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Breaking the mould: how Michael Arbuckle is upping Britain's cafe game

Written by Josh Russell, Emilie Sandy on Thursday, 10 November 2016. Posted in Interviews

Having helped spread Muffin Break across the world, the entrepreneur has brought Britain a bakery brand unlike any other

Breaking the mould: how Michael Arbuckle is upping Britain's cafe game

Whether its bringing the public tasty pastry treats baked from scratch or whipping up innovative new products like banana, peanut butter and caramel muffins, Muffin Break isn’t afraid of throwing out the rule book. And thanks to the leadership of Michael Arbuckle, the managing director of parent company Foodco UK, the franchise has become one of the most disruptive cafe brands on British high streets.

Born and raised in Auckland in New Zealand, Arbuckle is certainly no stranger to international travel. After graduating from the University of Auckland with a bachelors in business and commerce, Arbuckle took a position in the agricultural sector for a spell before embarking on an overseas experience – an extended working trip abroad that’s common amongst New Zealanders – working in the UK property industry. When Arbuckle returned home, he found employment with retail landlords before finally relocating to Melbourne in Australia to take a job with a shopping-centre development company. “That’s how I came across the Muffin Break brand,” he says.

First conceived of in Canada in 1989, the bakery brand was reborn in a time of changing Australian eating habits. “When the Muffin Break concept was first created, lifestyles were evolving and people were dining out more,” says Arbuckle. In light of this, Foodco decided the time was ripe for a cafe concept that focused on delivering freshly baked goods made from scratch, something that proved popular with peckish antipodeans. “Foodco developed that initial concept further in terms of store design, product and brand and it grew very quickly to over 200 stores,” Arbuckle says.

Impressed with the strength of the Muffin Break brand, Arbuckle decided that he wanted to play a key role in the next stage of its growth. “My wife and I acquired the license rights to Foodco brands in New Zealand,” he explains. Over the next few years, the couple built up a network of over 40 Muffin Break stores across New Zealand but it wasn’t long before they began to think about their next opportunity. “Once we’d developed that market, we formulated a plan to enter the UK in a joint venture with Foodco Australia.”

Part of the reason for their choice of destination was because Britain was crying out for a premium cafe franchise. “At the time, the coffee market was very much in its infancy in the UK,” says Arbuckle. “With our knowledge and brand, we thought we could make the difference.” And while he admits that deciding to up sticks and move to the other side of the world was a daunting decision, it didn’t take long for the couple to adapt to their new lives. “It was a major upheaval because we had a young family and there’s certainly a lifestyle change going from being New Zealanders to becoming British,” he says. “But we were happy with our choice.”

However, whilst Arbuckle’s family acclimatised fairly easily to these shores, adapting the brand to Blighty wasn’t as straightforward. “Just because a concept works in New Zealand or Australia that doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate successfully here,” he says. Not only did winning over institutional landlords prove problematic but it was harder to get traction in the crowded UK market than it was in New Zealand. “Whilst there’s a huge population in Britain, consumer behaviour’s a little bit different and there’s huge competition,” he says. “So there were certainly challenges and barriers.”

Fortunately, Muffin Break had a few tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, its offering of freshly made refreshments helps set it apart from so many rivals selling parbaked pastries or day-old doughnuts. “We don’t have any use-by dates on our packaging and we buy in ingredients rather than premade food,” says Arbuckle. “It’s baked and in the cabinet first thing and then gets sold the same day.” Using the stores’ ergonomically designed kitchens, the franchise’s muffinistas whip up a wide range of baked products, whether that be black forest muffins or butternut squash, rocket and walnut tarts. “There’s a broad range of products but they’re quite easily made and they’re all really tasty,” Arbuckle says.

But this wasn’t the only factor that set Muffin Break apart: it’s concentration on quality has also helped it rise above the competition. “The UK consumer is now a lot more educated in terms of quality,” Arbuckle says. “People will shop at a cafe that has the best coffee, rather than the best furniture.” However, this doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been plenty of attention paid to the franchise’s fitouts: a great deal of thought has gone into making Muffin Break stores feel like a welcome respite in a busy retail environment. “We use warm colours, a lot of timber and mood lighting, coupled with bold graphics and strong finishes,” he says. “That gives us a really nice shop front.”

