Having sunk his teeth into franchising as a Dixy Chicken franchisee, Yousif Aslam whipped up an alternative business agenda as the co-founder of Heavenly Desserts
What’s dinner without something sweet afterwards? No, not after-dinner mints or vanilla ice cream – think like Willy Wonka and dream beyond the ordinary. It worked for Yousif Aslam, co-founder of Heavenly Desserts, the luxury desserts franchise, which launched in 2008.
Although Aslam now finds himself the franchisor tingling tastebuds of interested parties, he was a Dixy Chicken franchisee before moving on to create his own network. “A friend and I came across Dixy Chicken through a recommendation,” says Aslam. “We cracked on and developed three stores.” Although the business was trading well, the fried-chicken marketplace was becoming saturated. Recognising this, he decided to tap into the then-developing desserts sector. “We were looking at concepts that were emerging and it was evident in London and across Europe that desserts were new and not yet trending,” says Aslam.
With this forward-looking approach, Aslam and his partner Mohammed Imran were able to effectively enter a relatively competition-free market, choosing the Midlands where they reside to set up shop, with the grand opening in Birmingham. “It made sense to open the first store somewhere we were familiar with,” he explains.
Being a first-mover in the market wasn’t without its difficulties though, as Heavenly Desserts had to effectively change the way people think about eating out. “When we opened the reception wasn’t the greatest,” he says. “In 2008 there wasn’t a culture of going out for a meal and then for a third course at a separate venue.” Building the desired culture took 18 months of perseverance, encouraging customers to either eat at home and then head out for a sweet treat or go for dinner at one location before moving onto theirs. This was achieved by recognising that food restaurants generally neglect their dessert menus, so Heavenly Desserts stepped up to the plate to concoct the best part of 100 options for even the choosiest of customers. “Evolving the menu was based on customer demand,” he says, recommending the flagship ‘I’ll have what she’s having,’ an American waffle complete with chocolate sauce, strawberries and chocolate-chip gelato.
As customer demand grew with the refinement of the menu, the two partners started to eye growth opportunities. However, they would bide their time until 2012 before Heavenly Desserts entered nearby city Derby in October that year. “Coming from a fast-food background, we wanted to get to know the industry we had no experience in, becoming acquainted with products and the different business format,” says Aslam. Being patient before opening a second branch paid off as it allowed Aslam to stuff himself with sector knowledge rather than jumping in two feet first, during which time the desserts culture and awareness had grown. “It was a very successful opening,” he recalls.
That success continued over the coming years as three additional company-owned Heavenly Desserts branches joined the existing Birmingham and Derby locations, so it was in 2016 that the franchising model was introduced to the business. “We had two options, either grow our customer base via company-owned stores or through the franchising route,” Aslam says. “We felt it was commercially viable to grow the store base nationally and share the success with passionate and motivated entrepreneurs.” Building on that, a good attitude is a crucial quality Heavenly Desserts seeks in franchisees, with Aslam believing that’s the core to success and a strong working relationship. “That allows us to ascertain the level of passion individuals have,” he says.
And it’s safe to say that Heavenly Desserts’ first franchisee had fervour in buckets. “He was looking for a franchise to take on that would absolutely support him and he fitted the criteria we look for in terms of an ideal franchisee,” Aslam says. The first franchise soon opened in Oxford and it was the first time Heavenly Desserts ventured south, confirming there was appetite for the market beyond the Midlands. “Franchising into territories where the Heavenly Desserts brand isn’t very well-known has taught us it’s a very successful business model, so that’s reaffirmed our confidence,” says Aslam.
And with confidence in mind, taking time to open stores and then gradually entering the franchise space allowed the company to avoid any challenges with franchisees, for any potential issues had been ironed out by the corporate stores. One example was ensuring customer experience consistency across each branch. “When going from a first store and starting to scale, cracks can start to appear and I think that’s natural,” says Aslam. “That’s the great thing about the journey – we have eight years of operating our own stores and made sure our internal infrastructure and support were polished before we went out to the franchise market.”
Interestingly though, going out to the franchise market happened organically as the company received speculative enquiries from people who were interested in joining Heavenly Desserts – a database that they’re still working from. “The pre-registered interest was based off the fact that they had been customers of Heavenly Desserts and seen the success of the brand and that’s usually the trigger point,” Aslam explains. While there is a wide mix of people interested in becoming franchisees, an amazing vote of confidence was that one ex-Heavenly Desserts employee loved the brand so much that they opened their own store in Liverpool. “It’s a great feeling,” Aslam says.
Recognising that franchises are only as successful as their franchisees, Heavenly Desserts makes sure to support the people who join the network. “They get initial training before their store opens” explains Aslam. But this support isn’t restricted to the initial training as the franchisor also provides ongoing mentoring and support for the duration of the franchise contract. “We’ve got a marketing team and PR and media relations person in-house who support the launch of franchisee stores with various methods that change from site-to-site on a case-by-case basis,” he says.
With the company offering a range of sites including a kiosk, 50-seat cafe and 100-seat cafe, while you may think new franchisees would want to test the water with a smaller operation, it’s the latter that’s leading. “The 100-seat cafe is more popular at the moment because the franchisees are predominantly in bigger cities, so they require larger sites,” says Aslam. “What we foresee, as larger cities are taken, is smaller towns and territories with smaller sites filtering in.”
Now with seven company-owned stores and three franchises, Heavenly Desserts is on track to scale significantly this year with eight restaurants in the making. “I think the industry is here to stay for a long time and it’s growing year-on-year,” says Aslam. And even though they may have fewer numbers than many other chains in the sector, the franchisor is confident about the future. “Those that survive aren’t necessarily with the biggest number of outlets, it’s those that provide a quality product and experience to customers and a proven profitable business model to the franchisee as well.”
And once 2019 rolls around there are even plans to take Heavenly Desserts into international markets. It seems safe to say things are looking rather sweet.