The chilling threat from an unpaid Arab supplier came on Thursday 18 June 2009: “I know where your children are at school – and they won’t like what’s going to happen to you.”
Businessman Simon Ford knew he had to react quickly: within 48 hours, he’d packed his bags and was flying home to the UK from Dubai with his wife and three young children. Ford later heard that “certain individuals” had arrived at their home just after they’d left, which for him confirmed that the threats could have become “very real”.
Such dramatic events would have seemed madness to Ford when he launched Blue Banana in 2005. The luxury events and alternative gifts company in Dubai – specialising in racing car drives, balloon trips, desert safaris and similar jaunts – was turning over $4m a year and employing 20 staff. But then came the recession in 2009.
Ford, born and brought up in Solihull, recalls: “In Dubai, the economy felt like an invincible bubble, but it burst. Dubai itself was in debt and the bank started laying people off. We lost 70% of revenue in three months, and quickly fell behind with suppliers’ payments. People out there had never really seen this before, and the way they dealt with it was through personal threats. “There were some bizarre laws, like jail terms for bounced cheques. And there was no infrastructure for if things went wrong – everything was personal liability. Once the threats came I put my family first. I took out all the cash that was left in the bank, paid what I could to employees – so at least they had something – and returned to the UK with nothing. And I can never set foot back in Dubai.”
Ford’s career had started far more conventionally when he graduated in business management at Birmingham University in 1997. He joined Next on a management training programme, and spent four years learning the ropes at various branches before becoming the fashion store chain’s youngest manager at Oxford Circus, London.
He was sent to the Middle East to successfully open Next stores in Qatar and Bahrain, before being poached to run the Debenhams’ franchise in Dubai. Debenhams asked Ford to explore a luxury gifts product idea, but after red tape frustrations he decided to leave and set up his own business, Blue Banana.
Fast-forward through four years of growth and you arrive at the economic crash in Dubai in 2009, when violent threats saw a cashless Ford fleeing back to the West Midlands. He tells me it was a case of: “Right, I’d better plunge myself back into the business community to earn a living,” and before long he was running a consultancy, mentoring start-up businesses at Aston Science Park. This was a good stopgap, but 39-year-old Ford says: “It was all about other people’s businesses, and I really missed having something myself, something tangible, watching it grow, creating value. I wanted that again.”
As he sat in coffee shops discussing other people’s businesses, Ford started asking himself: “Why can’t Birmingham get this right? Places were either doing great coffee and bad food, or great food and bad coffee – one or the other was poor. I know to do one thing very, very well is a business concept, but you can’t get away with that in this industry. If you only do coffee well, people go elsewhere if they want food or other drinks.”
This philosophy became Ford’s new business: “I decided we’ve got to do coffee, tea, hot chocolate and food. And I insisted that we had to be the best at all these products.” The result was Yorks Bakery Cafe in Newhall Street, Birmingham, launched in August 2012, with 20% equity funding from Nicola Fleet-Milne, founder and owner of Birmingham-based FleetMilne Residential, and an unexpected £20,000 bank loan.
“People say ‘banks don’t lend’ in the recession,” says Ford, whose unusual middle name of ‘York’ provided the café’s moniker. “They’re wrong. They do if you have a good plan, but they don’t if it’s a crap plan. I only wanted a £5,000 overdraft, and I presented a business plan with intricate data: footfall, competition, what people were buying in that area, building up a detailed picture.
“If we captured just 3% of organic footfall, I said, we had a business. HSBC came back and said they didn’t want to give us a £5,000 overdraft, they wanted to lend us £20,000 instead – ‘because we like your business’.” Yorks’ annual turnover is now £700,000, with 18 staff.
How, from a standing start, did it make such an impact in just two years? Despite Ford’s commitment to other products – like the 20 loose-leaf teas sourced directly from China – he admits it “all centres around coffee”, and tells me about his painstaking search for the right supplier. He settled with Caravan, a gourmet producer of ‘single origin’ coffee, which means higher quality than most coffee shops’ blends. But great coffee beans mean nothing without the right machine, and Yorks became one of the first cafés outside London to use La Marzocco.
