Owning an upmarket clothes shop in Leeds is also on Colin McClean’s CV as well as growing his coffee shop business, where rising costs are pushing up prices of delicacies like croissants, writes Margaret Canning
It could be Northern Ireland’s retort to the divisive English practice of serving baked beans with a fry.
But Bob & Berts co-owner Colin McClean is really proud of exporting Northern Ireland customs like pancakes with a fry into branches of the cafe in Great Britain.
The business, which was founded by Colin in 2013, has expanded to 25 units, with 15 in NI and the rest in England and Scotland. All but one of the stores are company-owned and run.
The expansion was fuelled by a £2m equity investment in the business in 2017 by investment company BGF. The business now has around 630 staff.
Colin detects differences between the coffee business in NI compared to GB, where he thinks nationwide and international chains like Costa Coffee and Starbucks are more “knitted” into the high street than they are here.
He and co-owner David Ferguson believe they’re exporting the cosier ideal of a Northern Ireland independent coffee shop.
“We’ve taken our entire, very Northern Ireland menu over with us, and it’s gotten a great reception.
“So in our newest store in Bury, you’ll get the likes of soda bread, potato bread and pancakes, which in a fry or a breakfast in England is quite uncommon. We also sell the likes of Tayto crisps,” Colin says.
“We’re trying to take NI culture and values over there with us in our menu and how our staff interact with customers.”
In Northern Ireland, Bob & Berts has stores in places like Stranmillis in Belfast, Belfast city centre, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Ballymena, and its latest NI opening, Cookstown.
The city centre branch is busy, he says. But a marked aspect of its success has been its spread around small towns, an approach it has applied in England and Scotland.
“We haven’t gone to the Glasgows and Edinburghs in the first instance and instead we’ve gone to the Falkirks and Dunfermlines.
“And it’s the same in England as we’ve gone to places like Kendal and Bury rather than Manchester and Liverpool.”
The chain buys its bakery items from French Village in Belfast and Graham’s near Banbridge but makes other food like its salads and paninis on site.
Like anyone else in the trade, they’re being hit by rising prices.
“I’ve never seen the likes of it in hospitality. Wages are going up as there’s a supply issue because it’s difficult to recruit and food prices are going up for various reasons.
“Brexit had an impact, Covid has had an impact and the war in Ukraine is having an impact.
“The cost of electricity and gas for some sites has actually doubled. That’s becoming a major concern. When you have 25 sites, the costs become colossal.
“For example, some of our sites are paying 18p per unit of electricity, and that deal was done before Christmas. But our newest site in Bury is paying 43p per unit, so it’s more than double.
“With general foodstuffs, it’s increases of 12 to 15% on a croissant, which is all butter, and we’re generally seeing all prices going up, average out at around 9%.
“The worrying thing for us is we don’t see it stopping there and we can see another price increase coming down the line, probably in the next four or five months. We’re actually in the middle of putting up prices. The reason we haven’t been able to do that so far is that the prices have moved so much over the last few months that we haven’t been able to nail down what to put it up by, to make it a reasonable price for the customer but also make sure we’re actually making a good margin on it.”
Some items have jumped in price so much they’ve had to stop stocking them as the price increases required would put off customers.
For other items, the menu is being rejigged. “We’re looking at different portion sizes or having add-ons in the menu of things that would be normally included, say a burger and fries, so the burger might be separated out so that it’s £5 and the side will be £3.”
But he knows that simultaneously, customers are already being clobbered by rising prices, leaving them sensitive to being asking to pay more.
“We see Bob & Berts as being that everyday go-to coffee shop. But we’re concerned that if we put up our prices by what’s required, that might be off-putting and therefore people might see us more as a treat rather than the everyday, go-to shop.”
It’s another big challenge for the business after coming successfully through the worst of the pandemic. He remembers the nail-biting early days, before furlough support came through from the government.
At that stage, the company was paying out £80,000 a week in wages but with no money coming in. But the government support, when it did come, helped stabilise the business.
“Covid was very damaging for us of course but it allowed us time to develop a really good takeaway business and then we started our own delivery apps which continue to this day.
“We opened our stores quite early on for takeaway and for delivery and that did buy in customers quite early on in the pandemic and those customers have stayed with us.
“Starbucks and coffee shops weren’t open in Scotland but we were open so customers got to know us and liked us quite well so we’ve kept those customers.”
It availed of cheaper government-backed lending by taking out a CBILS loan, though it’s been in the fortunate position of not having to draw down on it.
In fact, it has expanded its stores by five since the pandemic. “We’ve managed to expand the business quite significantly.”
That gets him onto the vexed subject of the planning system in Northern Ireland, which he finds torturously slow compared to Great Britain.
“To put it in perspective, it would take us approximately nine months to a year to get through the planning process in Northern Ireland, whereas in England, there is no such red tape, you sign a lease and start the following day.
“We’ve opened four stores on the mainland over the last year and only one in NI and that’s mainly down to the planning — that was Cookstown and it had existing planning in place for hot food which enabled us to open it straight away.”
More expansion in Great Britain is on the way, with a new store due to open in Perth in Scotland at the end of June. After that, new units are planned for Carlisle, Southport, Blackpool and Glasgow.
He would like to see political stability in Northern Ireland.
“A working Executive is obviously good for local laws around planning etc, and it can make a difference there.
“It is much better to have that stability in place… we operate across Scotland and England and it is quite nice to have that stability there.
“If we’re looking for sites across the water there is always that stigma attached to a Northern Ireland business, that it comes from a dysfunctional place.
“It’s always in the background. We’ve come from 30 years of Troubles to having an Executive that is opening and closing quite a lot.
“I think there’s a lot of: ‘What’s going on in that little place?’ It’s hard for the English or Scottish to understand Northern Ireland, it really is. It’s very rare to have a good news story coming out of NI around politics and the Executive and I think the mainland press paint a picture that’s quite dysfunctional.”
He lived away from Northern Ireland for long enough to develop a wide perspective, while doing a few different things, including running an upmarket menswear shop in Leeds.
Colin studied geography in Northumbria University, then did teacher training in Newcastle University.
“I was a teacher for five years in a Quaker private boarding school in West Yorkshire called Ackworth.
“While I was teaching I opened a clothes shop — a bit random — in Leeds. Eden Park has a franchise on Lisburn Road, so I opened a franchise of that in Leeds.
“It became very successful so in the end after four or five years in teaching I gave it up to concentrate on the clothes shop.
“I was there full-time for about a year and a guy offered to buy it off me, so I found myself at 26 years of age having sold the business and out of teaching.
“I came back to the north coast at Easter time and was blown away at how lovely it was, I was on the promenade in Portstewart looking at the sea. I said to my wife: “Now’s the opportunity to come back to NI and do something.”
They came home and Colin opened a bakery in Portstewart, before expanding out into three other coffee shops. He brought together the whole package in Bob & Berts. “I loved teaching and I loved the holidays as well which is one of the biggest thin gs I miss about it as my summers are now spent being very busy in the Portrush and Portstewart stores.”