In light of Muffin Break’s popularity, it may have been hard for the burgeoning beverage and bakery business to keep up with demand. Fortunately, the brand was designed to scale, as franchising has been built into its model from the off. “We’ve always been a franchised company,” says Arbuckle. “Franchisees actually own the business: we just steer them.” Having brought an experienced Muffin Break franchisee from New Zealand with him when he came to the UK, it was comparatively straightforward for Arbuckle to pilot and begin to grow the franchise. “In the first couple of years, we grew to four or five stores,” he says. “And the concept just snowballed from there.”

Signing new franchisees up to the network was trivial, in part because Muffin Break was a fresh entrant in a stale market. “There aren’t many cafe franchise chains but there’s quite a number of investors or operators looking for a business,” says Arbuckle. “And landlords won’t entertain a lease without a strong covenant.” Given that Muffin Break provided both a tested model and a chance for franchisees to get in at the ground floor, the franchise world was soon abuzz with talk of the new bakery brand. “We did franchise exhibitions, we were advertising at franchise shows and we got a lot of hits from our website but much of it was word of mouth,” he says. 

And when Arbuckle was signing up new recruits, he had certain criteria in mind. The ideal Muffin Break franchisees are partners with an eye to becoming multi-site operators of up to five stores, something that requires a very hands-on approach. “They must work in the business, develop the brand and maintain a strong staff culture,” he says. Additionally, because any high-street retail franchise requires quite a high level of investment, Arbuckle expects franchisees to have a strong commitment to growing their franchises: those looking for a lifestyle opportunity will probably struggle to keep up with the competition. “We don’t tend to sell franchises to people who want to buy a job,” he says. “You’ve got to be willing to look out for your investment and put the effort in.”

Despite this, franchisees aren’t just left to their own devices: not only does Muffin Break assist new recruits in obtaining finance from their banks but it also handles every element of the store fitouts. “We design the shop, secure approvals, get quotations and build the store,” he says. “We manage that whole process.” During this time, the franchisee attends training that guides them through everything from accounting to sales skills. And, once the store is open, franchisees also receive an additional four weeks of onsite training and ongoing marketing support at the local and national level. “We never leave them alone until we’re absolutely sure that they’re capable and running smoothly,” says Arbuckle.

And this approach certainly seems to be getting results for the franchise. “We now have 60 Muffin Break stores but we’d like to ramp up its growth a bit more,” says Arbuckle. He reveals that the key to this will be location: finding sufficient sites with the right customer demographics, footfall and levels of competition will be the key to taking the brand to the next level of growth. “We’re looking at adding ten to 12 stores a year so I see us reaching 100 within the next two or three years,” he says.

However, Arbuckle’s ambitions aren’t just about the numbers: another significant focus for the franchise is creating a range of innovative new products to tickle consumers’ tastebuds. “The customer is always looking for new products,” says Arbuckle. “Because of this, we launched the Muffin Lab, a focused initiative designed to create new flavours.” Since it was launched in January, the Muffin Lab has brought to life many curious cakey creations, such as chai-spiced pumpkin muffins, maple bacon muffins and the duffin, a doughnut-muffin hybrid with either a berry jam, custard cream or hazelnut spread and cocoa filling. And Muffin Break has no intention of stopping there. “We’re continuing to develop and introduce new food groups throughout the year,” Arbuckle says.

Without a doubt, Arbuckle has helped Muffin Break earn its place in shopping centres, high streets and consumers’ hearts. “Muffin Break’s all about giving people a break,” he says. With consumers being increasingly time poor, offering a respite for weary shoppers is something Arbuckle takes real pride in. “It’s a real treat for people to be able to sit there and have a nice coffee and something freshly baked,” he says. “That’s Muffin Break.”

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

When he isn’t tooling around on trains in a tux like the Daniel Craig of the Greater Anglia transport system, Russell spends his time living the glamourous life of an enterprise journalist, judging Digital Business of the Year at the National Business Awards and attending conferences like NixonMcInnes’ Meaning 2013. However, like all good secret agents, Russell lives a double life – in his case, as a closet revolutionary. Social enterprise, sustainable business and collaborative practices are his true passions, something that he has had plenty of opportunity to air in his features here at Elite Franchise.

Emilie Sandy

Emilie Sandy

Aside from dashing between the Cotswolds and London to shoot business types for magazines such as EF and TV stars for the Beeb, Sandy is also a visiting lecturer at a college in Stroud – not to mention a proud mother to son Freddie and daughter Fjola. She has photographed our cover stars since our very first edition. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke...



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