Sam Roberts, managing director of Boston Tea Party, the south-west-based café and restaurant brand, has a nice turn of phrase when describing his 18-strong group. “We call ourselves a delicate necklace rather than a chain”, he jokes. Indeed, Roberts has spent more time than most thinking about the ‘soul versus scale’ debate, as he puts it, in regards to fledgling owner-operator concepts reaching that tipping point hereby they make the jump from a local to a national business.
This is something that has been on his mind for a while as the group has grown steadily across the south-west of England and is now starting to impose itself on other parts of the country. Roberts, who worked in advertising at the time, bought the then three-strong business, with sites in Bristol, Exeter and Honiton, and also a franchise site in Bath, as a going concern in August 2005 and, in the intervening decade, has expanded the business almost sixfold. As well as now operating six sites in Bristol, the group has restaurants in Bath, Cheltenham and Plymouth, as well as one in Birmingham.
Boston Tea Party was originally founded by a couple called Ben and Nicky Saunter back in 1996, when Roberts was still at university, with the name referencing the famous political protest in which an entire shipment of tea was destroyed, leading to the start of the American revolution. “The historical Boston Tea Party event was seen as the birth of coffee drinking in the US,” says Roberts. “This place was always about coffee first and foremost.”
The Saunters had grown the business to a point where they couldn’t quite work out how to continue to scale it and not erode what they were doing, he says, which is when he stepped in. “My wife was pregnant, so it was that familiar story where we wanted to get out of London. I had catering in my blood; my parents ran gastropubs in London during the 1980s. I was brought up in them and wanted to get back into the hospitality sector.
“It was very much a coffee shop, but it had a lovely Bohemian vibe to it, which I believe it still has. There is an anti-establishment/anti-corporate feel, which is still something we are keen to maintain. One of my biggest challenges as we grow is the ‘soul versus scale’ debate.”
Not a multi-site mindset
The trick to multi-site operations, according to Roberts, is to try to minimise, or even better, eradicate the erosion of the original concept as you grow. “We are equally worried when called a chain,” he says. “It is a mindset. What we are keen to do is not have that chain mentality, which is just churning sites out with the same feel and furniture. Every one of our sites should be different. We believe that people have relationships with their local café more than with the local chain restaurant. It should be a similar relationship that they have with their local pub. When you stop trying to be different, you lose a bit of your soul. It just becomes this homogenised thing.
“You also lose staff who become disinterested. We give our management the training and focus to be able run their sites in their own mould. We do have a similar menu, but we have banks of things. So we will have a bank of, say, 20 home-made cakes and they can select eight or nine that work for them and the local market.”
To counter the chain mindset, the company actively seeks out interesting spaces or, as Roberts puts it, “different sites in different locations doing slightly different things”. He relishes acquiring sites that are almost Tardis-like by design, with a number of its premises having vast upstairs areas despite appearing quite small at ground-floor level.
“There is a core offer there, but what you have on your doorstep differs. The newest sites are more all-day cafés with food at the forefront, but that doesn’t mean we won’t open smaller units. Going back to when we acquired the business, it was probably around 30 per cent food, now it’s about 70 per cent food, that is where a lot of our growth is. Breakfast has remained massive throughout that time, that and coffee has remained our core offer. But beyond that we have developed a lunch menu, home-made cakes and tried to make sure that everything we do is made from scratch on-site.”
As the name suggests, the hot drinks side of Boston Tea Party’s business is key. Its tea menu stretches to over 20 different varieties and includes guest offerings and its coffee is also taken very seriously, with
the company big on filter coffee.
The group leans heavily towards a breakfast-friendly food offer, with an all-day menu that includes the full English ‘West Country’ breakfast, portobello mushrooms on sourdough toast and various baps. Its brunch menu, meanwhile, features The Boss – bacon, sausage, hogs’ pudding, mushroom, roasted new potatoes, roasted tomatoes, baked beans, scrambled egg and two rounds of toast – that comes served in a
roasting tin, as well as sweetcorn and chorizo hashes, kedgeree and pancakes.
Lunch is a lighter and more globe-trotting affair, with dishes such as teriyaki salmon, sesame chicken and lamb kofta pitta sitting alongside its ‘ultimate burger’, and toasted sandwiches that include chipotle chicken and parmesan; feta and olive tapenade; and goats’ cheese and roasted pepper.
At a time when many operators are trying to move into the breakfast market, Roberts says it is easier to have a strong early morning foundation already in place. His challenge is to enhance Boston Tea Party’s lunch and evening offer.
“With breakfast, people have built up trust in a place that has become part of their routine. What we are seeing with evenings is that to get people to reassess who you are and what you do is really challenging. Our core business is from 7am to 7pm. We have looked at evenings and I am sure they would work in some locations but what I have learnt over the past 10 years or so is to stick to what you are good at. It is very easy to be seduced by incremental revenue streams, but all you end up doing is transferring a resource into an area that is less developed and harder, and take it away from a part of the business that is thriving.”
Indeed, the brand has retained its café feel despite having expanded is food offer over the years. Food and drink is ordered at the bar, making it more suited to a daytime operation.
Keeping the party going
Having averaged only one to two new opening a year since 2005, Roberts is in no hurry to roll out Boston Tea Party across the UK. Instead, just like pizza and cider brand The Stable, he has made the south-west his stronghold, focusing on building a strong and loyal following before spreading the company’s wings.
That said, expansion has accelerated since the early days of the brand.
“We are taking it steady, which is our own decision and one we can take as a privately owned company. We are doing four or five a year, which is the plan, but we also have the benefit of not doing four or five a year if we see a degradation in terms of execution. We are here to build a long-term, sustainable business. We have the benefit of not having someone sat on our shoulders saying ‘pipeline, pipeline, pipeline’.”
The group’s newer, larger model sites are currently generating average weekly sales of around £20,000. “The previous six or seven we have opened are at that level, while the smaller ones will be around £15,000,” says Roberts, who adds that the company – which will turn over £16m this year, up from £12m in the previous 12 months, with like-for-like sales up 8 per cent – gets approached a lot when it comes to external investment. “Those private equity guys are bright, capable individuals, but we have funding in place for the next three years through a mixture of bank funding and cash flow. It also comes down to a question of why? We don’t need the money, we feel like we have a strong board and management team, so we are happy to trundle along under the radar.”
Birmingham and the Midlands is likely to become the group’s next cluster area, with two sites already open – one on Birmingham’s Corporation Street and one in Stratford-upon-Avon – and a possible three more to come. Following that, for 2017, the focus will shift to the south coast, with Bournemouth, Southampton, Brighton and Winchester targets. “We already have a café in Salisbury so there is the opportunity to develop from there. The challenge we and the industry face over the next two to three years, is that there are towns where you look and think ‘how big is the pie for all the concepts opening up there?’. That’s where the people at Loungers have been very clever, going into those unfashionable towns where there is a demand and rents are lower. There are opportunities and, like Loungers, we like to keep our rent levels relatively sensible. It is getting harder to do that though.”
One of the things that Roberts believes as being advantageous for the group is that Boston Tea Party sites are often seen as destination venues, he says. “We don’t need those high-footfall sites. Our site in Plymouth is a great example, where we are in a great building but slightly off-pitch.”
Whether Boston Tea Party can retain its ‘necklace’ status after further growth remains to be seen. For now, it is a brand that is keen to show itself off.