Posted: Fri 25th Sep 2015
Grill Holland got the idea for a California style coffee shop while on a family holiday but a series of incidents meant the idea didn't take off. That turned out to a blessing in disguise though as he then met Ed Brown who helped re-ignite the idea and Friska was born.
The company now has seven branches in Bristol and is looking further afield. We spoke to Holland and Brown about the story behind their fast growing brand.
Griff Holland is a keynote speaker at StartUp 2017 in Bristol on 14 January 2017, one of three events that make up the biggest start-up show of the New Year. Book your ticket here.
The big idea
The seeds for Friska came when Griff Holland went on a family holiday to California back in 1999. As well as being a great holiday he was blown away by the abundance of fresh and interesting fast food as well as the warmth of hospitality that could be found in almost every place he visited.
The idea stuck with him and during his time travelling through India, Vietnam and Thailand he took every opportunity to do market research around food and drink; whether it was holding Chai Tea taste testing in India to cornering anyone with a vaguely American accent (sometimes a few Canadians were asked) to ask them where their favourite places were for lunch.
Finally the decision to go back home and crack on with the idea came when he was spending a ridiculous amount of time in food courts around Bangkok asking unsuspecting customers what they thought of his logo and cafÃ© name (which at the time was called Crunch). He got the next flight back and embarked on his first (doomed) attempt to bring that Californian experience to the UK.
Fortunately for Holland, Crunch failed to take off, in-fact it crashed and burned before lift off with the wannabe entrepreneur ending up in court (but that's a whole other story!). The reason that this seemingly unfortunate event was in-fact the "best bit of bad luck that could ever have happened" was that he hadn't met his future business partner Ed Brown.
As it happened Brown and Holland both went to the same university, graduated in the same year and even studied the same course but due to either their studiousness, their lack of sociability or possibly lack of attendance their paths never crossed until a chance meeting at a business networking event in Bristol three years after graduating.
The pair soon found that they shared very similar values, had similar ambition (although Holland's was always slightly bigger) but at the same time were totally different in their skills and abilities; a perfect match.
With Brown's help, the pair changed the name to Friska (which means 'fresh and healthy' in Swedish, 'fast' in Czech and is a Hungarian folk song which was 'Jubilant and Full of Life'), improved the offer and within 10 months Friska opened its first place in the heart of Bristol's business district.
Dealing with challenges
One major oversight that the pair made in the early days was not having any sort of familiarity in their menu which would allow potential customers to try their food before moving onto the newer more interesting things on the menu like their Vietnamese Pho Noodles or their signature HotBoxes. In short they didn't sell sandwiches.
Brown reflects on the early days: "The challenges were getting people to simply walk through the door and try our food. The reason was that our offer was quite different to the traditional menu that people had been choosing from for breakfast or lunch on the move. Up until Friska lunch was probably a chicken sandwich for lunch or bacon bun for breakfast.
"We really struggled, despite our fresh exciting menu, to change people's routines, to redefine what you can get a breakfast and lunch time and this was an oversight on our part. We realised that change is exciting but hard to do and we needed to 'take our customers with us'. Basically we needed to sell the best sandwiches around before we introduced them to all our other dishes and to start with we didn't make anything familiar, let alone a chicken sandwich."
Another oversight the pair made at the off was in not having a quality coffee offer to support their great food. The penny finally dropped when they saw more and more of their most loyal customers and super fans coming in for their lunch with a (admittedly superior quality) coffee from over the road.
Holland says: "The insight was obvious; understand what our values are, which for us has always been fun pride and develop, and apply it to whatever we do. When we launched we weren't particularly proud of our coffee offer nor was it very fun to press a button on a bean to cup machine.
"In 2012 we re-launched our coffee offer with handmade coffee using the best quality machinery, speciality quality beans and crucially expertly trained and passionate baristas. Over the years we have continued to improve the offer and now have a truly stand out range of espresso, single origin filter coffees as well as a growing range of Friska Home Brew options for our customers to buy and make themselves at home (preferably when we are closed)."
Dealing with the intense competition
Holland explains: "As a food led place in the quick service restaurant (QSR) sector (sorry about the marketing speak), we constantly need to innovate our entire offer and constantly be improving people's overall experience at Friska, be it in the food we make and serve, in the way we serve it and now in the brand extensions like our Friska Home Brew Coffee range and coffee master-classes that we offer to our customers.
"On the food side there are constantly new and interesting places popping up and it's our job to stay ahead of this innovation hopefully contributing to tomorrow's trends.
"This might mean thinking of new and interesting ways of presenting and packaging dishes and drinks (our customers went mad for our Vietnamese Coffee this summer) or adapting and responding to people's changing wants and needs in terms of the food they eat (our gluten free breakfast pots have gone down a storm). Ultimately it comes down to making food and drink and delivering it a way which makes people go "wow".
"On the coffee side of things we are no longer looking to the Costas and Starbucks of this world as our main competition but to the more artisan speciality coffee houses which introduce and (dare we say) educate people on the world of coffee. We are really proud of our exclusive relationship with Fazenda Pantano, Brazil's most progressive and sustainable coffee farm, and excited about the new unusual fruity coffees we have sourced with our friends at Clifton Coffee. Believe it or not this month's filter coffee from Ethiopia tastes of blueberries.
Brown adds: "Our aim around everything we do is to make it fun, interesting and accessible to everyone so you don't have to be a mustachioed hipster to get served, but without dumbing it down like the big chains do."
Being in Bristol
"Bristol is a great place to run a business, especially a foodie one", Holland says. "It strikes the perfect balance between a cosmopolitan city and slightly alternative big town; a mix which brings interesting people to the city and generates loads of creativity and energy."
From a size point of view Bristol was again the perfect place for Holland and Brown to launch Friska. It's small enough to develop a great reputation but big enough to grow within before looking further afield to places like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
With Brown leading on the commercial side of the business he reflects that Bristol was also their number one choice because of the "access to capital as well as an informed and well connected angel investment network.
"This allowed us to raise money and really focus on bringing our take on breakfast, lunch and coffee to cities around the country."
The challenge now as Holland says is "because Bristol is such a nice place to live, it's hard to get our team to look at moving out of the city as we look at opportunities across the country."
"We set a target when we first launched to take Friska nationally", Holland explains. "We want to have 50 Friskas in a range of cosmopolitan cities across the UK. We raised Â£1.25m in October 2014 from a mix of bank finance and angel investment to take our four stores to 14 by the end of 2017. We now have six stores in Bristol and are looking to open our first stores outside of our home city this year."
The best business advice you've ever received
Brown muses: "Follow your passion and jump. It's never the right time and always the right time to start something cool. Don't be led by the commercials as financial success is just a by product of doing something you love really well.â€
Holland adds: "Find yourself an Ed rather than end up in court; it's much nicer and a great laugh."
Tips for business success
Articulate your 'why'
Focus on people and be the best employer you can be
Understand why your customers come to you and always keep that at the fore
Griff Holland is a keynote speaker at StartUp 2017 in Bristol on 14 January 2017, one of three events that make up the biggest start-up show of the New Year. Find out more here and book a ticket below.