Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Alexander Moore and I’m the co-founder and Director of Rosa’s Thai Cafe. Rosa’s is a Thai food restaurant business I set up with my wife, Saiphin in 2006. We now have 18 sites spread out across the UK and sell authentic modern Thai food, to the beautiful people of all shapes and sizes of the United Kingdom!
Our dishes combine homely authentic Thai food with local ingredients in a casual cafe environment. We built this business from a humble weekend market stall in the East End of London in 2006 and our current run rate revenues are now in excess of $25mil per year and growing.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My wife and I used to own a small restaurant in Hong Kong called Tuk Tuk Thai, which is still going strong today, but it’s now owned and run by others. After 17 years in Asia, we moved back to London in 2005. After moving back to the UK we craved Thai food but were disappointed by the Thai offerings in the UK which felt more to us like a representation of what a Thai person thinks an English person would want a Thai restaurant to look like! Photos of waterfalls, elephants and mediocre Thai food didn’t feel representative of the places we’d eaten in Bangkok and Hong Kong. With this in mind we decided to set up our own business and do it better.
Rosa’s started life as a market stall and office catering company, which served food cooked in our small flat in East London. We’d wake up at 4 am to prepare and cook, the kitchen was so small Saiphin would have to use gas canisters to cook the food, before ferrying it down in a taxi to the market stall in London’s famous Brick Lane. The stall was an instant success, we’d sell out every Sunday. Saiphin would cook amazing authentic Thai food using locally sourced ingredients, wherever possible, and in doing so adapted traditional dishes that are still incredibly popular in our restaurants today, such as the butternut red curry and soft spring rolls.
The market stall went from strength to strength, and so we opened more stalls nearby. I’d support all the logistics behind the stall, such as signage, electricity, pricing, and receipts. I’d jump on my bike to go back and forth to Chinatown to buy supplies as they ran out. During one of these trips, I saw a for rent sign in the window of a former English cafe called Rosa’s Cafe. I gave them a call, spoke to the landlord and put together a business plan, we then pitched against 20 other businesses to open a restaurant, and in June 2008 we opened our first brick and mortar site, using money we made from the market stall, some friends and family seed investors and Alex’s credit card! Due to our incredibly tight budget, we opened without a dishwasher and not enough money to finish the basement, it was left bare. We also had no money to change the sign, so we kept the name Rosa’s and so Rosa’s Thai Cafe was born.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The Thai restaurants at the time were nothing like the cool, modern restaurants we visited in Hong Kong and Bangkok, so we decided to set up a cool London restaurant, which just served great authentic Thai food, without any of the usual frills. We learned a great deal from the market stall, and the successes of the market stall became our signature dishes in the restaurant. I’m a big fan of testing on a small scale. It’s all about testing tweaking and failing. Our market stall allowed us to do all of this. Once we’d got it right then we could work on scaling it up.
Starting out we did as much as we could ourselves, I was writing agreements for the landlords, downloading legal documents from google. I did pretty much all the legal stuff myself. I've been an entrepreneur all my life and have learned a lot through the school of hard knocks.
For our start-up costs, we spent about $150,000 to set up, which is a fraction of what it costs to build our restaurants now! It’s amazing what you are capable of doing when you have no other options. If Rosa’s had failed we’d have been bankrupted, we were desperate to make it work and that’s the push we needed.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When we first opened our restaurant we had no money so there was no brand, to begin with. Rosa’s Cafe was an institution back in the day so we wanted to respect that, and the history of the building and the area. We left the name on the door and had no brand on purpose. No money was spent on marketing in the beginning but we used social media early on.
At this time Facebook was only just taking off. We had QR codes printed on the back of our t-shirts, which would lead to our website. It was perhaps ahead of its time as QR codes were in their infancy. At the time our digital marketing was complete and utter chaos!
We were nice to people, we included all the key staff in a very generous stock option when we sold and looked after the amazing people who have helped make Rosa’s what it is today.
