Beyond the muffin

02 May, 2008
With muffins the mainstay of its business, BB's Coffee & Muffins caters to a mid- market clientele, but its product remit has expanded hugely since it began and it welcomes suppliers who have done their homework, finds Ailsa Colquhoun
Page 14 
B B's Coffee and Muffins may be best known for its handmade and fresh-baked muffins, but the expanding franchise operation now sells a whole lot more besides - and its doors are wide open to suppliers.
In the 11 years since BB's Coffee & Muffins opened its first UK café in Maidenhead, the chain has grown, not only in size, but also in the spread of its food and drink offering. Muffins, as the firm's name suggests, still form the mainstay of sales throughout the chain's 180-odd cafés, and around 18,000 sweet and savoury muffins are baked daily from fresh each month. But they now jostle for space with a whole range of other sweet bakery products, including breakfast pastries, cookies, cakes, brownies and scones. These sit alongside savoury pastries, sausage rolls, pizza baguettes, sandwiches, bread bowls filled with hearty soup, and hot panini melts - not to mention the one million-plus fresh-filled baguettes that are sold every year - and, before you ask, egg mayonnaise is the top selling flavour. To wash them down, there's also the choice of blended iced coffees, milkshakes and smoothies, and for the sweet-toothed: ice cream, frozen yoghurts and sorbets.== Franchise model ==The BB's business model, which originates from Australia, is primarily a franchised estate, with around 95% of shops now franchised and 70-plus franchise partners in place. This model has allowed BB's to grow into the fifth-largest coffee-focused food chain in the UK, the number one in shopping centres and the 10th-largest coffee chain in Europe. But, with more franchising opportunities available, particularly in Ireland, and a stated aim of having 200 cafés by the end of this year, it is clear BB's is not just looking to appeal to tired shoppers seeking a five-minute break. New product development and range innovation also have the crucial task of attracting would-be franchisees to the company.Bakery accounts for around 35% of BB's total sales, and bake-off items for around a quarter of that. For Michele Young, who heads up all retail operations, including the company's buying, the most vital ingredient in any new product is that it can fulfil the core BB's brand proposition. This is that products have to be 'made fresh today' and be sold at a price that generates satisfactory margins for franchisees. She explains: "Suppliers must understand that our franchisees have to make money. A product has to tick the boxes for the business model we operate."Products also have to be right for the typical BB's customer, which Young, BB's retail and brands director, describes as "very mainstream, very mid-market". She says: "So, you may well offer a fantastic flavour or filling, but it still needs to be something that our customers want to eat."== Limited space ==Products also have to be operationally suitable for the stores, which can be compact and can have limited equipment or storage at their disposal. Overly complicated production also increases labour costs, which contradicts the aims of the BB's profitable franchising model, Young warns. It is worth noting that operational failure is the most common reason why trialled products fail to secure an ongoing listing.But, tick the right boxes and it's likely you'll get a good reception. BB's prides itself on its new product development and ability to react quickly to market needs. On the muffin side alone, each year, BB's serves at least 28 flavours - and that's aside from the 12 'Muffin of the Month' recipes. The seasons, as well as festivals, such as Christmas, all provide impetus for new product development, as does feedback from team meetings, franchisees and current suppliers. Customer feedback, whether via the website or via in-store sampling, is also crucial to a product's success. "Get a positive opinion on whether a product is priced correctly, or if the taste or portion size is right and there's an 80% chance of making it to a listing," Young says.== Speculative offers ==Competitors' offerings are also taken into serious consideration. As Young explains: "What starts off as innovation can quickly become mainstream, and that's when customers start to expect to see it as part of your offering." The same goes for speculative information, especially if it is posted rather than emailed. Around one in five speculative offers ends up in a trial or a listing, Young estimates, although timing can make a big difference to success or failure. Seasonal goods are often developed half a year in advance; so while it may seem odd to be talking about Christmas in July, it may be exactly what is needed. Category reviews - which happen on a quarterly basis - are also a good time for new suppliers to catch Young's eye and market trends, whether in favour or against a product, are key barometers of likely success; currently, traditional, comforting, homemade recipes are in vogue, especially if there is a modern 'twist'. A prime example is BB's new Yorkshire Pudding Wrap with roast beef, which has trialled successfully in several stores.Young is also aware of moves to achieve greater health awareness, and ingredients provenance, although in bakery, in particular, there is still a lot of space for indulgence/treating yourself. Describing herself as "a people person", someone who likes dealing with dynamic and innovative individuals, and who actually enjoys eating muffins on almost a daily basis, Young is clearly open to hearing from new suppliers. But, she is also adamant that any would-be supplier should have done their homework before talking to her.She says: "Suppliers need to know who they are talking to. You should have at least visited our stores, and you should know who our BB's customers are. You should also have some supporting rationale as to why you think your product is better than our current offer, and why it should replace another line or ingredient."----=== BB's fact file ===l BB's Coffee & Muffins opened its first store in the UK in 1997 and now serves over 50,000 customers a day in its cafés across the UK and Irelandl Its cafés break down as follows: company-owned - 17; town centre carts - 10; franchised - 115; Ireland company owned - 20; Ireland franchised - 11; Northern Ireland company-owned - 2; NI franchised - 4l Top-selling muffin: Sticky Toffeel The company sells over one million baguettes each year and the top flavour is egg mayonnaisel Each year, its customers drink the equivalent of two Olympic-sized swimming pools of coffee, mostly cappuccinos



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