Start and Run a Sandwich and Coffee Shop
BEFORE YOU TAKE THE PLUNGE
AT A GLANCE
In this chapter we’ll cover:
- The sandwich and coffee bar marketplace – whether it’s growing, and if there’s room in it for you.
- Your suitability, and the personality traits and skills you’ll need to succeed.
- A day in the life of a sandwich bar owner – what to expect, and what to prepare yourself for.
The marketplace – not a bed of roses
The UK has undergone a massive transformation in terms of high street daytime eateries. Think back ten years or so and on most medium-sized high streets you would have found a pub, a fish and chip shop, a McDonald’s and a local bakery.
Take a stroll down your local high street now and things could not look more different. Shop after shop has been taken over by food retailers. Subway, O’Brien’s, Gregg’s, Pret A Manger, Eat, Costa, Starbucks, Caffè Nero . . . not to mention the various restaurants, supermarkets and garages that offer daytime lunch options. Think of what you fancy to eat or drink and you’ll be bamboozled by a choice of wraps, bagels, paninis, sushi, smoothies, pasties, salads, sandwiches, subs, burgers, wheat grass shots and mocha chocca latte cappuccinos!
The UK has readily embraced the ‘café society’, and a sandwich bar or coffee shop is often viewed as a leisure experience rather than simply a place to eat and drink. Many people are also moving away from the pub culture, and sandwich bars are seen as an alternative place to meet and catch up. With this in mind, your sandwich bar’s customers will likely fall into these categories.
- Women, who prefer the sandwich bar, coffee shop environment to that of a pub. They feel comfortable sitting alone in the non-threatening environment.
- Young and affluent professionals, who eat out far more than any other sector of society.
- Office workers, who buy their daily breakfast, lunch or perhaps both.
- Older customers, who like high-quality, personal service. This group has the potential to drastically improve your off-peak sales.
- Shoppers, who will make up a large percentage of a sandwich bar’s ‘eat in’ revenue.
So, before you decide whether there’s room for you, and your new café, you need to take a long, hard and very honest look at the industry. Make sure you weigh up the positives . . . and don’t ignore the negatives.
On the positive side:
- The explosion in choice has helped to increase the market’s size, and more and more people now opt to buy their breakfast and lunch on the go, rather than preparing it themselves at home.
- This is also driven by consumers’ busier lives; in the UK we have the longest commuting times and the longest working hours in Europe.
- Consumers are becoming increasingly engaged with the food they eat, and want to know exactly what they are buying and eating.Words like traceability, sustainability, organic, locally produced, handmade, homemade, are all on the agenda. Good news for the owner-run café.
- Consumers are prepared to pay more for a quality product. TNS data shows that the average sandwich in the UK now costs £1.85, an all-time high.
- Consumers are enjoying a renaissance of Britishness, with traditional British foods and cuisine enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
On the negative side, however:
- The explosion in daytime eateries has made the marketplace more and more competitive. This means that as an independent café you’ll have to be ingenious and flawless in order to succeed.
- High street rents have rocketed, as have business rates and service charges.
- Food prices have risen, and will continue to rise in the future.
- Staff costs can be expensive, with regulations such as the minimum wage, and mandatory holiday and sick pay for casual part-time staff.
- New guidelines for detailed food labelling for packed sandwiches have been introduced, and the industry is under pressure from the government to meet new health guidelines, for example, in relation to salt levels in foods.
Added to all this you’ll also be aware that the economy is not as buoyant as it was. At the time of writing, newspapers are full of headlines warning of an economic recession, a house market crash and general financial slowdown.
Will we, won’t we? It’s incredibly hard to know for sure whether the UK will slide into economic depression. What I do know is that business in my café is still growing year on year. However, I also know that for a new sandwich bar just starting out the uphill struggle of becoming established will be that bit steeper in the current economic climate.
In fact, accountancy firm Deloitte have recently stated that in their view it has never been more difficult to build a successful, sustainable and socially responsible food and beverage business in the UK. Why? Well, as their report Food and Beverage 2012 – a taste of things to come highlights, higher commodity prices have become the norm rather than a temporary peak, and the high cost of food produce represents a permanent step change, not a blip.
Beginning in 2005, and for the first time since the 1970s, food prices have been increasing substantially. As a result, since 2000 the price of wheat has tripled. In 2007 alone, wheat prices rose 52%. For food retailers this means that they have to be as competitive as they can be; they need to really differentiate their products, and have strong brands, innovative products or services and a superior customer experience.
