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Case study: Barista Coffe House & Sandwhich Bar

I own Barista Coffee House and Sandwich Bar with my sister Denise Shields. Barista is a sit-in cafe, take away sandwich bar and has a corporate catering section. I oversee all aspects of the business, but mainly attracting new customers, working with current clients, improving customer service, staff training, human resources and exploring further development.

What innovative projects are you involved in at present?
We are taking part in Belfast City Council’s ‘retail therapy’ programme which has helped to move the business in the right direction. We work with business consultants who offer well-rounded advice and practical tasks to improve all aspects of Barista.

Why did you set the company up?
Barista opened its doors in June 2002, but we spent a year setting it up. It took six months to find the right location. I owned another company decorating apartments for rental and it was very successful. I was aware that the apartment market was going to burst, so I wanted to invest in a long-term business with my sister.

What were your biggest challenges in setting-up?

The location was the biggest issue — we wanted an area with potential, yet not swamped with similar businesses. We had a good idea of what we wanted and stuck to it. We really liked the village community atmosphere of Ballyhackamore.

What is your biggest challenge today?
Naturally the economic climate has had its impact, but we have doubled our focus on service, great food and an overall great experience. Our staff are brilliant. We have provided training on customer service, NVQ Level 2 and barista coffee. We bake and cook the majority of our food. Denise works in the kitchen and bakes all the scones, muffins, traybakes, cakes, cupcakes and sweet goodies. We source local, seasonal ingredients for our soups, stews, cooked meats and specials. We do everything better!

How will you develop the company?
We have some exciting ongoing projects. We are always looking for new ways to develop the corporate catering business. We provide a tailored service and have the capacity to increase this.

How do you market your business?
Mostly social marketing such as Facebook, Twitter, Small Business Can, etc. We have a fab website, with menus, pricing, information etc. We also benefit from word-of-mouth referrals.

How have you responded to the recession?
Efficiency has been improved — we demand better prices for ingredients, we have reduced suppliers to get better prices, we have bought a bespoke accounts package to help improve overall time efficiency and cost pricing.

Is cashflow an issue?
We bought the accounts package with linked wage package to strengthen cashflow. We now keep better track of cashflow, staffing hours, cost pricing and getting paid quicker for our service.

What innovations have you introduced?
We were the first local company to offer a ‘Friday treat club’ to businesses that value their staff. This is very popular in large cities such as Dublin and London and we see the trend developing here.

Are you trying to improve energy efficiency?
We use local produce and local suppliers and are talking to a carbon-zero coffee roaster.

How do you keep yourself and your staff motivated?
Denise and I always bounce ideas off each other and continually motivate each other. Our staff are great and everyone gets along very well. We offer staff development through courses and incentives. We have competitions for fun prizes and try to organise nights out — our Christmas party is soon which is our big staff night out. We recently won the Observer Food Monthly Best Cheap Eat in Northern Ireland 2010 which has been a massive boost for the staff and ourselves. Without the dedication from our staff this award would not have been possible.

Which entrepreneur do you most admire?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I’d love to be growing the food we cook and motivating others to cook good food. Denise admires Fergal Quinn, the esteemed owner of the Irish shop Superquinn. He has a no-nonsense approach to retail and has achieved great things.

What is your favourite gadget?
My laptop — I’d be lost without it. Denise’s is her Kitchen Aid, which she uses daily.

If you could do any job, what would it be?
For both of us it is this one!

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