The Grocer at 91
Kim Bates and Marcello Cinelli | Amersham, UK
The Grocer family now boasts three beautiful cafes in Buckinghamshire; two in Amersham and a more recent addition in Gerrards Cross. Although these towns are both only a stones-throw from London, they’re definitely very separate from the ‘big smoke’ and they still feel like small towns with close communities.
Kim & Marcello decided to open a business together in 2012, somewhat impulsively but with an instinct that their shared and varied experience could create something people would like. Marcello has a lifetime’s experience creating restaurants and delis with personality that thrive on the flavourful quality of his food. Trained at the Savoy, after working in his father’s neighbourhood Italian from an early age, he knows how to run a successful hospitality business. Kim joined M&S as a design graduate and spent 15 years working in buying and marketing when quality, value and service were still founding principles. From there she joined a successful start-up communications consultancy helping corporate clients bring to life a vision for their business. The result is awesome coffee shops that feels like the family-run local business which every community needs.
What attracted you to opening your business in Amersham?
Old Amersham is a historic market town, with a great mix of independent retailers, womenswear chains and fine dining. We visited several locations to get a feel for them but kept coming back to Old Amersham as we loved the atmosphere of the town. It was a place that attracted the kind of people we thought would appreciate a more considered approach to food and drink.
What are the key advantages to basing yourself outside of the big city? What are the challenges?
One of the advantages of being outside the big city is that we can interpret the best of what we have been exposed to over the years. Having previously worked locally and in London meant we’d developed an instinctive feel for what we thought customers would love. We hoped they’d be people like us who enjoyed great coffee, good food and interiors with a sense of style.
In a small town there’s a real mix of customers. Business folk who work in London but head in at weekends with their families, ladies who shop and lunch, Mums who catch up post school run, local business people who’ll have their meetings around the communal table and retired couples who have the time to appreciate the good things in life. When we set up the business we hadn’t expected to become such an integral part of the local community. Our regulars have become our friends and their support, wanting us to succeed, has been really inspiring. One of the challenges getting started, is people finding you. Our original shop was a little out of the way and although we wanted a soft launch it does take time for word to get around. Educating customers was another challenge. When we introduced pastel de nata we were constantly persuading people that they were well worth trying! With our coffee we’ve been through every issue whether it’s the size of the cup, the strength of the flavour or the temperature of the milk. It’s a learning curve but by taking time to talk to our customers, they’ve come to love what we offer.
You have some great team members who have been with you for quite a while now. What’s the secret to long term retention of young talent?
We’re family! In a small business it’s about learning on the job and supporting each other as a team. The new recruits are mentored by the more experienced members of the team so that they get to know how we like things done. When you’re in the midst of a busy shift, it’s the banter flying between the kitchen and counter that bonds people together. We encourage everyone to taste what we offer so they appreciate our coffee and food, and can genuinely recommend to customers what they like best. We also give them the opportunity to learn new skills – some of our best baristas learned from scratch with help from the lovely guys at Ozone.
Above everything we want to enthuse our team with a real love of hospitality. It’s great for us to see how our youngsters gain self confidence by learning new skills and truly engaging with customers. They take pride in what they do and we take pride in them.
Tell us about your recruitment philosophy. How do you decide who is right for your business, and how do you find them?
We’ve learnt so much about recruitment since we started. We now employ people for their attitude as we found that we could teach people anything about our business if they had the right attitude. Showing enthusiasm for what we do is really important to us. We ask everyone to work a trial shift so that we get a feel for how they approach the role – it’s not necessarily about bringing any skills to the job but it is about a desire to learn, the ability to focus and a warm personality. We advertise on both general and specialist websites, in our shops and through Instagram. I don’t really think there’s a magic formula to finding the right people but if you have a good reputation it helps.
I’ve noticed The Grocer team seem to be very close friends, in fact it feels like more of a family when I hear them speak about their colleagues. Have you actively nurtured and promoted this culture? If so, how? Or where has it come from?
When you own a business it becomes your way of life and we truly value everyone who contributes to this. We’re only as good as the people who work with us, so it’s really important that we look after them. Every now and again we like to eat supper together, maybe sharing a glass of wine and bowl of spaghetti around the communal table or sometimes we’ll have a team social. One Sunday we closed the shop and took everyone to a music festival in Hyde Park. It was memorable day and a great opportunity to bring the whole team together to let them know how much we appreciate all they do for us.
What’s your advice to business owners in their first few years of business?
Start modestly, learn what works and then develop your offer and your ways of working. Be particular about quality rather than quantity. It’s tempting to offer a big menu in an attempt to have something for everyone but the reality of keeping everything in stock and producing too many items too quickly can mean that the quality can suffer - less is more, at least to begin with.
It’s also important to define your ways of working, so that you can be clear with what you expect of your team as it grows.
Look after your team - they are your biggest asset and your best advertising. Happy teams make for happy customers. Find out what helps them shine and do all you can to support them.
And last but never least - be consistent in everything you do so that your customers know what to expect and your teams know where they stand.