I remember flyering around Boscombe, whilst dressed as a chicken, in early January 2014, telling people to head to our shop for the best lunch of their lives.

It’s amusing when looking back, but it was bloody freezing that week, and a small minority of the locals took great pleasure in shouting obscenities at me whilst I waddled up and down the high street. I believed in what we were selling, and so walking around Boscombe dressed as a chicken in mid-winter to promote it felt worth the hassle. I can’t deny there were a few moments where I thought ‘is this what my fucking life has come to?’. But I waddled on – and I’d do it again.

Maybe that’s the ultimate business Litmus test? Would you be willing to walk around town, dressed as a farm animal, to promote its existence? If not, maybe you don’t believe in it enough?

When we took the keys to our first shop, in July 2013, everything was new, and we had grand plans. Like a bunch of excitable children, we had no idea what was ahead of us. Sometimes naivety is a good thing. Had anyone shown us a crystal ball detailing the next few years, we may never have gotten out of the gate. There have been many twists and turns since.

Despite the fact we have picked up some national awards in the first part of our journey, which is always nice, we feel as though we have only just begun. We have a list as long as our arms of improvements we plan to make to our current restaurant businesses, preparing ourselves to open more. 

I used to think I knew more than I did, but I now feel that, relatively speaking, I know nothing. The ‘learning mindset’ is a powerful place to position yourself, personally or as a business, soaking up knowledge from those around you. As a founder, you have to be willing to iterate, or totally pivot, whilst your whole livelihood is on the line. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. 

During lockdown last year, I made the decision to spend some of the downtime educating myself on the area of business that I operate in – ‘Brand Management’ and ‘Marketing’. I left school at 16, and have had no formal training. I’ve read a few books and learned on the job, with varying results. I stumbled across an online ‘MBA in Marketing’ by Professor Mark Ritson, read up on it, and decided to do it. It was a 12-week course and highly intensive. I enjoyed it so much that I then completed Ritson’s 12-week ‘MBA in Brand Management’, and then a 3-week course by Professor Scott Galloway on Strategy.

It was a transformative experience personally. Learning the actual theories behind the discipline, reading hundreds of case studies from well-known brands, considering how people get it wrong, and how people get it right, has helped me formulate a plan for our own businesses which I never would have been able to do previously.

I can’t recommend enough taking some time to learn. Of course, you need to be receptive to learning, and be willing to exercise some humility in order to accept that you need to go back to school! It can pay instant dividends.

Aside from my department, which is constantly under review, our roadmap is mostly focused on operational efficiency gains, alongside people development and management. 

McDonald’s CEO, Chris Kempczinski, refers to the 40,000 restaurants that he oversees globally as ‘the McDonald’s system’. He doesn’t even call them restaurants anymore! If that’s not an indication of how to grow a group of restaurants successfully, I don’t know what is. Systematics breed improved efficiency and consistency, which is something we are focused on. Upcoming projects include reconfiguration of kitchen and prep spaces, bagging areas, improved till integrations, order wait-time software and such like.

In regard to our people, alongside enhanced training programs, we’re making an investment in the general well-being of our teams. Hospitality workers are a tough bunch, but it’s been a particular slog over the last 18 months with so much uncertainty. As such, we’re introducing wellness coaches and internal mindfulness programs, led by our new operations manager Mark Brown, who recently joined us after a 10-year stint at Pizza Hut. 

One thing I have learned over the years, is that this business, and most businesses in fact, are about people. That’s all a company is, essentially – a group of people producing, servicing and/or selling something. Many of our team have been with us for a long time, and recently, alongside Mark, we have managed to attract talent from brands that we have always looked up to, with new recruits across the businesses from such luminaries as Wagamama, Soho House, Honest Burger and Five guys. It makes us proud that talented hospitality professionals share our vision, and are now part of our journey.

At leadership level, partnership alignment cannot be underestimated. I’m fortunate that my C&B co-founder, Steve, shares similar goals and aspirations to myself. He’s also at the same stage in his life as I am, which may have something to do with it. He’s in his late 30s, he’s married, he has 2 young kids, he wants to give them a good life, and he wants to enjoy the journey – one day at a time. Previous experience has taught me that having partners with disenfranchised visions of their personal future can lead to problems, without considering how they see the mid to long term future of the business itself.

