Oxfordshire - Nigel Brookes & Sophie Rogers
Partners in life and business, Nigel Brookes and Sophie Rogers began their Riverford Organic food delivery franchise in March 2010. Nigel talks candidly about how a chance meeting turned their business ownership dreams into reality.
“We were lucky, because we were able to watch a Riverford franchise in operation for quite a long time before actually making an investment. I knew Jake Swinhoe, who owns the South Oxfordshire territory, and had seen him running his franchise for about three years.
He really seemed to enjoy it and do well out of it, and so I became interested in a franchise myself.
Sophie and I have always been passionate about organic food and had actually run our own horticultural business before looking at Riverford Organic. We were determined to be our own bosses, but going it alone didn’t give us what we were looking for. We’d been working every weekend, all through summer, picking vegetables on Saturday and selling them on Sunday. We did it for a year, and soon realised that we would be better off letting someone else grow the produce and deliver it to us, while we built a business at the local, customer level. Our experience showed us just how hard setting up a business in the farming and organic food sector is when you do it on your own. And because Riverford’s organic practices and ethical beliefs are aligned with our own, a better work-life balance seemed within reach.
The hand of fate
We told Jake about our interest in buying a Riverford franchise, but at the time all of the territories were taken. Then Jake had heard that another Riverford franchisee, Graham, was ready to sell his North Oxfordshire franchise. Within just a week, we’d gone from the dream of wanting our own Riverford Organic business to having serious discussions with someone who was ready to sell.
"Within a week, we'd gone from wanting to buy our own business to talking to a franchisee who was ready to sell"
The transition from our own business to taking over a franchise has been a smooth one. It has been successful working alongside Jake. We’re both Oxfordshire – he’s south and we’re north – and it makes sense to help each other out. If a van breaks down, we can borrow spares off of each other. And we’ve helped each other out with drivers from time to time. We’re really fortunate to have this kind of working relationship with our neighbouring franchisee, or the rest of the network. Jake’s been able to give us useful marketing tips, letting us know what’s worked and what hasn’t. It’s good because it means you don’t have to keep phoning head office.
At first, quite a few people asked us how we thought we’d find it – going from running our own organic food business to representing an established brand. But it wasn’t a problem. Riverford is what we market, and it’s the name we trade in. But it’s still our business. And after the difficulties of trying to do absolutely everything ourselves, getting the support from head office has made life much easier. We had our training down in Devon, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Nothing was hidden from us, so when we started operating, we knew what to expect.
When we took on the business, it was in the middle the recession. But we looked at the details and felt happy that we would be able to maintain the existing level of trade through the downturn, and then push for growth as the economy started to pick up.
The great news for us was that within our year, the business had grown beyond expectations.
We’ve really pushed at this business to drive it forward, placing ads in relevant papers and magazines.
We don’t come from a marketing background, so that side of the business has been new for us. But, as well as head office, Jake’s been there for support when we needed it. I think that’s one of the greatest advantages of a franchise network –†you can look to your neighbouring franchisee for advice. Jake helped us with our initial marketing activity, and was able to tell us what had worked for him.
Following the system
I attribute our success so far to simply sticking with the plan. It’s about following a tried and tested system. There’s really nothing unusual about our approach. We just keep on marketing consistently, we give our customers great service by treating them the way we would like to be treated, and every few weeks we do something different, such as a cookery club. The club has proved popular –†excellent for getting feedback, and helping with customer retention. Again, we worked with Jake organising the club, and got a local chef called Chloe in to cook recipes from the Riverford Organic cookbook. We supplied the produce, and charged a small overhead to cover costs. Last time we did it, Chloe made a little three-course taster sample, which included cauliflower and anchovy pasta, followed by a wild garlic risotto, and a chocolate a beetroot brownie. Everybody loved the food, and Sophie and I took on new customers. That was a bonus, as the clubs are more about giving something back to existing customers, and creating a community feel.
Friendly franchise advice
For aspiring franchisees, I’d say go through all of the paperwork, looking at the financial year in detail. Look at what the business you want is already making, and if you’re buying a resale, as we did, look at where you might be able to increase profits. I also think talking to other franchisees is important. We were lucky to be able to go out on a round with Jake, so we knew what was involved. And we got to visit the hub where the produce is delivered. Prospective franchisees are certainly able to arrange that kind of thing too.
And ask questions of people at the heart of the core business. Riverford head office listens to us, to our suggestions and feedback. In my opinion, that’s one of the best things about a franchise – there are so many heads coming together for the same goal.”