Little Bao Boy: Meet former Hong Kong travelling investment broker behind popular Leeds Asian street food

A former investment broker who quit his job to set up a street food company in Leeds is on track to turnover £1m this year.
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James Ooi, who is half Chinese, set up Little Bao Boy after becoming disillusioned with his job, which involved regular travel to Hong Kong.

Little Bao Boy makes and sells bao buns through its own outlets in Leeds, to wholesalers and to franchisees. It has three outlets in the city, three trucks to go to festivals and franchise partners in London and Scotland.

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James had moved to the city to study media at university from his home town of Middlesborough and stayed on after his degree to join the investment brokerage company, where he lasted five years before finding the job ‘soul destroying’.

James Ooi (centre) and his team at Little Bao Boy.James Ooi (centre) and his team at Little Bao Boy.
James Ooi (centre) and his team at Little Bao Boy.

A chance conversation with his sister about what to do next led to the creation of Little Bao Boy, which has been helped by business support programme AD:VENTURE.

“Our parents ran a restaurant in the north east, so we were brought up in hospitality. And all through uni I worked in hospitality. I went to see my sister in London and she said ‘have you thought of street food?’ And that really was the start of it all,” said James.

He quit his job and spent a year in a less demanding role, so he could start Little Bao Boy. In November 2018 North Brew Company, who were opening a tap room in Leeds, asked if Little Bao Boy would join them to do the food.

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“We’ve never left,” said James, “And it has gone from strength to strength.

“We won an award for being the most sold product in Leeds via Deliveroo. And all that from a 7ft by 7ft kitchen, and just me and my partner, as everyone else was on furlough,” said James.

To keep up with demand James needed to expand manufacturing, so he turned to AD:VENTURE for a grant. The business support programme, which is part-funded by the European Development Fund, helps businesses in North and West Yorkshire that are up to three years old.

As well as the grant of £25,000, which helped create five new jobs, James was given help with creating a business plan. Each week now Bao Boy makes 10,000 bao buns for their outlets and another 10,000 for wholesalers. The plan is to increase the number of outlets in Leeds from three to five, and to have about 50 franchisees, all buying supplies from them.

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The core staff team consists of eight people, with plans for that to rapidly expand too. And sales have shot up four times in the last year, with turnover expected to top £1m this year.

James said: “The grant was pivotal. It was a crucial part of us being able to do what we do. It would have been a big financial risk for us to take in our early thirties, so it relieved a bit of stress and pressure and allowed us to have more breathing space.”

“If you go into hospitality as a career, it’s a way of life. I like being in the mix in the kitchen. I like cooking the food, I like tasting the food and I like cooking people new food.”

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