Weirdly, despite now entering our 9th year, we still feel embryonic – and as a good friend of mine said to me a few years ago.. 

“Having a business is directly proportional to raising a child. At first a baby that needs constant attention, then a toddler exposed to risks owed in most part to overconfidence, then a teenager fighting off growing pains, then, as an adult, awkwardly hanging out with the cool kids, desperately trying to stay relevant”. 

With this in mind, C&B is still a primary school kid! 

I watched a documentary about Nando’s recently, and was surprised to hear that the business has been around for nearly 35 years. It opened its first UK site in Ealing in 1992. I don’t remember it as a kid, and I lived 20 minutes from Ealing. In fact, if you told me Nando’s was just a 15 year old company, it would feel about right – it only seems to have been prominent for a short time. The reality is it’s been in development since the late 80’s – and what a ‘system’ it has become. A trail-blazing and wildly successful restaurant company. 

I enjoy a Nando’s, just not as much as a cheeky Chicken & Blues. 😉 

Inspired by the Nando’s and Wagamama’s of this world, we have always wanted Chicken & Blues to become a ‘brand’ – and what we have learned is that this takes time. Incidentally, Wagamama will also be 30 years old next year. Considering 95% of restaurant startups last less than 24 months, it seems strange that it could take 30+ years to properly establish one. Using my friend’s analogy, maybe brands in their 30s benefit from knowing who they are, they care less about what others think of them, and dare I say it, they’re approaching their prime?

On a local level, there are a few restaurant companies that spring to mind when formulating a top bracket of ‘established’ brands – and they’re both privately held and independently run. One of them is Chez Fred, a classily delivered Fish and Chip restaurant and takeaway in Westbourne. Chez Fred is 32 years old this year. The second is Pinocchio, a traditional Italian restaurant in Bournemouth town centre. Pinocchio is 42 years old.

It may be that a restaurant brand truly establishes itself once it becomes multi-generational – by that I mean at a time when customers that have frequented a restaurant since they were children, start taking their own children there. It becomes a tradition, and traditions, as we know, are powerful.

Nothing pleases me more than seeing customers of C&B introducing their children to the brand, children that were just a twinkle in their parents’ eye when we opened a relatively short time ago. I also take great pleasure in customers asking if their teenage sons and daughters, who are already fans, can work for us. There are many young locals who will be able to say their first job was at C&B. In 25 years’ time, if we’re still around, they’ll be introducing their own kids to us, and so the brand enters Chez Fred and Pinocchio territory.

There’s a pattern emerging.

One thing’s for sure, is that for a brand to grow, it needs both ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ availability in respect of the market – ‘mental availability’ being brand awareness, and ‘physical availability’ being the ability to get your hands on the product. 

Chicken & Blues is quite well known in Bournemouth and Poole. We may only have one restaurant in each town, but our captive delivery radius exceeds 250,000 people. As such, we effectively have a 250,000 cover restaurant, and we’re currently feeding over 5,000 people per week. Not bad, but lots of room for growth, even in our own backyard. 

Funnily enough, I remember someone on Facebook commenting that our first shop in Boscombe would never work, suggesting that with only 12 seats, it was way too small to generate significant revenue. He was right, but this particular gentleman failed to foresee the burgeoning takeaway and delivery market. As it turned out, it wasn’t a 12-seater restaurant, it was a ‘virtual’ 150,000 cover restaurant, and we ended up selling the shop as the kitchen wasn’t big enough to cope with the takeaway and delivery orders it was generating – not through lack of seating availability. A problem of a different kind!

McDonald’s, the most famous restaurant brand in the world, has 1,300 outlets in the UK alone. It has achieved ‘mental availability’ through its global brand reach over time, and is backed up by incredible ‘physical availability’. You’re never far away from a Maccy D’s, wherever you are in the world. And now, with the launch of ‘McDelivery’, you don’t even have to leave home for a Big Mac – a quite incredible system.

As another example of the sheer force of McDonald’s, their McCafé sub brand is now the biggest seller of coffee in the UK, more so than Starbucks, Nero, Costa, and the like. What a force!