So, starting your own sandwich bar is not going to be easy, and once it’s up and running you’ll never be able to take your foot off the gas. Are you prepared for that? My advice is, ask yourself some tough questions, do masses of research, and take the leap only when you’re absolutely certain.
If you are prepared to be flexible, work harder than you’ve ever worked before, and have a good feel for food, then you have every chance of making a success of your business, earning a reasonable income, and securing an asset for your future along the way.
Your suitability – will it be right for you?
Setting up your own business, especially a food retail business, is all-consuming. If you’re going to succeed and be happy you’ll need to assess whether you’re suitable, and whether your skills and personality are up to the job.
CAN YOU MULTI-TASK?
You’ll be a managing director, a financial director, an operations director, a human resources manager, a food development technician and a marketing consultant all rolled into one. Added to that you’ll be a shop assistant, a waiter and a general dogsbody, and all these jobs muddled into any given hour spent running your business.
ARE YOU RESILIENT?
You’ll face many situations that demand an ability to bounce back, from the birth of your business right through to the day-to-day running of an established one.
Back in 2006, when we were looking for our first café premises, we hit upon numerous seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Many retail landlords would not consider us for their empty shop units because we were a new business with no trading history. When we did find a unit, and begin negotiations, we discovered the landlord wanted a six-month rent deposit, an impossible amount for a new business to hand over. The day before opening, our fridge and freezer equipment still had not arrived, despite promises to the contrary from the supplier. In those early months each day threw up another issue to be dealt with and sorted out.
Today we have to remain as resilient as we were then. Yes, with an established business there are fewer surprises, but with the pressures of any average day it would be easy to become disheartened. It’s certainly a skill to be able to deal adeptly with an obnoxious, rude or even aggressive customer, and then continue to serve the queue, unperturbed and unfazed.
Being honest, I have not always found it easy, and even today I’ll occasionally become bothered when customers throw money on the counter, or fail to say please or thank you. But on the whole I have learnt to take a deep breath, smile and move on to the next, usually polite, customer. This skill is imperative, or you’ll end up going round the twist!
ARE YOU A GOOD HOST?
Do you regularly entertain? When you do, do you consider all of your guests’ needs, put special thought into drinks to be served, how the table will be laid, what dessert will compliment the main meal? Or do you like a party to be thrown together, last minute, organized by somebody else?
The fact is that owning your own café is very much like playing the host every day. You need to welcome your customers, make them feel at home, consider their every need, surprise them, impress them, entertain them. In fact, building a relationship with your customers is no different from building a relationship with a new friend.
In my experience, to succeed, hospitality has to come naturally to you. If it does not then you’ll find it very difficult to develop the high levels of customer service demanded by today’s customer. Remember, they have lots of choice, and if they don’t feel special and cared for in your café, then they’ll go to someone else’s.
DO YOU LOVE FOOD?
Are you interested in understanding the difference between lettuce flavours – lollo rosso vs iceberg, cos vs rocket? Would you see the point in spending an hour tasting various chutneys to ensure you choose a perfect match for the mature Cheddar you serve with your ploughman’s? Do you know the difference between low GI and high GI – do you care?
An elderly couple came into our café, and sat at a table in the window. They ordered tea and toast and sat back down. Just as my staff member was taking the tea to them, I noticed their table had been moved, and was now wobbling on the uneven surface. I quickly nipped over, asked the staff member to wait, and readjusted the feet on the table so it no longer wobbled. A tiny gesture, but it was one that they greatly appreciated. It showed that we were taking notice of our customers, and cared about their happiness and enjoyment. They may have been spending only a small amount of money that morning, but they left feeling like they were the most important customers in the shop, and they came back the next week, with friends, for lunch!
The fact is that most people who buy a freshly made sandwich or salad at lunchtime, rather than a pre-packed one, value the expertise of the person making it. To please your customers, and to compete against the multitude of other lunchtime choices, you need to be passionate, innovative and knowledgeable.
IS IT ALL ABOUT THE MONEY?
Sounds like a negative, right? Wrong! The end goal of all businesses is to make money. Yes, your day-to-day focus should be on fantastic food, amazing customer service, happy staff . . . but the reason for all your hard work, the very purpose of your business, is to make you money. So you should never, ever forget that yes, it is all about the money.
It’s all too easy at the beginning to have a romantic ideal of a happy café, smiling customers, huge portions, free coffee top-ups. Of course you want happy customers, but you also want a happy bank account. To succeed in business the two must go hand in hand. The key is to find the balance, and you’ll achieve that by being efficient, monitoring portion control and keeping a close eye on the bottom line.
