Opening an independent business in a prime location in Belfast city centre during a recession could be described as madness. As renowned high street stores were closing, a little piece of America was holding its own on the corner of Fountain Street.
But three years after City Picnic opened its doors, its formula has changed and its recipe for success now lies in the successful partnership of Arthur McAnerney and Gavin Gregg.
Six months after Mr Gregg joined City Picnic as a director, the business has doubled its turnover.
Mr Gregg credits that success to his background as a chef and Mr McAnerney's retail experience.
"Two entrepreneurs from different backgrounds, got together in Belfast to create something unique and exciting," he said.
"This building is amazing and it comes with 20 years chef experience and 20 years of retail."
City Picnic is a 5,500 sq ft American diner/grocery store, which employs 12 people.
Located in part of the historic Anderson and McAuley Grade 2 listed building, it blends centuries-old architecture with a quirky modern design.
Instead of tables, as its name suggests there are vibrantlly-coloured picnic benches, sauces are served in American soft drinks carriers and blues music dominates the airwaves. Image is everything.
"The work that Arthur has done here is amazing, there is definitely great potential here if we brand this right with the very popular American goods," said Mr Gregg.
Although a small, independent retailer, City Picnic is not afraid of its opposition – even the global might of nearby rivals like McDonald's.
Billboards claim that City Picnic's burger is 'the best in Belfast'.
Mr Gregg said: "The whole menu has been created by myself so it's burgers and barbecues.
"Rather than having a mix of different foods, where you could be competing with large stores like Marks & Spencer for sandwiches, we totally veered off that and went to a more unique, all-American hamburger and barbecue set-up, which is proving successful.
"We set our stall out with 'the best burger in Belfast'. We have been making that claim for five months – that is pretty bold – but the reaction has been nothing but positive. In that period we have sold 15,000 burgers."
Another successful initiative that has been introduced is that all the food is gluten-free, stemming from Mr Gregg's own experience as a coeliac.
But Mr McAnerney admits that since City Picnic was launched it's been a learning curve.
"The American theme just evolved. We had to work very hard during the recession to see what was working. The original design was an American-based design but we never thought about selling American products in it.
"We started out originally as a Spar shop, a high end deli and a sandwich cafe.
"It's evolved to an American store with barbecues and burgers on this side."
And now that they have got the formula right, the two have an application pending for a drinks licence with exciting plans for the 3,000 sq ft of space they have upstairs.
Mr McAnerney said: "We are planning to have blues, beers and burgers starting in September. We have also applied for an entertainment licence. It's a really exciting period, we are only just getting downstairs going and we have the same space upstairs."
"Which we plan to open in February for bands, open mic," added Mr Gregg.
Although Mr McAnerney and Mr Gregg would like to build on the success of City Picnic, they want to cement the brand first.
Mr McAnerney said: "We are a year away from that. We have to get downstairs and upstairs rocking.
"We think we can quadruple turnover here so we want to get that well underway. It's about getting it right before we expand."
Mr Gregg added: "There is so much potential in this one building, and we have to fill that."
Small can be beautiful and these awards can help prove it
It is difficult to be in marketing. You can’t trust market research, segmentation does not seem to work, the number of social media channels you can use is becoming a headache, competition is constantly increasing, margins are under pressure, advertising is not working the way it used to.
The bigger the company, the more difficult it appears to be — particularly if you combine it with staff that are not engaged, and a complete mismatch between the culture of the company and the brand the company wants to portray. And no real engagement with the customer.
Good news for us:
Which is good news for small businesses. They have the one-to-one connection with customers, they do have the passion, they ARE the company, so cultural alignment is not an issue.
Go for ‘heart share’:
In a world of information overload, that becomes increasingly important. You need to stand out and it needs to hit the heart. You can’t hold someone’s attention with something people do not
care about. Your story needs to resonate.
Emotional point of difference:
The key question is not ‘what is the unique selling point?’, the key question is ‘how do you change how people feel?’ Not USP, but emotional point of difference.
To do that, you need to deeply immerse yourself with your client, you need a deep understanding of what makes them tick. You need empathy and you need to care.
I am fairly sure City Picnic and DanGem know what I am talking about.
They care passionately about their business, their customers and their staff. All things small businesses should be good at.
Enter Business Achievers:
One way of showing your staff you care, is to give them some recognition — by winning awards.
Winning the Ulster Bank Business Achievers Award is one way of doing it.
Entries are open until the end of September. Get your entries in.
It will make you stand out, too.
- By Ron Immink, co-founder of Smallbusinesscan.com