,000 restaurants onto the platform by the of the year, after which, he will petition investors for a seven-figure sum, making Lord Sugar’s potential investment look like small change: “It sounds like big numbers, but if you take a smaller amount of money too early in the business growth stage, it can get eaten up very quickly and you have to re-raise money which becomes quite complicated.”
Convinced his eyes aren’t bigger than his belly, the 28 year-old has a healthy appetite for global expansion: “In the US, 32 million people are registered with food allergies. The scale is huge, and within five years, the next logical step is a buy-out from likes of Deliveroo or Uber Eats.”
For readers who have downloaded the app and are asking where the kosher category is, Charles assures us this will follow once he collars more kosher restaurants. When it comes to recruiting users, he believes the app will market itself: “This year is all about becoming a useful resource for allergy sufferers. People who have dietary requirements are very vocal to their peers, and those kind of viral marketing effects will be pivotal for this business to get the word out there.
“It’s great to have a business with a mission to help people – one of the things that keeps pushing me down this path is the number of messages we’ve received from people who are looking forward to the app giving them the confidence to go out and eat.”
Allergi is available now on App Store and Google Play. If you’re a restaurant looking to sign up, visit Allergi.co.uk