4 Food & Beverage Entrepreneurs To Watch: Damien Lee

Sept. 4, 2020
Cancer survivor Damien Lee couldn’t find a cup of instant noodles that suited his needs – so he developed his own.

This article is part of a series on Entrepreneurs To Watch in the Food and Beverage Industry. You can read the full series, starting here

Take instant noodle cups – that beloved cheap staple of college students and other cash-strapped types – and make them really good. So good that they cost just about double what they normally do.

As business plans go, that seems pretty counterintuitive. But Damien Lee didn’t succeed – or even, literally, survive – by blindly accepting conventional wisdom.

Lee, a serial entrepreneur and single father to two boys, received the first of four diagnoses of cancer a few years ago. Doctors told him he had literally weeks to live and even suggested that he forgo chemotherapy for a more comfortable end. Instead, he chose to fight, not only with chemo, but through purifying his diet. That meant no more instant noodles, which he describes as “my favorite guilty pleasure.”

“I had to create a noodle that I could eat,” he says. “One that I would put into my body.” He recalled a business trip to China, prior to receiving his diagnosis, that included a visit to what he described as the country’s fifth-largest instant-noodle processing plant, run by two brothers. He asked one of them which of his company’s noodles were his favorite. “One of the brothers smiled at me and said, ‘Ah, we don’t eat our own noodles.’

“I said, why not? And he said, ‘If you knew what we put in them, you wouldn’t either.’”

It took Lee about a year to recover from that first bout with cancer, during which time he had to let go of the last business he had started. He needed a new one, so he decided to develop a cup of instant noodles that he himself would like to eat – especially during his battle with cancer.

Thanks in part to that encounter in China, he knew what he wanted to do, and not do. He decided to use freeze-dried vegetables and other ingredients instead of the dehydrated ones that are the staple of instant noodle cups. While serving in the Australian military, Lee had been impressed by the quality of the freeze-dried ingredients in his rations.

“I thought, that’s what I should have, not these nasty little dried ingredients that everybody has in their cups,” he says. The rice noodles are also of unusually high quality, sourced directly from Vietnam.

Mr. Lee’s Noodles hit the market in 2015 in the United Kingdom and afterward in Australia. The U.S. rollout occurred in May, with the product available in all Whole Foods stores.

Lee is just as demanding about processing as about ingredients. As he searched for a co-packer in the UK, he found that most of them processed dry noodle mix by throwing all the ingredients into a single filler hopper and hoping everything came out evenly. Lee insisted on more precision.

“To me it’s really important that every ingredient in a Mr. Lee’s cup be individually measured out and dosed,” he says. He looked hard and finally found co-packers who would get the equipment needed to do that, first in the UK, then in Australia and the U.S.

The result is an instant noodle cup that got 5 out of 5 stars on the website The Ramen Rater: “Noodles as always hydrated perfectly.... The chicken is in little cubes, but might as well have been cut from a freshly baked chicken breast. Very impressed – nutritious and delicious!”

The company is now called Mr. Lee Pure Foods, to signify that new products like congee (rice porridge) are on the way. But the guiding principle will remain the same: Quality as contrarianism.

“When everybody else was in this big race to the bottom, I’m going to go in the completely opposite direction and create the world’s costliest instant noodle with goodness, with real ingredients, no nasties, and one that I can eat,” Lee says.

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