Waiting game for city chain that fed hordes of office workers
SAD. That’s the first word that springs to mind when Griff Holland cycles past his six Bristol cafes. They are all currently closed, the doors still locked and bolted nine months after they served customers their last coffees, salads and wraps.
The Bristol chain of “feel-good food” cafes was started 11 years ago by Griff and fellow Bath University student Ed Brown.
Since then, it has won countless awards for its healthy and ethical approach to “quick-service” food and expanded outside its Bristol base with sites in Manchester and Birmingham, as well as running a 24/7 operation at Luton Airport.
But, like so many hospitality businesses, Friska has been decimated since the pandemic and now its owners are trying to plan an increasingly uncertain future.
For Friska, the main hurdle to reopening sites is the fact its successful business model was almost entirely centred around providing food and drink to office workers in city centres.
With more people working from home now, that’s a problem for
Friska and one its owners are now trying to plan for. Griff said: “Our sites haven’t opened because the footfall just isn’t there and people aren’t back in the offices yet.
“Until 18 months ago, we thought it was a really focused, solid business plan to open sites close to offices so it’s tough. It’s really difficult at the moment.”
As people slowly return to work, many are still splitting the week between offices and home, which inevitably reduces footfall in otherwise busy city centres.
Friska has already permanently closed its Manchester and Birmingham operations and although there are no plans to shut the Bristol sites, it’s a waiting game until all restrictions are eased.
“We were hoping June 21 would be the start of things slowly coming back but we are going to have to wait and see what happens in a month’s time and pray that people start coming back to work.
“The business we’ve worked hard to build over the past 11 years was all about creating a really good go-to lunch venue for people in local offices.
“If we are looking at this hybrid way of working with people at home some days and maybe one day a week in the office, you are
looking at a huge drop in sales for businesses like us.”
The financial hit for Friska has also been serious. Although 36 members of staff have been furloughed, a few were made redundant and Griff and Ed have still paid full rent on all sites. The previously healthy Friska coffers are suddenly looking depleted.
But it’s not as though the Friska bosses haven’t tried to diversify during the pandemic. They launched a “Friska at Home” takeaway/delivery option last year but they found it hard to get the message out.
Griff says: “We soon realised that we’ve done such a good job building Friska’s reputation as a place for weekday lunches and as part of the day-to-day routine for office workers that they didn’t associate Friska with dinners or weekends.
“We were finding it very hard to get the message out there so maybe we have to look at that going forward.
“But things like rebranding are big decisions and need a lot of thought. As a quick-service chain for office workers, Friska has done what it set out to do, which is a place for breakfast, lunch and coffee when people are at work.”
Griff admits that the flagship Park Street cafe and the Friska at The Eye in Temple Quay would make sense as the first sites to reopen due to the footfall and the fact there has been a lot of new residential properties built at Temple Quay since they closed their doors in October.
“Hopefully, things will be better in a month’s time even if it’s not a case of bringing out the party poppers quite yet. Now that people are going to work less, we have to think about how we need to change the positioning of Friska so the offering continues to be relevant to our customers.
“But we do have confidence that they will come back to the offices, albeit in lower numbers. It’s just a waiting game, unfortunately.
“We need that sense of confidence and optimism for people to get back into the offices and when they do, we’ll be here and ready to serve them. That’s what we’re waiting for.”