West Cornwall Pasty Co (WCPC) has come a long way since it was founded in 1998 about 150 miles to be precise, as it’s now based in Oxford. And the concept of Cornishness has been propelled further still, on a journey via the Caribbean towards the edges of reason, with the launch of a Reggae Reggae pasty, in association with Reggae Reggae sauce founder Levi Roots, last week.
This offbeat offering typifies the jaunty spirit, underlined by street-wise business brains, that has fuelled WCPC’s emergence as one of the fastest growers on the BB75 league table of bakery retailers (British Baker, 15 January). It grew its estate by nearly a quarter in 2009, from 57 to 70 outlets, with three more opening since no mean achievement in the current climate.
An eye-catching tweak is never far from its 20-strong pasty menu, and actually, there’s no questioning its Cornish credentials; pasties are supplied by serial Baking Industry Award-winner WC Rowe, based in Penryn, and plenty of products, from the jam to the scones in its cream tea, launched last summer, are sourced from the county.
In 2007, current chief executive Richard Nieto led a reported £40m buyout of the chain, backed by Gresham Private Equity, with founders the Cocker family and Mark Christophers exiting. The funding was then in place to add 50 outlets to its 42-store total, and a potential target of 300 stores has already been mooted.
"There is that potential, but we’ll just take 20 at a time, thanks!" says Nieto. "The important thing is getting the right ones open and making sure we employ the right people."
So what’s behind the positive attitude, when other businesses are sitting tight on store openings? "It’s the scale of the opportunity," he says. "[In 2007] we saw a great traditional product that was only available in 42 places 18 of which were in London. We’ve got a very successful business, but an awful lot of towns don’t have a West Cornwall Pasty Co, and that’s the opportunity."
To minimise the identikit chain look, the stores are furnished with Cornish memorabilia and feature murals depicting scenes from traditional Cornish life, fronted by a striking black and gold logo. "What we’re trying to do is create a national brand that isn’t a replica of itself," says Nieto. On the balcony of the store in Cambridge, there’s a fisherman leaning over into the market square; in Chester, there’s a 6ft pirate in the window. "We paint them differently, we put memorabilia and Cornish heritage in them surfing, pirates, tin mines so every shop is slightly different."
The priority is opening in railway stations and high streets. "That’s where the volume is," states Nieto. One tweak in the strategy is a refit programme involving more seating space to appeal to families, with kids’ playboxes introduced with crayons and games and a sausage-and-beans pasty for the kids. Opening hours vary from store to store, with some travel locations open from 6am until 2am the next morning.
"There’s an awful lot of competition," he says. "We’re competing with everybody who wants to sell a breakfast, lunch or an afternoon snack. Some days people want a sandwich, other days they want a burger - we want to be one of their choices. We’ve got a lot of custo-mers who have breakfast with us every day, and a lot who will have a pasty two-to-three times a week."
Stores had been confined to south-east and south-west England, but the distribution centre in Oxford, close to the M40, is poised for a break northwards. Stores recently opened in Solihull, Shrewsbury, Liverpool and York, with two more planned for the latter in the coming months. Despite the challenge of finding old-style buildings in prime locations, as befits its strategy, Nieto says others’ misfortune has led to better availability of properties.
"We tend to operate at heritage buildings in traditional British market towns or cities," he explains. "We do well in tourist locations, such as Cambridge or Canterbury, Bath or Salisbury. There are just as many places like that in the north as there are in the south, and we have a very successful store in Chester. It’s just about picking the right opportunities, fitting it out at a sensible cost and using as much information and evidence as you can get to help you with the decision-making process."
With 20 shops opening a year, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be eating Cornish cream teas in Carlisle.