What was effective, however, was word of mouth. It was fairly empty the first few nights, which lead to a couple of sleepless nights thinking ‘oh god what have we done’ however it became busy pretty quickly, gradually word got around and it just took off. The people who would visit our market stall began to visit us. Lots of people who lived in the area loved that we had kept the name as it part of the community. Kiera Knightly even became one of our regulars. This was a really trendy part of London at the time, and still is so we managed to build a reputation in the area. For us, the product was always the main draw.
The business could use some work, but the product was great because Saiphin is a fantastic chef. We had queues out the door, at this point, we were finally able to afford a dishwasher and a proper basement!
From this launch, I learned to do it on an absolute shoestring. This way Saiphin and I could retain more equity, then use cash to finish the fit-out. It was always about keeping control of the equity as much as we could early on.
It’s very hard to make a living from one restaurant if we could open another one with some money from the bank and other shareholders it would help make us stronger. In 2010 based off the success of the first one we decided to expand and we sold our house in Hong Kong to pay for it. If we hadn’t done this we would have only ended up owning a much smaller stake in Rosa’s and ultimately given up control. When we opened Rosa’s Soho it bombed.
We had tried to exactly copy our first site because we didn't realize it was a different market and a different vibe in a different part of London. You cannot imagine how stressful this was. We expanded our way out of trouble, we had the opportunity to open in Westfield, which was a great success.
We then went back to Soho and ripped it out and put it back together. We made it lighter and more in tune with the area. This is when we finally invested in a branding agency to create a fantastic brand for us. Sales doubled after this. We had 3 restaurants that were absolutely powering, and we were well on our way. That jump from 1 site to 2 was the most difficult we’ve ever made. It nearly killed us. If this wasn’t enough we also had a baby right in the middle of all this. Saiphin was working in the kitchen up until the night he was born and was back at work in 2 weeks later.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I finally had a little bit of breathing time from working behind the bar to working on the business, rather than* in* the business. We finally had a website, social media, online bookings and we started paying more attention to google analytics. I love tech, and so we started looking at the tills, stock takes, ordering systems and then, it was all about processes.
Once we had 3 sites and the brand was launched, we put together a really nice website. We used as much tech as we could to run the restaurants, web book reservations, social media started to really take off at this time and we gave all the sites their own Facebook pages. We didn’t set up our Instagram until much later. This meant we were playing catch up to a lot of other brands, but with such a great product we found it easy to grow a following as Instagram has a great food blogger community and global reach. So much of our early marketing was word of mouth. Good food was what got people talking about us and brings people back, it’s always been about the product for us.
Gradually we built a database using Wireless social and Airship, where we could keep our customers in the loop with a Bi-weekly newsletter, which included recipes and personalized bounceback offers. The idea is to drive traffic to our website. Recipes are a great way to capture the audience, especially if it’s a dish they’ve eaten with us before that can be recreated at home.
Social media was also a fantastic way of communicating with our customers, and humanizing the brand and should be a major part of any business’ marketing strategy. There is just so much content that can be shared and re-shared this way. It’s how we can stay in front of the mind when thinking about Thai food.
The game-changer for us was Deliveroo, there was this macro shift in the way people eat food, with delivery becoming more and more popular and Thai food is now one of the most popular cuisines on their platform. I was very reluctant to use Deliveroo at first, but it’s about keeping track of the way the world is going, and you have to adapt to a continuously moving environment. Delivery is now a huge part of our business, about 30% of all our takings are from Deliveroo. It’s crazy to think this comes from a company that didn’t even exist when we started out. It’s about being open to what's going on around you and adapting.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We sold a majority stake to private equity house Trispan in 2018. Almost exactly 10 years to the day of opening our first brick and mortar site. I stepped down as MD and appointed somebody to take over my role, and Saiphin also took more of a backseat prior to the sale. There are now plans to double in size in the next 3-5 years. This year we opened our first sites outside of London, which was a real operational challenge. I could not longer get to all our sites on my bike.
Our margins are excellent, gross margins are 80%, net margins are between 12.5-15%. Our distribution is 30% delivery and 70% remains in the house, however, delivery is gradually creeping up even further.