Back to reality…

Our next move is to head to a neighbouring town or city to give the brand and product a true test. We’d like to open a Chicken & Blues in Southampton, and are already looking for suitable sites. The strategy would be to achieve immediate physical availability with our delivery partner, Deliveroo. Our product would be available to the whole city through the app (around 250,000 people), but we would be effectively starting from scratch in regards to mental availability. We’re under no illusion that next to nobody knows us in those parts – so it would take time, through consistently great product, service and value, alongside clever brand awareness campaigns, to build a customer base there. 

As Professor Ritson points out..

‘Whatever stories you like to tell yourself, the reality is that nobody truly gives a shit about your stupid little brand’. 

Business, and life in many respects, is a value exchange – if you stop offering intrinsic value, things will break down, however great you think your ‘brand’ is. You can’t scale ‘charm’ for very long, and it doesn’t feel good for either party to do business on this basis. You have to deliver the goods, or you risk a product and market mismatch. It’s not about sales, it’s about customers knowing, simply, who you are, what you do, and being relaxed in supporting your authentic self.

I would estimate that it would take anything up to 2 years, and considerable energy, for the brand to get anywhere near establishing itself in Southampton. We feel we’re ready for the challenge when that time comes.

To put growth into perspective – if we were to open one new restaurant per month for the next 20 years, that would equate to 240 restaurant openings. We would still be over 1,000 restaurants behind McDonald’s total physical availability in the UK today. This is quite staggering – but then McDonalds opened their first on these shores in 1974, in London’s Woolwich. They’ve been at it for nearly 50 years, and Ray Croc, their main protagonist, has long since passed. 

What a legacy he has left behind.

McDonald’s, Dominoes, Chik-Fil-A, Five Guys, and such like, have been able to scale with pace through the strategy of franchising.

Typically, a network of franchisees pay you for rights to use your brand and system, with ongoing royalties of up to 10% of revenue, which the franchisor splits into brand fees, and a contribution to advertising costs to boost brand awareness. 

It’s a clever cyclical strategy, as opening restaurants is mightily expensive. The franchisor would have to raise considerable funds to scale themselves, be it internally through cash flow, or from a 3rd party. 

With franchising, it’s not capital intensive. Of course, when you get to a certain size, you will need to invest in central warehousing, distribution, and in-depth training and management programs to support your franchisees – but that’s not a problem when you build a pipeline of incoming revenues from deposits, alongside the ongoing royalties.

Large food operators, or sector investors, often buy territories, and have to commit to opening multiple sites of a particular brand, over a short period of time, as part of the deal. This may be a route for us in the future. 

As an example of brand trajectory, we could sell the rights to operate Chicken & Blues in 10 cities around the UK, with a commitment by the franchisees to open a minimum of 4 sites in each territory over a 2 year period. Suddenly, the C&B ‘system’ would be up to nearly 50 sites. 

The way the top companies franchise their brands differs – the bigger they are, the more control they demand – for example – the lease for a shop would be owned by the brand, and sub-let to the franchisee on a temporary basis. Things get complex, and costly, when you’re protecting your brand equity.

Food for thought.

Despite all this big chat, we will continue to walk to the beat of our own drum. Our mindset has always been to make small, and regular, improvements – baby steps that add up, incrementally, to giant strides over a period of time. The Japanese philosophy of Kaizen is etched into our company’s DNA – and we have a long long way to go.

Also, as Covid has proven, we never truly know what’s around the corner in life. 

This past week, as a group, we served just under 7,000 meals across Bournemouth and Poole, a record in our short history. For a small company, we are punching above our weight, with target revenues this year approaching £5million.

However, you’re only as good as your last (or next) meal in this business – you certainly cannot trade on reputation and past success. Our weekly management Zoom meetings focus much of their attention on customer experience ratings and Net Promoter Scores. As the saying goes…

“Success is rented, and the rent is due every day”.

Most recently, we’re proud to have launched our new concept, Flamingo, amidst the pandemic, which is now part of our newly-formed group, Aviary Hospitality. We’ve made a considerable £600,000 investment at that site – proof at least that we back ourselves, our teams and our ideas. We’re excited at how the venue has launched, and the reviews suggest our guests are pleased Flamingo has landed, rather flamboyantly, as it would, on the buzzing high street of Winton. 