“In London,” Ford says, “good roasters won’t supply if you don’t have a La Marzocco. It’s solidly built and, crucially, has twin boilers, not one like most high street cafés. If you have water at the same temperature as steam, you can burn the coffee. But two boilers means you control temperatures, make more consistent expresso and still have steam for milk.” But even the right beans and machine can make terrible coffee without skilled baristas: “With single origin coffee there’s a really narrow window to get it right and baristas have to be tuned in. They constantly adjust the grain and timing, watching the colour of the coffee as it comes through. Each expresso might be a slightly different size but tastes the same. It takes three months of practice to get this consistency – and milk’s a whole other skillset.”
Ford admits that this perfection can lead to baristas getting a bit precious, and laughs: “Some baristas can have an ego, but I tell mine: ‘Look, we’re a coffee shop, let’s not be dickheads about it! Yes, be passionate and make the best coffee. But most people drink coffee and most people know how they like it.
“I don’t mind tact, as coffee can be an educational experience. When people ask for sugar, we might politely suggest: ‘Just try it without,’ because we steam and texturise our milk in a different way which makes it sweet enough. But it depends on the person: someone in a rush doesn’t need that.”
It’s this care that matters, says Ford: “The coffee could be 20% or 30% less quality and we’d still have a business. But take away the people and it’s not what customers would be into. It’s important to recruit shared values. In applications, we ask people two or three questions, like: ‘What’s the funniest thing you’ve done this year?’ Or: ‘Who inspires your passion for food and drink?’
“When opening, we had 500 applications and only 50 answered the questions. We invited 40 to interview – only 28 turned up. Only 10 were any good. It’s amazing what you find out in that process. We recruit for values and personality – because we can train for skills, but not for interaction with customers.
“Applicants only have a short interview, and CVs are largely irrelevant. I want that default smile. If you have to think about smiling, you’re not right. Then they get a trial four-hour shift, and that’s how we judge: their work pace; the spring in their step; are they confident talking to people?”
Yorks’ relaxed atmosphere is enhanced by what Ford describes as its “authentic, honest, back to basics” décor: fabrics and materials; concrete, wood and bare metal; reclaimed furniture, exposed pipes and wires connecting gigantic light bulbs costing £18 each; and walls filled with local artists’ works.
There are regular Monday jazz nights involving members of the Birmingham Conservatoire and sometimes, Ford says, “the occasional bass player from New York” who just happens to be in town and fancies a gig. “The key word is ‘memorable’,” he says. “I want people to stand on the step as they leave and think: ‘Wow, that was a great experience.’”
Yorks’ diverse menu helps. As well as expresso, latte and cappuccino products, customers can have coffee via four different types of wonderfully-shaped filter contraptions: the Chemex, the V60, the AeroPress and, of course, the good old French press.
And there are no packaged sandwiches or cakes stuffed with preservatives. Instead, everything’s freshly made in Yorks’ own kitchen: from locally-sourced bacon sandwiches to the creamiest eggs benedict dish I’d ever tasted; and from exotically-filled flatbreads to gigantic chocolate brownies.
But despite this ‘independence’, Ford craves growth: “We had someone trying to sign us up to an ‘independent business’ discount card. Independents already lack economies of scale, and here they were asking us to lower prices even more. I’m just not interested.
“To me, it can be the sign of a depressed, failing business to say: ‘We’re independent – support us’. Why? If you’ve got great products, fine, but if not, no. And while we might be ‘independent’, we do want to scale up, and we want people judging us on products and service – not on the fact we’re just one shop.”
This theme introduces Ford’s new business partner Rui Caetano, from the family who own the giant Portuguese Burger Ranch chain. Caetano has bought Fleet-Milne’s original 20% shareholding and 30% of Ford’s, creating a 50:50 ownership structure and, importantly, finance for expansion. A second Yorks opens in Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade this August. Ford – who now lives in Wilmcote, near Stratford-upon-Avon, with wife Mandy, 40, and daughters Myah, nine, and Darci, six, and sons Jaicob, seven, and Eli, two – muses on his plans.
“We’re a nice, independent coffee shop, and we want to maintain this feeling but also aspire to grow. It would be easy to bulk buy, stripping back our personality and the real reason people come here. We won’t do that. The new Great Western Arcade branch will test our systems, using [Newhall Street] as a central kitchen to serve both branches.”
A third Yorks is planned for early 2015, with growth targets of up to 32 branches and £28m turnover by 2019. Ford adds: “Can we grow the brand and maintain a soul in the business? That’s our challenge, and we will do it.”