We try to keep a small head office team and give the general managers of all the sites a lot of autonomy so they can run their restaurants almost as stand-alone businesses, which makes us very scalable. Culture and purpose are very important to us. The purpose of Rosa’s is to create an inspiring environment that makes people happy.
Culture at Rosa’s is everything, arguably more important than the operations. Structure and processes at Rosa’s were key when we started out, our mantra was always structure will set you free. The whole idea was that Rosa’s grew not by working harder, but by improving our structure and processes. When we had 2-3 sites I was working 70hours a week, I knew when we eventually got to 6 restaurants I couldn't work 140 hours, so the processes were everything. The goal was to expand to make it easier, it's got to get easier as it gets bigger. If it’s not, then you’re not doing it right.
Short term goals for Rosa’s are reminding ourselves about our story, where we came from and remaining humble and grounded whilst also being optimistic about the future. We plan to double in the next 3-5 years and this is an incredibly exciting time of expansion for us.
Long term for Rosa’s, the sky's the limit, it would be great to have more sites across the UK and one day internationally, we really want to bring our food to as many people as we can. The US would be a fantastic market for us one day, at the right time.
Now I don’t run Rosa’s day-to-day I’ve set up a company called Atomex along with 2 friends from my Entrepreneurs Organisation Forum. My new goal is to help founders who have found themselves in seemingly impossible situations. I want to share what I’ve learned and helped others in the same situations. Building a business was so hard, Rosa’s almost broke me. But we learned so many things and there have been so many great people along the way who helped us succeed. I want to help entrepreneurs who have great products and turn around the business. The purpose has to be greater than money.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, even the mistakes. The mistakes gave me the greatest lessons and I hand on heart I wouldn’t do anything differently, I’m very proud of what we achieved and how we did it. We stayed grounded, we were nice to people, we included all the key staff in a very generous stock option when we sold and looked after the amazing people who have helped make Rosa’s what it is today. It’s been an amazing experience. One of my favorite quotes has to be “Set a goal so big, you can't achieve it until you grow into a person who can”. We’ve learned so much about ourselves as a people, we had to grow with the business and that’s what’s been so inspiring.
Recipes are a great way to capture the audience, especially if it’s a dish they’ve eaten with us before that can be recreated at home.
The habits of really good time management and processes have been key things in our success. The best piece of advice I could give is work from task lists instead of your inbox. Set goals. Of all different time frames. Goals that go all the way from 1 week to 5 years.
The best decision I ever made has got to be marrying my lovely wife.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I love workflowy for lists because it works how my mad brain works, lists within lists. As I said, work from lists rather than your inbox and you will see how much it will improve your workflow.
Asana, for project management. Again it works from task lists, but you can add your whole team, so it helps keep everyone structured and empowered as everyone knows their responsibilities and can see who is responsible for what. I find it keeps teams focused on what’s important rather than busy being busy.
We use Workplace on Facebook, as a tool for communicating and also the community. We stopped using Whataspp to talk to each other, so we can keep our private and work lives separate. It works just like Facebook so it’s easy to understand.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The E-myth by Michael Gerber all about the myth of being an entrepreneur and how to - most people want to set up a business to have more freedom, less stress, and more money. It’s a myth. Only through processes and structure can you achieve this.
Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed it’s all about learning from failure.
Instead of reading the newspaper everyday I read The Economist every week. I don’t want to be bombarded by constant news and developments, by reading The Economist, I can get a snapshot of what’s happening in the world once a week instead, it’s more focused and less clutter.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Always test your idea on a small scale. Let data trump opinions, and make mistakes. Lots of people want to be an entrepreneur, but they’re too scared of failure. That’s the only way you can learn. Retain control as much as you can. Give away as little equity as you can at the beginning. Fund however you can but bear in mind, the more shareholders you have the more difficult they are to manage and keep happy.
Leave a business while you still love it. That’s my number 1 experience share. For me, to step down whilst I still absolutely loved it was the best decision for me. I loved it and I was proud of it, and I still am.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re on a mission and are always looking for people in all aspects, particularly chefs, who are the cornerstone of our business. If you can cook send me your CV!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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