All entrepreneurs need a product to get themselves noticed. But what happens when YOU are the product that’s attracting all the interest? BQ Yorkshire Editor Mike Hughes meets a young man with a lot on his plate, Joe Carnell of fresh food chain Ugot.
Technically, I’m old enough to be Joe Carnell’s grandfather - which makes me swear quietly at the same time as reminding me why I should be very impressed with this 21-year-old entrepreneur.
Food, music and style would seem to sum up Harrogate lad Joe. Each is important to him and have helped shape his character and give him the foundation for his endless drive. He is a T-shirt and jeans sort of guy, looks very healthy (although I’m pretty sure I looked OK at 21....) and can’t sit still at a table for more than a few moments.
Mix those ingredients together and the smoothie that pours out is the reason why customers and supporters are following his work closely.
He runs Ugot – a healthy eatery chain with just two links so far – at York railway station, where he has been for a year and a half and at Newcastle railway station for the last eight months.
“At the railway stations, everything revolves around speed, selection and accessibility.
We had to make it as exciting an experience as possible, but also be aware that passengers have around seven minutes from getting off one train to getting on their next one,” he says.
“So for us, as a new chain, we needed to persuade people to spend three of those minutes with us when there were the likes of Costa or Starbucks just across the way.
“For us, a lot of it was based around selection, so that when a customer comes in looking for a particular thing, we are not alienating them. We need to have the selection and make it quick, by having simple things like two serving points and more fridges.”
Carnell’s confidence in his ability to at least give the big boys a run for their money starts to show through as he highlights his competitors’ gaps and traps which he is determined to
bridge and avoid.
“The bigger operations are doing a great job, but I think they can lose touch with what the market wants. They are too focused on feeding the nation to be able to bring out a complete vegan range, where the other independent side of the market sometimes seems more interested in what you’re wearing than what you’re eating.
“It will be ideal to strike that balance where Ugot is accessible and fun, providing good healthy food without being pretentious.”
Those were the basic principles Carnell set out for Ugot (although the name was made up, it turns out to be Hebrew for cake) but they are the same steps that many young challengers would take. Which is where Brand Carnell needed to show its value as the chain’s USP.
He left school when he was 19 and was offered places at his top five universities to study Economics and Business Management. But – and brace yourselves parents – he decided he didn’t want to wait to start a business so he turned them all down.
“I sat there and thought that I could spend three years of my life studying, but I had been brought up in an entrepreneurial way, with my mum running restaurants and my dad in tech companies. So it was a bold decision, but I decided not to go to university. I didn’t really give my parents a choice.
“I had looked at tech start-ups, but it was Catch-22 - you needed to get £100,000 to set up, but nobody would talk to you until you had it set up.
“I had always been aware of trends after travelling in London and the USA. One of the big things out in the States is that people will travel miles for the right froyo. Frozen yoghurt is the new coffee culture. But we just don’t have the season for it over here, so I thought let’s just bring across that healthy and cold-press ethos and see what is being done in the UK.”
All the recipes – organic and locally sourced, of course – come from Carnell and his team and are brought together by Health Kitchen in Wetherby, with a particular focus on intolerance-based products for vegans and coeliacs.
Being on a gluten-free diet himself helped Carnell to fine-tune this approach, as he found it hard to track down food his system could handle.
“I spent four years travelling backwards and forwards to school down south (the £10,000 a term Uppingham in Rutland) and eating burgers. The result of that was water retention and bloating. But I was struggling to find the right food that tasted better than unhealthy food.
“I thought ‘wow – this is extremely frustrating’ and I wondered if this was what I found over six months, imagine what people with an extremely busy lifestyle are going through. So we did a lot of research around York and Leeds and I was all set to launch my first site at Trinity Leeds – I even had the press release written.
“Then East Coast got in touch and asked me to come into York station because they wanted more independent brands.”
The offer was a Grade II Listed “cupboard under the stairs” that had been the original lastminute.com store before it stood empty for 15 years. Carnell’s response was “Give me three weeks and I’ll be open”.
With the right demographic, a good footfall and relatively low overheads, it was a great start and with contacts from his dad’s property work and his mum’s food business the opening day was in his sights.
“I learned a message that I would pass on to anyone in this position – everyone has something to offer. So be nice, be civil to people you work with. You have to be direct and know what you want, but in a way that shows the passion you have.
“I am looking at a couple of new businesses now – things that I might not have had the confidence for a while ago. But now I have that confidence and know what I need, and I have those connections already in place.
