“If you’re launching an online-only food business, you’re competing with hundreds of thousands of stores; if you want to create a high street chain, you’re up against Pret and McDonald’s,” says Steven Novick, founder of health food business Farmstand. Faced with this conundrum, Novick has eschewed more traditional business models.
After launching a restaurant in Covent Garden, London, Novick took a nimble approach to growth. Over the past 18 months, he’s opened 17 pop-ups across the capital in office canteens, a stand in Planet Organic and corporate catering and delivery services.
Due to London’s high commercial rents, and the doubling of business rates in some areas, it’s not economical for a small firm to rent lots of property, so Farmstand has streamlined operations. All of its food is prepared in a 2,000 sq ft kitchen in south London, from where it is delivered to pop-ups and business customers (around 30 subscribe to a daily delivery) across the city. Its deliveries are outsourced to an experienced courier.
Headcount is also kept to the minimum: 16 full-time staff, with 11 working in the central kitchen and five serving in the Covent Garden restaurant. Farmstand’s in-office pop-ups are staffed by the customer. With this approach, Farmstand’s revenue has grown by an average of 26% month-on-month since opening in February 2016.
Another business with a canny growth strategy is Chester-based, AM Custom Clothing, which provides personalised, printed garments (from T-shirts to lanyards) to universities and businesses. Co-founder Alex Franklin says: “A lot of fashion companies will have have warehouses filled with stock, but we have a unique relationship with our suppliers.” Franklin doesn’t store stock. Instead he calls on his network of 15-20 suppliers of plain clothing when an order comes in. Altogether, Franklin’s suppliers have around 12m items in stock.
However, getting to this point has not come without difficulty. In the past, the business has experienced much greater demand than anticipated, which put pressure on its supply chain. “Since then we have adapted our business model, to make it as scalable as possible, most of this was achieved through automation,” Franklin says. While stock shortages can still occur, the amount of stock at hand now allows the business to find alternatives when needed.
Automating orders and deliveries, and using a computer bot to follow-up on customer enquires, has also smoothed operations. But, Franklin adds, all clients have a dedicated account manager to ensure strong customer service.
While some businesses can handle most operations online, others do require a physical space. So how can entrepreneurs in this situation cut costs? Market stalls and pop-ups, which have been made more accessible thanks to apps such as Appear Here, are one way to trial locations without committing to long-term leases. Meanwhile, some small food businesses might opt for a service such as Deliveroo’s purpose-built kitchens, called Deliveroo Editions. Initially designed as overflow kitchens for established companies, now smaller firms are using these spaces to reach customers outside of their delivery area.
“They are very cheap to set up, so we decided to use them to bring new types of cuisines to areas where we found a gap,” says Rohan Pradhan, vice president of Deliveroo. Deliveroo sometimes takes a higher commission from the sale of small firms using its kitchens. This, Pradhan says, is in order to buffer the risk of the businesses not working out.
Pradhan cites Crust Bros pizza company as a successful example of this relationship. Crust Bros’ founder, Joseph Moore, started his business in 2014 as a stall on Southbank market, originally named Dough Bros. Using Deliveroo’s kitchen service, he has doubled sales. Moore says: “It’s been a good testbed for opening our first restaurant this summer, there were some teething issues at the start [such as pizzas not arriving with customers piping hot]. But now we’ve got the process down.”
Rapid expansion can also occur when entrepreneurs add a subscription element to their businesses – and it can be overwhelming. Vanessa McDermott, founder of creative startup Vee McDee, which delivers craft sets to customers, discovered this while crowdfunding on Kickstarter.
McDermott was raising money to launch a creative studio in Bolton. Through Kickstarter’s crowdfunding model, backers of her idea were offered craft sets as a reward. The sets proved a hit, word spread and people were soon asking where they could buy the packs. Then orders mushroomed. “I [quickly] went from selling 30 packs a month to 700,” says McDermott. “It was hard because keeping the quality up is so important to me, I didn’t want to lose that [as custom grew].”
To avoid this, McDermott outsourced the delivery of the kits to a subscription service that works with startups. “My advice would be to anyone in this position to partner with people who have the infrastructure in place to help with the technical and logistical side [of a subscription service],” she says.
Expanding a business while keeping outgoings lean can be a challenge, but these approaches offer food for thought. Some might still argue that a physical space is key to building a business. However, a more flexible approach has its benefits, says Ian Roberts, an SME adviser with Business Doctors consultancy. “To me, high levels of service and product quality are still a better way to build a strong and positive brand identity, than physical presence.”
Peter Kelly, a senior finance partner with PwC’s small business service MyFinance, agrees. He says that one of the hardest things when expanding is finding the right people to work with and identifying gaps in your expertise. He adds: “It’s hard because [your business] is your baby, but to expand efficiently while keeping up quality you should outsource if you can […] Use spare to money to invest in the areas that will help make [your business] profitable.”
By Helen Lock