After spending years working up the ranks as a chef and then as a contract caterer, Richard Garcia decided that instead of driving around the country setting up and making other peoples businesses successful, it was time he broke free and try it on his own like many other chefs before him.
In 2011, he resigned from his job and took a place on Richmond High Street where Cook & Garcia was born.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
On leaving school I trained as a chef in Carlisle, then spent the early years of my career working up the ranks of kitchens in Cumbria, Manchester before moving to London, where I was the Head Chef in a number of west end restaurants and hotels. In 2001, I made the move into Contract Catering working for companies including Compass and Aramark.
Tell me how you initially got into business?
It had been a dream, like many Chefs, to have my own place for years. I was getting tired of driving round the country setting up and turning around other peoples businesses to make them more successful, and wanted to do it for myself. So I resigned from my job in 2011 and haven’t looked back since.
How did the idea for Cook & Garcia come about?
Through previous roles, I had learnt how to create a food brand and offer- so it was a case of applying that knowledge to create one of my own. Whereas in the noughties there was an explosion of gastro pubs, I saw the growth in recent years more in the coffee shop/food grab & go market – and spotted a gap in the market that Cook & Garcia is hopefully going to fill.
Tell me about the early days, the type of challenges you initially encountered?
I managed to secure a prime location on Richmond High Street for my first site – but with Cook & Garcia being brand new, surrounded by all the well known global brands- we had to work twice as hard to get people through the door. To add to this, in our first year we had 5 high street chains open up in close proximity which made it even harder for us to compete as an independent.
What is Cook & Garcia? And what are you trying to solve with it?
Our offer is based around customers wanting fresh, made to order, great tasting food, which is locally sourced wherever possible and made from ingredients they can see and choose from. We spotted a niche in the local market dominated by the ‘clone high street’ effect, recognising that people are looking for a quality, healthy food offering and value for money at affordable prices.
Our daily offer includes a freshly made ‘grab & go’ sandwich, salad, panini’ range, made to order artisan deli, fresh tossed salads & daily soups. Cook & Garcia have also become known for signature gourmet roast sandwiches and wraps, which, like our artisan deli, are made in front of our customers to their preference. Our price point targets the magic £5 lunch time spend making us an everyday luxury.
How have you been able to fund it so far?
We have so far self-financed it through savings.
What advices would you give to entrepreneurs looking to raise funds for their startups?
Be realistic with your forecasts and budgeting and make sure that you have enough cash flow to take you through the worst case scenario – don’t skimp – it you are going to go to the effort of starting your business – then you need to go for it and give it every chance to succeed.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
The first few months were really tough – its great getting the business up and running, but until you are taking enough money to know that it is going to be viable – I can’t say I was really enjoying it. The fear of failure is a great motivator – so I was working long days and nights in the early months.
How did you initially get traction?
We marketed ourselves hard, with promotions to local businesses and residents to get them to come through the door. However, the most important thing was to make sure that when they did come in that every customer had a great experience – as the customers then did the marketing for us and word of mouth started to spread.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
Marketing has been crucial, keeping the name out there, especially in light of increasing competition. Our online presence has been critical using the web and social media to engage with customers. We have also expanded outside of the pure retail environment with growth coming from supplying business catering to local offices – this has allowed us to increase sales.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
To be honest every day when I see the shop full, buzzing with queues of people complimenting us on our food is a highlight. However, on our first anniversary we were named ‘Independent Sandwich Bar of the Year’ by the British Sandwich Association at the national industry award ceremony – that was a very emotional reward for all the hard work.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the Cook & Garcia team for 2014?
Having proven the concept in Richmond, we are now getting ready to scale. We are currently considering our funding and expansion options, so you can expect to see more Cook & Garcia’s opening up soon.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. Planning – do the research, try and remove unknowns, the more planning you do the less unpleasant surprises you will expose yourself to.
2. Never give up – it is tough and can feel like a constant uphill battle, but if you have a vision keep the faith, keep going and it will pay off.
3. Keep an open mind - the chances are you will need to adapt your original ideas. Listen to your customers, their feedback is not personal, and not everything you try will work, so make sure you listen to what they tell you.