A lot of things have changed for ethical café chain Friska since it opened its first site in the middle of Bristol five years ago — none more so than the fabric of its kitchens. FEJ meets the men behind it.
With four stores based in and around Bristol, and more in the pipeline, including aspirations to expand into other major cities eventually, Friska’s philosophy of ‘feel good food’ based on a fresh offering of breakfast, lunch and coffee has rapidly gained a loyal and satisfied following.
And as the business has grown, so too has the sophistication of its kitchens, reflecting its appreciation for the need to champion a more measured and sustainable approach to equipment selection. But it certainly wasn’t like that at the beginning, remembers Ed Brown, who co-founded Friska with business partner Griff Holland.
“When we opened our first store we had a very limited budget and really just made do with whatever we could find, largely from the catering auctions and other second-hand sellers,” he reveals candidly. “This was due to a combination of limited funds and also limited understanding of what our requirement would be. We were aware of some brands, such as Foster and Williams, but aside from that we were buying whatever was cheapest rather than any strategic approach.”
As the business has expanded to four stores — with a fifth on the way in April — the need for consistency when it comes to the equipment has become apparent. As well as the benefit of being able to build relationships with suppliers, it enables the team to interchange between stores much more easily and makes maintenance issues less of a burden to deal with.
Brown says that adding scale to the business has also exposed just how important it is to specify equipment that is robust, fit for purpose and capable of managing increased volumes. “We often handle over 160 transactions during a busy lunchtime, so we need equipment which can cope with that intensive use over our peak period of demand, and importantly is also reliable.”
“One of the biggest game changers for us has been the recommendation to move to the combi oven. We are still getting to grips with the full capability of the equipment but it’s certainly part of our default spec now” Ed Brown, Friska
With speed of service and efficiency of workflow intrinsic to the operation, Friska’s kitchens are heavily designed around several key items of equipment, including induction hobs from Control Induction and combi steamers from Rational. “One of the biggest game changers for us has been the recommendation to move to the Rational combi oven due to the ability to dramatically reduce cooking times and maintain quality across a whole range of products,” says Brown. “We are still getting to grips with the full capability of the equipment but it’s certainly part of our default spec now.”
One notable feature is a bespoke service rig specially designed by kitchen contractor QCM, which works closely with the company on back-of-house design and catering equipment. This rig is essentially where all the components of Friska’s trademark wraps and hotboxes are brought together and features hot, chilled and ambient ingredients, twin plate panini grills, chopping boards and hotlamps to allow meals to be quickly assembled.
With Friska’s stores located close to business districts, the ability to process orders quickly, particularly at lunchtime, holds the key to repeat custom. Elsewhere, the Friska team is a big fan of Foster cabinets for their quality and efficiency, while Norpe display multidecks with doors are specified for display refrigeration due to the inviting way they present its grab and go offering.
Friska is always seeking to enhance the set-up where it makes sense. At its latest store it has pioneered a new look to the counters, with natural hot-rolled steel, heavy duty structural steel beams and recycled floorboards shrouding the coffee station. The UV bonded glass display cubes and thick worktop manufactured from concrete but containing 65% recycled material chimes with Friska’s own sustainable credentials.
The big challenge for the company now lies in understanding how it can use equipment to deal with scale. It is a problem it is going to have to get used to given its ambitions of eventually reaching a national audience. “We have recently raised enough to open 10 new stores over the next three years and then after that we will be in a position to see how we can take the business to our goal of 50 across major cosmopolitan cities such as Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and London,” concludes Brown.
Design talk: Planning the kitchen
Bristol-based QCM Catering Equipment’s expertise in kitchen planning and specification has been invaluable for Friska’s owners as they have steadily expanded the business. FEJ grabbed five minutes with QCM director, Gerry Oakley, to understand some of the principles behind the chain’s kitchen design.
What is QCM’s role in terms of working with Friska to develop its kitchens?
We have been working with [the owners] Griff and Ed for around three years now — the original contact was a phone call from Griff one Friday night and he was a little surprised that I answered the phone! We talked, met a few days later and hit it off. I think it’s important that we get on as people as well as being client/supplier as this fosters trust and a real appreciation of what’s important to their business.
What did your first task involve from a catering equipment perspective?
Initially we advised on a few small items of replacement equipment at their store in Victoria Street in Bristol, then as the months went by we gained a broader understanding of Friska’s operation. When they identified a new site on Queen’s Road in Bristol’s student quarter we worked on the design and equipment specifications from day one.
What have been the main considerations when it comes to choosing the kit?
Friska has evolved over the years by introducing energy efficient equipment — principally the Rational 5 Senses oven and Control Induction hobs, which have become a standard in all new stores. Standardising across stores also allows consistency in cooking results, with executive chef Alex Bluett devising standards and being able to roll-out these programmes to each Rational oven in store with a USB stick. Friska has a policy of not completely de-skilling their kitchens, though, so certain items like soups and pho are produced in each store every day along with cooked chicken and pork for wraps and hot-boxes, which is where the four-plate heavy duty induction hobs come into their own.
Have you been able to replicate the same equipment footprint across all stores?
Each store is different in its layout and the footprint size also varies, so although we have an ideal floorspace it does mean we usually have to juggle all the components to try and get them to fit an area. The basic components are always the same: storage refrigeration, preparation benches, wash-up, cookline, make-up and service station.