Open from 9am-11pm, 7 days a week, it’s quite the operation, with team members on site up to 18 hours per day – there’s little time to rest and reset!

Flamingo is still a new-born. We have a long and exciting road ahead of nurturing the business and growing it into something we are truly proud to call our own, including multiple brand extension opportunities owed to the makeup of the concept.

For now though, maybe a period of consolidation. It’s been a challenging 18 months, and my feeling is that it’s far from over. Sometimes, the best mindset to be in is ‘just the right side of panic’. We have been treading water in this part of life’s ocean for quite some time now, and are beginning, dare I say, to enjoy it.

We’re looking forward to re-embarking on our journey of growing a dynamic hospitality group, both with Chicken & Blues and Flamingo, as well as a number of other concepts we have been developing. With so many ideas in the mix, and opportunities being offered to us, the name of the game is knowing when to say ‘no’.

Or, as my dad quite often says to me, rather directly and succinctly…

‘whatever you do, boys, don’t fuck it up’.

I think I’d have put my dad into the ‘skeptic’ category when we first launched Chicken & Blues. He was concerned for me, and wondered where the industry was headed in respect of takeaway, delivery, and online. He was an old school restaurateur in London, raising more than an eyebrow when someone suggested taking food away in a box, or even making reservations on the internet.

Since we’ve become a slightly larger business, now responsible for 100+ staff’s livelihoods, my dad has also pulled me to one side on more than one occasion to reinforce the learnings from his own business career.

When he was my age, my dad was Managing Director of Mark One, a fast-fashion retailer that he co-founded with my uncle (Mark) and my late grandfather Lesley – it was the Primark of the 80s. My dad recounts that the business was a quite superb company when it was considered ‘small’ – with 20 stores exclusively within the M25 and around £20million in revenue. We lived in London, and my dad was never more than 60-90 minutes drive from the shops. The business had an impressive net profit conversion rate of 25%, and it was manageable.

But they were on a roll, and went for gold. Gold being bigger houses, bigger boats, flashier holidays and heightened acclaim. They embarked on a huge period of growth around the UK, and 10 years later they had 110 stores, over 3,000 staff, and a turnover of over £100million. The result? My dad spent his weeks on planes, trains, and on the road, away from his young family – and with additional middle management, distribution centres, head offices, NED’s, and the unforeseen mid-90s recession, the business was less profitable with 110 stores than it was with 20.

The lesson? You don’t need to be a big shot to make a few quid and have a nice life. Respect what you have and look after it. Shooting for the stars may sound exciting and brave, but it also amplifies stress, and opens up the opportunity to fall from a great height, without a parachute.

You only have to look at the spate of well-known restaurant brands that have been ‘down-sizing’ over the last few years, through CVA’s and administrations, to conclude that my dad has a point. With ‘growth’ being their main KPI, they have taken on the wrong properties in the wrong locations and saturated the market with cookie-cutter concepts that cannibalise each other. They have become debt vehicles, lobbed from one VC firm to the next, like a dark, shadowy game of pass the parcel.

Maybe the public now prefer well delivered independent brands, especially after the last 18 months of the pandemic, when ‘supporting local’ has never been more prevalent? I’m by no means suggesting local businesses deserve, or are entitled, to have money spent with them – this is not how life works. However, I am seeing nicely curated concepts, owned by independents, having a light shone on them more than the usual behemoth chains.

In respect of my dad’s initial opinions on Chicken & Blues, quite often, the best megaphones for your product are the ones that initially doubted you. Casual fans will come and go, but converts have conviction, and will stick with you, owed in part to an element of self-discovery, and a feeling they were wrong.

I’m proud to say that my dad is now one of C&B’s biggest fans (as long as we listen to him and avoid fucking it up).

May we take this opportunity to thank you – not only for the unwavering support throughout the last 18 months of the pandemic, but for the preceding 6-odd years too.

Happy ‘freedom day’ to you this coming week.

Best,

Josh


If you want to get in touch, for whatever reason, email me: josh@joshuasimons.co.uk

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