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A java journey: how one walk led to franchising glory

Written by Eric Johansson on Thursday, 09 March 2017. Posted in Interviews

Simon Vardy escaped the daily grind of nine-to-five jobs by launching Costa Coffee franchise company Sim Trava

A java journey: how one walk led to franchising glory

It’s not often you hear entrepreneurs credit serious illness as a major inspiration. However, Simon Vardy is no ordinary franchisee. After being diagnosed with cancer, Vardy had to have a major operation and forced himself to venture outside for a daily walk as a part of his recovery. “But it left me in so much pain that all I wanted to do was to just sit down and have a good cup of coffee,” he says. As this was back in 2004 before the barista trend had really hit these shores, it was almost impossible to kick back with a decent mug of java. Fortunately, the experience did have at least one positive outcome. “Having spent some time in America and Australia and seen how gigantic the market was over there, it made me realise that there was a huge opportunity for coffee shops in the UK,” Vardy says. The experience was the push he needed to quit his job and become a franchisee with Costa Coffee, the coffee-shop franchise.

While this may have provided the final push he needed to leave his job, the idea of quitting had been brewing for a while. “I basically had a mid-life crisis,” Simon Vardy says. “I was 44 years old and the only next step was to become a managing director but I just felt that I needed to do something for myself.” In a bid to take control of his own destiny, he began to contemplate turning his hand to franchising. Having realised the enormous potential the coffee market represented, all that was left to do was to pick the right franchise. And Costa stood out from the crowd. “They ticked every box,” Vardy says. “Even if it had just launched the franchise model, the brand still had huge recognition and as it was part of Whitbread it seemed like a safe option.” Considering these benefits, it really was a no-brainer: he and his wife Tracy took the leap and set up their franchising business together, amalgamating their names to give it the moniker Sim Trava.

After acing the franchisor’s recruitment process – during which the couple presented a business plan and went through a series of interviews – they were left with the challenge of raising money to fund their enterprise. “Luckily, I’d received a huge bonus from my old job,” says Vardy. While this provided half of the investment they needed to set up their first outlet, the rest was provided by a loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland backed by the Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme, which essentially meant that the government guaranteed the loan. “That provided us with a lot of security because it meant that the bank couldn’t take our house if something went wrong,” says Vardy.

Having secured the funds to open their new enterprise in January 2005, the couple only had to find the perfect spot to base their new outlet. But finding one would prove to be a tall order. “We really struggled,” he says. “The landlords wanted businesses with a proven trading history and reputation, which you don’t have if you’ve just started out.” As a result, it wasn’t until August that they found their first spot in Stretford and started serving up espresso to punters with a caffeine craving.

Even once their first coffee shop had opened its doors and welcomed its initial customers, the couple still mostly worked from their basement. “It was really hard because we didn’t have a wall between our personal and our professional lives,” says Vardy. However, it would take them five years before Sim Trava had expanded enough that it was financially sound for them to move into an actual office. But once they did, they never looked back. “It was a huge advantage because it felt like we really went to work and didn’t have all distractions you have at home,” he says. Since moving to the new office the couple have made an effort to ensure that the two parts of their life remain separate and they never talk about business unless it’s really urgent.

The move also enabled the co-founders to double down and focus more on the business, which lead them to incorporate two stores of the brand Pita Pit, the pitta sandwich franchise, into the mix. “It’s a very different experience from Costa,” says Vardy. “Because it’s a new brand that isn’t as recognised, it’s taking longer to make a profit. It’s hard work but there’s definitely scope to grow and make money there."

But while it may take longer for the couple’s investment in Pita Pit to bear fruit, the other side of the business is looking increasingly bright. Not only did Sim Trava have a £12.7m turnover last year but it also just opened its 30th caffeine temple. The husband-and-wife team is also planning to open five more in this year alone. And they aren’t stopping there. “We have an agreement with Costa to get up to 44 stores,” says Vardy. “They will probably all be up and running by the end of 2019.”

Given the number of stores in the couple’s portfolio, one thing is certain: neither of them have to worry about finding a good cup of coffee ever again.

About the Author

Eric Johansson

As feature writer and resident Viking, Eric ensures EF is filled with engaging and eclectic entrepreneurial stories. While one of our freshest faces, he has sharpened his editorial teeth by writing about business, entertainment and fitness.

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