So Roland, from fish tanks to pulling flat whites, how did that happen?
I’d been running the aquarium business for about five years straight out of uni when a friend asked me to go into a joint venture with him to open a coffee shop concept. I was going to finance it, and he was going to run it. In the end he had to pull out. I thought: “Let’s just go for it” and found a great little space on Bermondsey Street, London Bridge: £6k a year rent, no business rates, five-year lease, Council landlord. So the worst case scenario if it all failed was that I’d be down £30k if I had to close the door and wait for the lease to run out.
The first Watch House opened in September 2014 and it flew; it went really, really well.
What was the secret of its success?
Providing excellent coffee and food in a space that you really actually wanted to be in seemed obvious to me but nobody really did it. At that time, there were the big coffee chains where the product was OK and the service was generally good but they weren’t exactly inspiring places to be in. I felt there had to be a better way.
And then you took a year off?
(Laughs) Yes, well I’d gone straight from uni into setting up my first business and never had that break. So my partner and I took our sabbatical travelling through many coffee plantations and when I came back in 2016 I realised that the scalability of A1 coffee/F&B was very appealing to me compared to the aquarium world. Whilst the profits were great - the value of the aquarium business was always going to be in the people rather than the product. So I sold my shares and we opened the second Watch House near Tower Bridge which also flew from the off.
You must’ve thought: ‘Wow, this is easy!’
I did but I soon came back down to earth. We were lucky on the first two sites, and when we opened a third store on Fetter Lane in Holborn, got an alcohol licence and tried to do all-day dining but that really didn’t work in that location. I’d forgotten to ask myself the key question: ‘As a customer, would I go to this place!?’. If I had, I would have said ‘no’ – it was too confusing. It launched and made a small profit, but it wasn’t Watch House and it certainly wasn’t me.
So in the end we closed it for two weeks in 2018, completely revamped the concept and interiors including changed seating and we got rid of the alcohol. We focused on what we were good at: a best-in-class daytime café operator with great coffee and food and it began to really perform. It was an interesting lesson and today the site is our busiest coffee site.
You seem to have picked up the pace of openings since then?
Yes, we were trading really well at our first Tower Bridge cafe when Columbia Threadneedle, the developer of the nearby Courage Yard scheme, offered us a very large site on great terms, and that has gone from strength to strength.
Last year we opened in Spitalfields, and about the same time sold an equity stake in the business to our venture capital partners Edition Capital. This ultimately enabled us to acquire the Fernandez & Wells sites which had four outlets that are now changing to Watch Houses. Since then we have completed our Series B funding round and we are really kicking on.
So after Boris Johnson addressed the nation on March 16th did the sky fall in?
It was a shock for sure, but we quickly saw the benefits. We were due to open our own roastery on April 1st which would have taken us to nine sites, but obviously that had to be postponed. And of course things got very serious when we chose to close all our outlets which we did relatively early on. But the furlough support for businesses has been a real game changer. With 80% of staff salaries paid by the Government, we can cover the shortfall and keep the business ready to move forward again. In addition, we also launched our Project Pool scheme which saw salaried members of staff sacrifice 25% of their income to subsidise the hourly members of staff. This has resulted in 100% staff retention during this period. I was really proud of the team for this.
You sound pretty optimistic?
Well, we’ve clearly all got a long way to go before the world looks even remotely normal again but yes I have a bullish outlook compared to most. We’ve always wanted to grow the brand but only in a sustainable and quality driven way. No one likes brand rollouts - largely because a lot have been done so poorly over the years. But there’s nothing wrong with having a multi-site operation as long as that operation is always about quality. Watch House is in a really excellent position to springboard out of this period so we are excited in some ways and can see the opportunities already starting to become apparent.
And how do you achieve that?
It’s about authenticity. Keeping faithful to where you started and continuing to guarantee quality and excellent customer experience. Bringing your staff into that culture is really the key. Too many places just throw you an apron and tell you to serve someone.
There’s a chain in New York called Blue Bottle who are, in my view, the gold standard in terms of culture and having staff who understand what and why they’re serving. I went to what must have been 10 of their outlets one summer and there were all uniformly excellent. I later discovered that when you join Blue Bottle as a server you have a full five-day immersion course into the business - completely ‘off the tools’ - and their ethos before they let you anywhere near a customer. It was inspiring to me and we strive to better their approach.
There’s always going to be a clear connection between that sort of commitment and the quality of your offer.