With only five years’ experience in retail, Avtar Sidhu and his wife Sukhi have turned a 350sq ft kiosk into a 2,000sq ft palace of fresh and chilled produce. Now, with a turnover of seven times what they started with, the pair exemplify the power of this category. Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski reports

In 2010, when husband and wife team Avtar and Sukhi Sidhu opened their first 350sq ft convenience store on an affluent edge of the midlands town of Kenilworth, it was turning over £3,500 per week. Five years on – and with a little help from a portable cabin – the business is taking in closer to £25,000 and provides locals with a “Waitrose-like” fresh and chilled-heavy range.

The story starts in a local Co-op where Sukhi was working as an assistant manager. “I have my own software business but my wife was doing 20 hours of overtime per week, days off in lieu didn’t materialise and – being a local key holder – she was compelled to be there at all hours,” says Avtar.

_-_DSC0621They eventually concluded that it was time for them to own their own store, where Sukhi could apply all she had learned from life in the Co-op.

The site they found was in need of modernising but both Avtar and Sukhi believed they could make it work. “The couple who owned it had been here for 30-odd years but I saw a lot of potential for the business,” says Avtar.

After spending a few years getting to know the community and its needs, the couple were ready to take their business to the next level. “At the start of 2013 we demolished the whole site and built a 2,000sq ft retail outlet with flats and front and back parking,” he says.

The work cost £650,000 and the new store didn’t open its doors until last October. Having built strong links with the community, however, neither Avtar nor Sukhi wanted to put them under threat. “We didn’t want to stop trading so I bought a temporary cabin and we traded out of that for nearly a year,” he says.

It might have been only a 10x20ft unit but there was still space for two chillers. “We felt it was the right thing to do to remain open, but it also kept the community’s interest in the project alive.”

When the store finally did open eight months ago – under the name Sukhi’s Simply Fresh – it bore all the hallmarks of two ambitious retailers who had done their homework.

Bean-to-cup coffee, LED screens to communicate offers and community events and shopfittings by Wanzl (the company behind M&S, B&Q and French supermarket Carrefour), every detail shows thought and passion.

“We realised fresh and chilled was going to be one of the fundamental parts of the business so we put a lot of refrigeration in the store. This allowed us to cross merchandise products, for example we have salad dressings next to our chilled vegetables and herbs from a local market,” says Avtar.

We scan and date check chilled and dairy twice a day, but I see the products we remove as ‘positive waste’. It is an investment in the future success of our business

His commitment to the store’s fresh and chilled range is reflected in his attitude to wastage. “We scan and date check chilled and dairy twice a day, but I see the products we remove as ‘positive waste’. It is an investment in the future success of our business and, if you’re not producing waste, you are not testing the limits of a category’s sales.” This goes as much for the store’s range of gluten-free, lactose-free and meat-free specialist foods as it does for staples such as milk.

In addition, the couple have brought to life the freshness of their range by employing a chef who, every morning, makes sandwiches, wraps and salads to be sold that day.

Yet, while the couple embrace the latest trends of retail, they are also aware of the value of old-fashioned good customer service. The new store has given them room to add in a post office to the site for the first time in 35 years.

And when a regular customer came in recently, Avtar used his new LED screens to announce “Happy Birthday Joanne”.

It’s this willingness to use technology and follow retail trends, while not forgetting the basics of great independent retailing, which Avtar believes can keep his and his wife’s store going from strength to strength. “The goal is to turnover £30,000 per week by the end of this year,” he says.

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Other retailers who have mastered fresh and chilled:

Former research scientist Kate Mills knows the right formula

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Ian Mitchell knows all about taking opportunities

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