We were busy from day one, with many customers ordering sandwiches, salads and jacket potatoes for lunch. However, five months after opening we began to notice that although the daily takings were good, the profit margin, after bills had been paid, was lower than we’d like. In short, we were working really hard to serve lots of customers, but not making quite enough at the end of the day to make it worthwhile. The answer was portion control. We spent time with staff retraining them on the number of spoonfuls of fillings to use in sandwiches, salads, etc.Within a week we could see a visible difference to the bottom line, and the profits began to reach the healthy 65% figure we always aim for
I did struggle in the beginning to really grasp the importance of tight financial management. Thankfully my husband Richard had experience in this area and so we focused on it from day one. If like me this is not your strength area, I would recommend you learn as much as you can as quickly as you can through bookkeeping and accountancy courses, or enlist the help of a friend who can work with you. Lose track of the bottom line and your business could flounder before it’s even begun. Because this area is so important to the success of your business we cover it in depth in Chapter 4.
A day in the life
If you’ve never worked in food retail before, as we hadn’t, then it is virtually impossible to truly imagine what to expect. So, I’ll give you an example of what an average day might look like:
6.45am. Arrive at your café and begin work.
Depending on the size and scale of your café you’ll be either on your own or with just a staff member or two. Either way, before you open you’ll be turning on and checking machinery, conducting fridge temperature checks, signing off deliveries such as bread, meats, cheeses, milk and salad stuffs. Setting out tables, unstacking chairs, setting up work stations with butter, knives and greaseproof paper. Restocking supplies of cups, spoons, sugar, salt and pepper sachets, etc.
7.30am. Open to the public.
Breakfast is hectic. Not only are you (hopefully) serving a busy queue of hungry office workers tempted by your delicious toast and coffee, you’re also preparing your café for the day. In a sandwich bar like ours this means preparation of all of our own sandwich fillings; it also means the preparation of home-made coleslaw and potato salad, and washing and slicing the salad stuffs such as lettuce, cucumber, tomato and onion. Even if you decide to buy in your sandwich fillings and mixes, this time of the day is going to be frenetic, with so much to prepare and customers to serve. You’d better be a morning person!
The breakfast rush has died down, and the preparation of fillings and salad stuffs is coming to an end. Now you need to turn your attention to preparing the sandwich platters you have to deliver to local offices for meetings at lunchtime. You also need to ensure that the refrigerated serve-over counters are stocked and looking beautiful. On top of this you need to listen out for the telephone and monitor email for customer orders. And if that’s not enough, you need to continue to serve your mid-morning customers, popping in for coffee and a slice of cake. Make sure you’ve a smile and a kind word for everyone.
This is usually the quietest time of day, so you’ll be grabbing a bite to eat, checking your email, opening the post, approving holiday requests, updating timesheets, fixing a wobbly chair leg, posting supplier cheques, nipping to the bank to pay in cash or collect bags of coin change.
12 noon. Lunch.
You will, I hope, be stressed and busy. But, importantly, under control, because of all the time spent preparing during the morning.You should expect an extremely noisy environment: the coffee machine and perhaps a smoothie blender competing with customers placing orders, staff passing requests, those seated laughing and chatting. You’ll have to be on the ball at all times, instructing staff, serving customers, watching for signs of any potential problems that may upset things. If your café is popular you won’t come up for air until around 2.30pm. No break, no toilet stop, no time to think – can you handle it?
2.30pm onwards. Clean down.
After a day spent on your feet you now need to maintain the momentum and ensure that the clean down of the café is carried out thoroughly, while still serving the steady trickle of late lunch customers and afternoon coffee breaks. You’ll be emptying and cleaning the serve-over counters, replacing and restocking serving dishes of food, wiping tables, sweeping and mopping floors, washing through the coffee machine, cleaning and sanitizing microwaves, ovens, contact grills, cupboard doors and handles of fridges. You’ll also be getting ready to start all over again the next day by writing out lists of foods that need to be prepared the following morning, putting in stock orders for deliveries, and re-stocking drinks fridges and snack shelves.
Your café may be closed to customers, but you can expect to put in another couple of hours, catching up with admin work, thinking about next week’s sandwich specials, scheduling in your staff appraisals, chasing payment from business customers who order platters. At the end of your 11-hour day you can have dinner at home and think about how to grow your business even more!
Add into the mix unhappy customers, deliveries that don’t turn up, equipment that breaks down, staff who are sick, an unannounced environmental health officer (EHO) visit, and you’ll probably begin to see just how important it is to be organized and unflappable, a natural communicator, excellent at delegating, and most of all, how important it’ll be that you genuinely enjoy working in your sandwich bar.