Eight years ago I walked into a seemingly bombed out shell of a Little Chef in the village of Tyndrum on the beautiful West Highland Way, North of Loch Lomond. My great friend Sarah Heward had just bought this wreck with a view to turning it into a Café / Fish and Chip Shop. Water was pouring through the ceiling (such that it was), the place was a mess.
Eight years on and The Real Food Café has for the last two years won its category at the National Fish and Chip Shop of the Year Awards (Best Independent Food Outlet Selling Fish and Chips) and Sarah has just won the NatWest Business Everywoman Athena Award – for female business owners aged 36 to 49. It has been a privilege as a non-exec to watch the business grow and flourish. Here are a few observations on Sarah and her team creating the award winning business.
Have the vision: It really took something special to walk into something two steps shy of demolition and see this could be turned into hugely popular, multiple award winning food outlet. Great leaders need vision. This is probably the one trait that is farthest from being able to train into someone.
Execution: Vision is fine – but without execution it is just that. To turn it into reality you need to work hard, plan well and get a lot of the right pieces in place. Early on there is absolutely no substitute for being in there at the coalface – you have to do the hard miles and long hours – no one else does them for you (for 3 or 4 years Sarah was in the business 70 hours a week).
Focus / Attention for detail: Business is hard and complex. There are lots of moving parts. Decent businesses get most parts right most of the time. Great business get virtually everything right virtually all of the time. To do that you need to spend the time analysing and getting to the bottom of it – not just the bits you like dealing with.

You will need resilience:
Watching Sarah it has been tough at times. Long hours, the tragic loss of a partner, unexpected setbacks (the recession, main roads closing, etc.) key staff have sometimes left (others have more happily married!). If you are setting up a business expect to have to call on inner strength more than once – it will be tough and can be lonely. If you have not got that in you don’t start the journey. You will make it a little easier if you have taken in the good times and built support for the tougher days.
Weakest Link: Business is often like a chain – only as strong as the weakest link. Put the time into hiring right and training well – and remember this is a challenge that never goes away. It takes time and energy upfront but is the only way you will build a scalable business.
Great partners: The business has worked hard to identify and work closely with key suppliers building close, lasting relationships. By all means drive a decent bargain but stick to it, pay on time stay loyal and make it work for all of you. That way when you do run out of stock in the middle of a peak weekend you will get some help.
Customer is queen: Sarah and her staff have been fanatical about getting customer service right. They don’t want a chip coming out of the fryer, or a mouthful of cake that isn’t close to perfect (Sarah would aim for perfect). The business has always sought, and acted on, as much customer feedback as possible – usually by walking the floor and staying close to the customer. It has paid off in spades with high levels of repeat custom and great recommendations.
Even if the customer is queen don’t get pulled off track: Yes you want to totally focus on getting it right for your customers – but some customers you just should not chase after. Occasionally people walk into the Café and it’s not for them. The food on offer is a high quality take away / eat in. There are value options for the cost conscious but there is no concession to quality which comes at a price. The Café doesn’t cater for bargain basement food. Too often I see business chase customers who really aren’t theirs to chase.
PR: PR isn’t a free ride, and don’t start by thinking it is. For PR to work you need to get your business right – but if you get there, consistently, and if you are willing to work on your PR channels it is a great endorsement. Just make sure you are ready for it in terms of quality and time input.
Good Luck to the Real Food Café, Sarah and the team for the next eight years, although getting great execution right will go a long way to making your own luck.
And for those of you who fancy the best fish and chips you will find: http://www.therealfoodcafe.com/

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