Growing pains

In 15 years Vital Ingredient has grown from strength to strength but part of that growth has necessitated a need for continuous change

When I was about 25 I was working in central London and was fascinated by how foodservice businesses had started to focus on a particular food offer, be it sushi, soup, sandwiches, pizza, bagels or juice. Creating focus on the one core product offer and using graphic and interior design to conceptualise and own that core offer, almost as if it was their own invention in the first place. Perhaps this investment in design creativity and brand creation was an attempt to stake a claim to the concept in a vain effort to deter competitors stepping in to their arena.

Towards the end of the last millennium, this flurry of entrepreneurship was in full swing with the likes of Pret, EAT, Bagel Mania, Bagel Factory, Soup Opera, Yo! Sushi, Seattle Coffee Co (now Starbucks), Jus Café and the like.

This was great but I couldn’t understand why nobody had done the same with the humble salad. Perhaps because the nation’s idea of a salad back then was a bit of sad looking lettuce with a few tomatoes, stodgy potato salad and maybe some coleslaw. In his 1699 book, Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets John Evelyn attempted with little success to encourage his fellow Britons to eat fresh salad. Yet, proper salads have been around  for centuries and before many other dishes emerged, the Romans and ancient Greeks ate bowlfuls of mixed greens with dressing.

With this fascination of the conceptualisation of these food offers, it also dawned on me that actually the food industry is just a great place to be. It’s a chance for an entrepreneur to end up with a real tangible, tactile and exciting creation that involves two major overriding aspects that people, and in a commercial view, customers, are naturally drawn to – food and other people. In a nutshell that’s the business, and those are the two things that are generally used to judge those in the food trade.

“The bigger a business gets, the more diluted its culture can become as the owner and management are immersed in raising finance, reporting to its banker, liaising with lawyers and advisors on property, health and safety and compliance”

By people, I also mean the thousands of wonderful people that work in our stores and other foodservice businesses. These people are young, bright and probably at quite a transient stage in life, which of course is the challenge. Many are very well qualified, seeking a complete change from their home country having completed 15 years of education – potential architects, financiers and doctors. London provides almost guaranteed employment in this very active sector. It is one where no qualifications are needed and at team member level, no experience is necessary.

However bright and intelligent these staff members are (which they are), this lack of specific work experience and transient nature of applicants can be a source of frustration and staff turnover is often what makes a simple business hard work for the operators. This is why training, coaching, nurturing and hand holding is a never-ending task. The top end larger operators such as Pret and Itsu have the resource and expertise in their senior managers and training te ms to achieve world-class standards in what is essentially a fast food restaurant. This is how they create their renowned culture of smiling team member and excellent service by delivering their work in line with their employers’ exacting standards. Happy, smiling staff and spot on food is what makes customers happy and come back again. It sounds pretty simple.

The biggest asset to any business like ours is its people. It’s no easy task keeping so many people trained, motivated and focused. If the people who work in a business like ours don’t care about their jobs or the business they work for, there is no chance of success and almost certain failure. Our business, like other companies in the same boat, is at a tricky stage in its growth in terms of its employees. When the business was at just five or ten stores with about 150 staff, we didn’t suffer from issues like absence and ‘sickness’, motivational issues, retention, training issues, pilfering and internal politics. I will quickly add that actually these problems are not prevalent today, however the work that goes into alleviating them now is unbelievable.

“If the people who work in a business like ours don’t care about their jobs or the business they work for, there is no chance of success and almost certain failure”

Previously, this focus and work load didn’t really exist. Maybe it was because there was a small company, family-like environment, the names of virtually all team members were known by the senior management and owners. Being a smaller business, there was less going on for the owner and managers to tend to, with fewer stores to visit and so culture and standards were far easier to apply and monitor by more frequent exposure to the stores and its people. The same can be said if outside investors are brought in to help with growth funding.

For my first go at fund raising, when I was the sole shareholder and director with just five stores, I thought this was the right way to do it. Now we are finally in a position where we can almost go back to basics, with each participant in the new regime focusing purely on their area of expertise, supporting the group along the way – not two entrepreneurs fighting it out over what products to stock and what colour to paint the walls, causing an element of confusion and distraction through the ranks.

In hindsight, I should have taken on a good finance director to help me raise bank debt, rather than give away ownership and let someone else try it their way. But as with all young businesses, you learn along the way.

So then the business grows with more store openings, because its customers approve of the happy focused people and great food. But the bigger it gets, the more diluted its culture can become as the owner and management are immersed in raising finance, reporting to its banker, liaising with lawyers and advisors on property, health and safety and compliance rather than the main core offering of the business. However, the business is still too small to afford – or perhaps still lacks the know-how – to put in the resource a d teams of trainers and training systems that are really required to maintain the culture the business once had. This culture is like the DNA of the business and without that it has no backbone and quickly withers away.

As I said earlier, we are fortunate in that as a result of our management team’s efforts and experience, these business-killing issues are kept at bay, although I will say that we have an enormous task looming just round the corner as we start further store openings.

As founder, my dream is when the business reaches the stage it is able to afford its own purpose-built training facility with a team of experts who know how to teach the exacting standards needed to not be just a mediocre operator, while maintaining happy motivated staff who don’t need to look over the fence at other employers and wish they were there.

I believe it is at this point that all the hard work and exposure involved starting and growing a multi-site food business from one store is catalysed and you go from mediocre (or in our case good), to top class market leaders. Although that said, I suspect that they have yet another set of challenges and problems that I’m yet to discover.