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One business opportunity we consistently see interest in on UK Business Forums is the restaurant trade – a restaurant or cafe or some other variant, like a quick-service or fast-casual dining offer.
We caught up with Griff Holland, one of the co-founders of Friska, a healthy fast-food restaurant chain that opened n central Bristol in 2009. It now boasts seven restaurants plus one concession, with many more planned. But that summary makes Holland’s and co-founder Ed Brown’s journey sound like smooth sailing, when the pair have made plenty of big calls along the way
A great many of us romanticise the idea owning a restaurant or cafe. That need for food and companionship and a social buzz is at the core of the human condition, so providing a place where all this good stuff happens is an attractive thought.
How to make a success of it, in a competitive marketplace, is where the challenge lies. So how did Griff Holland, the co-founder of the healthy fast-food restaurant Friska, manage to get this now seven-year-old business past myriad obstacles and difficulties and into profitability?
The seeds of Friska were sown, says Holland, more than half a lifetime earlier when he was a 16-year-old on holiday in California with his family.
“I’m 33 now. I still vividly remember that trip. America has a reputation around the world for burger and fries style fast food as well as great service, but that’s hardly the whole story. In California I saw amazing fresh food everywhere. And I was inspired.”
When Holland returned to the UK he held onto what he’d seen, heading off soon after to university for an economics degree and with vague thoughts of landing a high-paying job in the City.
“But over the course of university my ideas changed. I guess I grew up,” he says. “What became important to me was doing something tangible and that I felt passionate about – that resonated with my values and made me proud.”
It led Holland, on graduation, to pursue some travel through Southeast Asia, where his exposure to different street food cultures helped him craft an early business plan for a food business provisionally called Crunch.
On his return to the UK, and armed with his plan, he plumped for Bristol as a good city in which to start and found a cafe job there to keep learning while he eyed possible sites and looked around for a business partner.
“Along the way, I found a potential site but the deal went sour and I actually lost £9,000 pursuing my would-be landlord in court. That’s quite a hit when you are earning £7.00 an hour.”
But in hindsight it was a lucky break, Holland insists.
“I kept at it. Ten months down the line I’d found my co-founder, Ed Brown, via a networking event put on by Bristol Enterprise Network. It wasn’t actually the best context for meeting someone to come in on a food business, but it worked out.”
On what terms and in what way did the two decide they could work together?
“After three months of meeting here and there for beers and coffees, I asked Ed if he wanted to see my business plan. He liked it but he soon tweaked the offer to make it more commercial – with less of a salad bar proposition, for example.”
Brown suggested the name Friska too.
“Google Translate will tell you it means fresh in Swedish and Hungarian,” says Holland. “We thought it was a name that would be ‘sticky’ while creating its own meaning, suggesting freshness, health and speed. We still like it today.”
Holland and Brown got some external investment from a bank to augment their own savings and some funds from family – quite a feat in 2009, and on the strength of the business plan, says Holland. And they found a site in central Bristol that still thrives today.
“We started with a shoestring budget and a second-hand kitchen but it was nothing that customers would notice,” says Holland.
Was it the same proposition as Friska’s offer now?
“Its essence was the same. That idea of delicious, healthy, feel-good food, served speedily. When we started we did not appreciate the importance of coffee in the offer, I would say. And we didn’t immediately appreciate that making it easy for your average customer to get on board is crucial.”
What does Holland mean about ‘making it easy’ for customers?
“We launched with quite a different lunchtime offer. Everyone talks about street food now, but in 2009 it hadn’t taken hold anywhere but London. We did not quite appreciate this, as the market research said that health and niche food offers were proliferating. But there’s a difference between spotting the start of a trend and appealing to the crowd.”
If that’s what Holland and Brown struggled with initially, it’s also clear they got plenty right, creating a winning brand and serving interesting, fresh food with a difference.
“Friska has always been substantially about world cuisine and hot food, but we do offer plenty of familiar sandwiches too. The offer also mixes a true quick-service restaurant with more of a cafe vibe. It’s somewhere to sit down and relax, too.”
It’s also important, Holland adds, to understand your proposition from top to bottom.
“We see a mini-peak in sales at breakfast, but we are primarily a lunchtime place, with 55% of sales being hot food and about a quarter being coffee and other beverages.”
Yet being confident and analytical about how to iterate your offer in the marketplace doesn’t mean immediate profits.
“The first 18 months were hard work when it came getting the business anywhere near to profit,” says Holland. “We were paying our staff more than minimum wage but taking out less than that ourselves. At the same time, we weren’t discouraged: we were working towards something – and every month was a bit better than the last.”
The restaurant business also doesn’t require great innovation for success to flow, adds Holland.
“At every step we’ve evolved our menu and worked at customer service, customer loyalty, recruitment, and developing slick back-end systems. But I’m talking here about incremental changes. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in restaurants. Just look at the proliferation of posh burger joints to illustrate that. There is nothing innovative about burger and fries, but if the offer is consistently good with great service that is more than enough for customer loyalty to grow.”
It took until Friska’s third year to move into profit, by which time the business had also opened on Bristol & Bath Science Park having struck a great deal with the director of the park to take on the running of a front-of-house kitchen in a big communal space that was ready to go.
“That was a great good fortune for us. We found an advocate who could see the value we would add to the park’s proposition. It really got us moving as we continued to work at making the Victoria Street site deliver. “
Friska’s restless search for profits in the early years has been overtaken more recently by a steadier reality, with several new openings and turnover climbing past £4m, with profits heading north too.
“The challenge is different now,” says Holland. “Recruitment and training remains a big play, because it is hard to find excellent kitchen team members, even if front-of-house is easier. So we work hard at training, at recognising staff and at the team culture. We want people to be proud to work for us.”
The other crucial play for Holland and Brown from here is finding further finance.
“We’ve an established, well-run proposition now, with a great customer offer backed by great systems and people – and we are innovating hard with technology too. Now is the moment to scale more quickly. That means cash. We’d like to raise £6m to open 18 further outlets in the next few years. As you’d expect, we are looking out for conversations with potential partners that might want in.”
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