Four Corners is a travel themed cafe near South Bank and Waterloo Stations in London. Four Corners has recently opened a second site as part of Urbanest, Westminster Bridge Student Accommodation.
Why did you decide to open your first business?
I worked in retail head office for a number of years, and headed up the merchandising team for a few retailers. It had long been a pipe dream to have my own business and launch a brand – I’d grown tired of just being responsible for one element of a business (merchandising) and wanted to be more involved in all aspects – and applying my skills to my own ideas was much more satisfying. Also, when the opportunity came up, there was a nice convergence of factors – a blossoming third wave coffee scene, multi-national tax avoidance scandals, post-recession breaks for businesses, and the growing popularity of free social media channels for marketing. Together, these things made the pipe dream a viable business plan.
Was opening a second site always in the dream pipeline?
Absolutely. This was always the launch of a proto-brand, rather than a lifestyle business. A huge amount of effort has gone into putting tone and personality into the brand and making it less about me personally – I can’t be in two (or more) places but the brand can.
Were there any brand new curveballs you hadn’t encountered the first time around?
It was certainly less of a high wire act than the first time. The first location was a year of ‘firsts’ which were both exhilarating, and at times, terrifying. First customer, first day on sales target, first five star review, first one star review(!) etc. Second time around you have more confidence to deal with what comes up, but the new site will certainly have its own challenges and peculiarities. We don’t expect the exact same product offer and operations to transplant exactly. It’s a completely different challenge.
Operational systems and processes can be replicated for multiple locations, but how did you ensure the business culture and brand integrity translated across a whole new team and environment?
Before even thinking about opening a second site, we had to be sure our first site was as bulletproof as possible – fully maximised, profitable, and scalable. This means the cafe needed to be 95% self sufficient and not dependent on me being in the business all the time. It takes time to instil operations, but even longer to instil a brand identity and culture that can survive an owner being pulled in two different directions. Even with some incredible employees, this took us a couple of years.
How did you approach staffing and recruitment? Did some of the existing team move to the new location? What effect did this have on your original space?
This was a huge challenge – part of running a business is succession planning and trying to keep the team motivated with new goals, roles and responsibilities. We knew we were opening a second site (so there would be great opportunities for people to grow) but not necessarily when. Having a plan in place for our team was essential. Some of the team moved over to the new site, which left us weakened in the short term. It’s difficult to avoid really – you can’t start with a brand new team and expect the brand culture and values to magically appear from day one, and you can’t split the team without inevitably diluting the skill and experience level. It may get easier as the brand grows, as we’ll have more brand documents in place (a handbook, more training guides etc) – not to mention a larger alumni.
As your business grows, are you beginning to see advantages in economies of scale?
Yes and no. If you’re planning to grow it’s crucially important to work with suppliers that are supportive and capable of handling the extra trade. Ozone has been a great support. Volume wise, with two sites you don’t move from buying a carton to a pallet so gains aren’t obvious, don’t expect too much – it did enable us to move to branded cups, something I’d always wanted, but didn’t have the rate of sale to warrant buying a year’s worth (and paying for up front). As the business grows in future, we should see some economies of scale.
What’s next for you, the business, the brand, the vision?
We need to stay focused on what we already have, and be wary of any new challenges and competition. That’s a given. We’ve worked too hard to let anything slip away whilst looking for something new. Now we’re established and have a wider brand reach I’d like to amp up the travel angle of the brand and make this the focus of our brand communications.