Belgique is a new bakery-café concept with deep breath a bakery, coffee shop, freshly made sandwiches, patisserie, chocolaterie, celebration cakes and a deli. With eight shops, 500 retail lines, 250 birthday cakes a month and thousands of boxes of chocolates, it’s no wonder Igor Bekaert says he has taken only one day off in 60.
With a CV that includes a long stint at Patisserie Valerie before setting up his own bakery wholesaler, Bekaert & Dupont since sold to finance the retail side Bekaert has switched his retailer brain to turning a few modern bakery truisms on their head. Let’s tick them off one by one.
Rule 1: Food-to-go is king
When he started out in retail, Bekaert was advised by professional shopfitters to focus on sandwiches and take-away. "I said no!" he exclaims. "I’ve always been skeptical. That’s what you see everywhere." Initially he set out to be retail only no tables, no chairs and it didn’t work. "You just can’t take enough money," he says.
A tweak of the concept to a 50/50 retail/café split means he easily gets sites under A1 retail licence as well as A3 restaurant sites. "Even if the council takes me to court, it takes me 10 minutes to prove I am actually a retailer," he says.
Rule 2: Feature prominent menu boards
Belgique doesn’t. So how does it communicate all those concepts to the customer? "We kind of don’t," shrugs Bekaert. "You have heavily branded bakeries out there with price boards and meal deals and blah blah blah. We’re the other way round.
"I have no problem with people coming in and being confused. It’s up to the staff to notice that and offer help. I’d rather the first impression not be the price but the wow factor." This seems to work: 80% of customers are estimated to be regulars and, of that figure, 70% come three-to-four times a week. "They find out what we do in their own way, at their own tempo," he explains. "It’s not pushed in their face like Starbucks."
Rule 3: Coffee is core
True, but while Belgique does a decent coffee, the real profit comes from the eat-in food.
"You can go to my place, it will be choc-a-bloc and everybody will be having food. You go to Caffè Nero and there will be three people with just a coffee." At the same time, many cafés suffer home-away-from-home loafer-attracting syndrome. "There are too many doing the cosy corners thing... People will still be there having the same coffee after 45 minutes. Here, they will have coffee, they might have a sandwich, they will be tempted by the patisserie counters."
Instead he follows his own shopfitting rules:
Rule 1: Don’t dilly dally
It’s crucial to get the shops open as fast as possible: number one, money starts rolling in to pay for the fittings; number two, you enjoy more of your free rent period. "It’s not difficult to get six months rent-free, but you see people taking a year to open up," he shakes his head.
Also, recognise and admit mistakes early, he urges. The first error was squeezing the Belgique concept into too small a site a 750sq ft unit in Epping High Street. Not enough table space meant he couldn’t hit the 50/50 retail/on-site turnover split. They bought the next-door shop, knocked through and tripled turnover at a stroke, making the shop profitable.
Rule 2: Organise cleverly
With so many elements to the business, Bekaert manages it through nifty organising. Very few things have a single use, he states, and many elements overlap, making it cost-effective. For example, the deli counter doubles as the stock fridge for sandwich fillings.
"From a management point of view, it’s about being organised having one person checking the admin, another checking the management and me basically in charge of the concept. If your staff understand your concept, they live and breathe it for you."
Rule 3: Keep control
He gets costs down by knowing contractors’ charges before even they do. "I knew I had three shops coming up over six months, so I sat down with everyone and said, ’Look, this is my total budget.’ They don’t even have to give me a price".
For example, he agreed a contract of £50,000 up-front for the electrics for three shops. "I knew the electrician and his colleague’s day tariff was X-amount of money, so if they come every day for 26 weeks, I calculate that amounts to £40,000; I calculate all they need to buy is two fuse boards and cabling. plus materials, which costs £10,000. They nod and that’s it! I’m in control and I tell them how much it will cost."