“I know how to market a brand and what makes people buy into that brand.”
Given that a large part of Brand Ugot is Carnell, getting staff and support ‘scaffolding’ around him that also buy into that brand is critical. Any young entrepreneur faces that moment when they have to let go of a small part of what they have built up and trust someone else with it.
That also brings the realisation that you can’t take all the credit all the time. When you start out it’s all about you. The press and the customers and the suppliers circle you like moons around a new planet. But at some stage, to allow the dream to grow, you have to bring in support. And because they have to be really good, they will deserve their share of the credit and soon the business is still yours, but you have to start getting comfortable with saying ‘I couldn’t have done it without.....’.
“If you can’t get your corporate mix right, you are never going to be able to do anything else,” says Carnell.
“The first thing I look for in new staff is passion, because you can’t teach that. They can learn how to run a business and drive sales, but they need to see how much passion I’m investing in the business and want to be a part of something that is exciting. We give them all three weeks of intensive training in why we do what we do at Ugot.
“I don’t want to see anyone waiting behind a counter if there is no-one in the shop. Get out there and talk to them, educate them about us.” A key part of the Ugot brand is support from music giant Jamal Edwards.
This multi-millionaire 24-year-old made his fortune with music videos that his company SBTV put on YouTube and is now also making his mark in the clothing sector. He was made an MBE in the New Year Honours List and has invested in Carnell’s future.
“I was thinking of ways of promoting the brand with the music press and at the same time there was this guy in London who was best friends with Ed Sheeran and was making waves. I met Jamal on the street and asked for his card, went to the city to meet him and pitched the idea to him.
“His first reaction was ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about – I don’t really get it’. So I explained it more and more and while he admitted he knew nothing about food, he told me he was passionate like me. He understood I wasn’t there just to use him and that he would put his name to it and help us build the hype.
“He isn’t involved in the day to day running of the business, but he helps me market the
brand and tells me what I should be getting involved with to link to the brand. He’s been a massive help.”
In return, Ugot hosts performances at its station venues, giving acts a chance to access a wider audience with a live gig. The acts are filmed and sent to Jamal, who picks the best to appear in his hugely influential website, sbtv.co.uk.
Carnell is also setting up a music network with the likes of Generator magazine to help more young singers and groups.
“I have seen so many bands that impressed me - that I would offer a contract to if I could - so I think we are perfectly poised to act for the industry. I’d be a singer myself if I could actually sing.....”
Behind the vision and the image, there needs to be cold hard cash. So far Joe has not needed to trouble the big lenders, but with plans for the next Ugots to be city centre standalones and for perhaps around 30 sites in the next five years, money has to be on his mind.
“So far, I have had to beg, borrow and steal from whoever I can. The whole venture is privately funded, mainly from family and friends. That’s because it was easier – banks tend to be put off by a lack of experience but these people knew me. Although some of them have been in my life since I was born, so it was kind of weird going to them and asking if I could borrow £20,000.”
That approach enables an early launch, but it brings with it a great responsibility towards the people you care about most. But if the confidence is there, it also buys you the next step forward (in Joe’s case this was the first York store) which then opens the door to the banks, who can see something to invest in.
“Now I’m talking to private investors, banks, VCs and various funds to back the expansion, as long as it isn’t just a monetary thing – I want them to buy into the passion as well. I’ve already turned down £500,000 from one guy in London because he wanted too much of the company. I don’t think he was interested in what we were doing, maybe he just wanted somewhere to hide his money.”
Carnell’s motives for his future and that of the Ugot brand are clearer. As he says, he has no intention of “sitting on his arse” waiting for something to happen.
When he was setting up his Newcastle site, his mum closed one of her neighbouring Filmore & Union restaurants because Ugot was making a bigger impression. That’s an awkward one to bring up at the next family dinner, but it illustrates a rare depth of commitment and confidence. “I’ll never change what I am”, he says.
“People who believe in me know that I have shown over the last two years that I can perform, which can result in tangible bricks and mortar progress and – at the moment – about £60k net profit a year.
“I love what I do and the buzz of having a lot of work on. Someone passed on a great quote to me: ‘Work and work until your idols are your rivals.’ Leon restaurants in London were our idols when we started out and yesterday they followed us on Instagram, which means they are on our case. They wouldn’t connect with us if they weren’t interested.
“That’s great. We’re getting there day by day.”
It might not take too many more days for Joe Carnell’s name to become easily recognised and for Ugot to be a regular fixture around the region.