An Imperial College Business School grad who dared to open a dessert bar on one of London’s most competitive culinary strips this year tells us how it’s going and what he plans to do next.
Ralph Monthienvichienchai is owner and co-founder of MADD, a colorful cafe on Soho’s Rupert Street, where you can buy a delectable range of desserts, smoothies and milkshakes. I can smell the fragrant mangoes that MADD’s fare is made from before I enter the cafe: Ralph sources mangoes from across the world for year-round freshness and flavor.
It’s a busy street with some popular pubs, a frozen yogurt bar, a bubble tea bar a lunchtime market and a trendy Italian restaurant nearby. But Ralph, who completed an MSc in International Health Management at Imperial in 2010, feels that if he can make it at all, he can make it here, at the crossroads of hip, healthy and Asian London.
We met Ralph, who hails from Thailand but grew up in Singapore, and his co-founder John Sivak at MADD while the cafe was being renovated this summer. The renovation is now complete, and the MADD team has been out in force on the Soho streets, distributing samples of their beautiful goods, and brightening up the hood with their orange logo.
Ralph and John, MADD co-founders hard at work
It’s all part of the hard work of marketing a cafe that’s just in its first year and a new concept for mango-deprived Londoners.
I can attest that MADD’s “insanely addictive snacks and desserts” are in fact delicious. The mango lassi I tried was incredible, and they also have milkshakes, smoothies, mango panna cotta, mango pavolova, mango crepes and more.
Ralph came up with the idea when he was traveling in Thailand and came across a cafe that just did mango-based desserts. In Asia the mango is regarded as the “king of fruits” and is eaten in many forms - dried, in chutney, and as a pickle, as well as straight up, with juice running down to your elbows.
Ralph is clearly passionate about mangoes, describing the hundreds of varieties that exist in Brazil alone, and pointing out that a particular Indian mango used in my lassi bruises easily and is difficult to transport.
At Imperial he developed a business plan for a bubble tea business, which won the School’s Health Management Entrepreneurship Award, but by then he had caught the mango bug.
He teamed up with a friend who was a cordon bleu-trained chef to come up with some recipes that blended eastern and western flavours, and began looking for suppliers from the major mango-producing countries, from Brazil to India to Thailand.
He reached out to John, a friend from his undergrad days at University College London, who was already a successful entrepreneur. John, who grew up in Australia and he UK, was studying History with German at UCL and shared halls with Ralph, who was doing his first degree in Biomedical Sciences.
As a student John had set up a company called Written Word Translations, which provided translation services in five languages, as well as proof-reading and editing services for Phd dissertations.
He ran it successfully for three years. Throughout his undergrad days he was supervisor of the college bar, so he had experience in the food and beverages industry too.
After graduating in June 2011 with an MSc in Economic History, John interned at insurance brokerage firm Marsh and McLellan, but he knew that he wanted to be an entrepreneur. The question was: now, or later?
Ralph had talked to him about the MADD concept and John was hooked. he turned down the offer of a consulting job and joined Ralph full-time. “I met a lot of guys in consulting who’d wished they’d started a business, but now it was too late,” he says.
The pair are working hard on getting the word out about MADD via Facebook and Twitter, as well as running events to coincide with the Raindance film festival, and gatherings for entrepreneurs and artists at the cafe, which looks great after its funky face lift. Their goal is to turn MADD into a meeting spot for networking and discussions between like-minded people.
MADD after its recent renovation - intended to be a hang-out for artists and entrepreneurs, as well as mango lovers
“Our network has been so important to us, and we want to help other entrepreneurs to network too,” says John.
“We realised that help is just a phone call away,” says Ralph. Many of their trusted suppliers, including the decorators and artists who helped renovate the cafe, have come through personal contacts.
They’re also looking at opportunities to provide catering services to large events.
The finances of the business are tough. John says that a cafe like MADD can typically expect to lose £1 million in its first year. The main investors so far are Ralph’s parents, who are both doctors, and who he pitched to after the success of his first business plan at Imperial.
The Imperial MSc taught him the business context of health care, says Ralph, and made him appreciate the complexity of health care systems a lot more. He learned key management and business principles, and was always being challenged to apply these concepts to real world case studies and problems. In short, the program gave him the confidence and motivation to strike out as an entrepreneur.
And what’s John and Ralph’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Share. Don’t try to hold on to everything and do everything yourself,” says John.
“Get experience in the industry you’re entering,” says Ralph. “If you’re interested in catering, get experience in a cafe or restaurant. Observe how they do things and think about what you could improve on.”