There are few sectors in the foodservice industry as competitive as the coffee shop segment. On average there are 24 new sites opening every week and there are expected to be around 30,000 outlets operating by 2025. Nevertheless, the market is set to hit £4.3 billion in five years and the opportunities for new businesses are rife. One chain looking to muscle into the market is SOHO Coffee & Co.
Already, the coffee brand operates around 40 stores and hopes to open 11 more this year and the same amount next year. Having previously held back from London, it has now taken the plunge and has laid out plans for further growth in the capital.
In short, SOHO Coffee is looking for quick-fire growth in a sector which has seen many firms come and go, out-muscled by the mainstream giants. The company has certainly carved out a strong business model for its current sites, but how does it plan on safely scaling up while navigating the challenges this poses?
Top priority is standardising kitchens, reveals head of innovations, Duncan Reilly. And part of its drive towards standardisation involves buying in kit which is easy to use and provides the fast and consistent results that are so vital to the success of any quick-service chain.
“We’ve grown over the years and we’ve acquired different equipment in different stores and it starts to get a bit messy. We’ve concentrated on trying to standardise that equipment. One of the things we were very keen on looking at was improving the speed of service and consistency of the product,” explains Mr Reilly. “For instance, we’ve put the new MerryChef ovens into all of our stores, which is a great piece of kit. It has a much smaller footprint than the old ones and is very powerful — that really helps with our speed of service and consistency of all our hot food products. We found that particular piece of equipment far more versatile than a lot of other combi ovens.”
SOHO has also invested in new panini grills to speed up service. Across its sites it has brought in Unox SpidoCook panini grills, which Mr Reilly says give off a lot less smoke and are easy to use and clean.
In terms of barista equipment, the firm has moved to a grind-on-demand — Mr Reilly claims it is just as easy for staff to control and manage at pace. Meanwhile, back-of-house, SOHO is rolling out the combi ovens it knows and trusts throughout all its sites. The model it currently used has proved reliable and the chain understands the ethos of not fixing things if they’re not broken.
Mr Reilly comments: “We’ve gone for a Unox steam and dry heat combination and where we used to just go for big ovens, now we buy two smaller ones — it just gives us that extra bit of flexibility. You can do different things at different times and we’ve worked on programmes for the machines so that it just simplifies it for the staff. We’ve also done quite a bit of training with those ovens too.”
Most chains will know the importance of staff training. Buying in expensive high-performance equipment can be rendered essentially ineffective if staff do not know how to use it. But equally, suppliers today know that making their kit as easy-to-use as possible is key to ensuring operators can maintain speedy and consistent service. And in the fast-paced sector SOHO operates, where staff turnover can be high, the importance of easy-to-use equipment is paramount.
This was a primary consideration for Mr Reilly when he was specifying kit that staff could use by simple button pushes and pictorial touchscreens. “Having those cooking programmes built in, it just makes it simple,” he says. “Even if it’s somebody’s first day, if they can see a picture of a potato then they know to press it and that’s quite straightforward. With the MerryChef there are pictures. I just send them a USB, they plug it in and it reprograms it,” he says.
And on top of ease of use, it’s no secret in the foodservice industry that smaller equipment is a huge trend. SOHO is no different to any other coffee chain in that it needs to maximise the amount of dining space at the expense of the back-of-house area. This means that there is very limited surface for equipment and every item has to be small and contribute to the overall operation. The difference for SOHO Coffee is that it does need some equipment front-of-house so that customers can be served quickly and the smells of pastries baking improve the customer experience.
Mr Reilly explains: “We’ve tried to be future-proof in the kit that we’ve picked. We’ve looked for things that are flexible. We are quite limited by space. You have a space and you have to make everything fit into it — especially in central London, there’s no room to play with. On occasions we do have to compromise on some bits. In one kitchen we didn’t have the height available and so could only have one oven. We do try to make sure that the kit we put in is as flexible as possible. We try to look at trends and ask ourselves, could we do that?”
For many specifiers in the coffee chain segment, it can be a challenge to convince budget-makers to prioritise kitchen hardware given the capital needed for branding, marketing and real estate. Nevertheless, Mr Reilly knows it is important to push for the tools necessary to make operations run smoothly. He explains how the engine room is vital. “Sometimes we have a nice problem where the shop is busier than anticipated and we need to find a solution to cope with demand. In our Kingsway store for example, we’ve double stacked the grills — it’s the only way we could get it in. We need to give the staff the tools to be able to deliver.”
While it can be a challenge convincing finance chiefs to invest in equipment at individual sites, asking for backing for the whole portfolio of outlets is another thing all together. But Mr Reilly knows that standardising kitchens across all of SOHO’s sites will be absolutely key to delivering success as it grows. Chains will know that imbalances in set-ups can hamper consistency, which is a big no-no for brands looking to establish themselves in a highly competitive market. All the same, it can be hard to install a universal design across a portfolio comprised of restaurants of all different shapes and sizes.
“There are basic things we try to get into all of our shops. Sometimes we have to just say we haven’t physically got the space so we look at what we can do to solve that. In our new stores we’re looking to have wet-well bain maries — a very old-fashioned piece of kit but very efficient. We’ve got standardised refrigeration in our new stores too.
“We need to have food, particulary at peak times, on display, ready and hot — it’s about speed of service. That needs to be standard in all our stores. We try and keep the technological and the operational things as much the same as we possibly can. We try and keep it as standardised as we possibly can. Otherwise, we’re only making it difficult for staff — we’re giving them room to trip up,” he says.
Mr Reilly is fully aware of the challenge SOHO is up against, given the nature of the coffee market and the established firms dominating it. His approach, however, is putting the brand in a very strong position to go up against the major players. Mr Reilly shows that knowing the importance of standardisation to deliver consistency and speed of service is key, while at the same time remaining flexible enough to optimise individual sites.
Success is far from guaranteed in such a competitive sector, but with near on 50 stores to its name and counting, SOHO has clearly found a formula for growth. And as its kitchen operations become even slicker, business at the company should only get better.