Wiesenhof: The Don of Coffee

Unique coffee blends, generous portions and a healthy dose of home-grown flavour make Wiesenhof a truly South African franchise.

Wiesenhof: The Don of Coffee

When Kobus Wiese bought his first coffee shop in 1996 he had no intention of becoming a franchisor. He and his wife were looking for a business that would sustain them beyond professional rugby and Wiese had always been interested in the food trade.

Of course, even with the self-titled coffee group, not everyone realises Wiese is the founder of this unique concept. We’re often asked what type of German blend Wiesenhof is, he jokes, although there’s no mistaking the ex-South African Bok’s passion for coffee.

A self-confessed ‘foody’, Wiese cooks seven days a week and appreciates an excellent cup of coffee. I enjoyed the espresso bars in Italy and France, he says. We would tour in Europe and each time I would be drawn to the concept of great food and coffee in a light, day trading atmosphere.

So it wasn’t such a surprise when he and his wife, Belinda, bought a coffee shop in the East Rand in 1996. We completely overpaid for it,î he admits. But the coffee was good and the store roasted its own beans.

The next two years would be a steep learning curve for the Wieses. With absolutely no restaurant training between them, the couple had to learn to run a coffee shop, hire and train employees, roast their own beans and create systems for the store – all while Kobus was still a professional rugby player for South Africa.

If I wasn’t training or on tour I was in the store, he says. For nine months we were in complete survival mode, working seven days a week to keep the store going. We learnt about stock control, shrinkage, theft, customer needs, managing employees, creating the best coffee blends – with no experience between us it was an eye-opener, and we had to learn fast!

One of the biggest lessons that Wiese learnt during that period, and one that has become integral to the Wiesenhof brand, is the power of customer service. The customer is king, it’s as simple as that, he says. Without customers, we have no business. One of the reasons that our stores have so many regulars is the fact that we really embrace this philosophy.

If you want something that isn’t on the menu, or to change a meal slightly, we’ll do our best to accommodate you. We want our customers to not only enjoy the Wiesenhof experience, but to feel that they’re really looked after when they’re in one of our coffee shops. People appreciate the personal touch we offer.

Passionate About Coffee

This was just one of the areas of growth that the Wieses experienced as they developed their brand. We had bought a coffee shop that roasted its own beans,î he says. I began to experiment with different blends and learn the art of roasting the perfect coffee bean.

We developed our own blends and began to offer a wide variety that changed from day to day, so that our regular customers could enjoy a different cup of coffee every day of the week if they chose.

Proud of the fact that Wiesenhof offers a true South African product that is unique to the brand, Wiese has focused on growing the coffee side of the business as much as the actual coffee shops.

Wiesenhof blends can now be found in various chain-stores across the country and can be bought directly from any Wiesenhof coffee shop or the roastery. More than just a franchise, the Wiesenhof brand embraces hearty cafÈ food as well as a great cup of coffee.

The Birth of a Franchise

Before the franchise had 43 (and counting) stores, or bought its own roastery though, it was just one store run by a rugby player and his wife. The idea of the franchise developed quite organically,î Wiese explains.

After we had been operating for about two years, our regular customers gradually started enquiring about the possibility of opening their own store. We hadn’t really thought about franchising and we didn’t have systems in place, but we decided to take a chance with a customer who up until that point had been running a tuck shop at a garage.

With only some of the capital required to open her own coffee shop, Wiesenhof’s first franchisee approached a bank for a loan. After being turned down for the fourth time, Wiese made contact with the bank himself. The bank manager was sceptical of the idea.

He asked me how many cups of coffee she would need to sell to pay the loan back. He clearly didn’t think coffee was enough to sustain a business.

Perhaps coffee alone isn’t, but add unique local blends, excellent service, great food and generous portions, and that first franchise was paid off in 18 months.

Belinda and I had gone from coffee shop owners working long hours, seven days a week, to franchisors, and suddenly we were back to where we had been two years previously – in completely unchartered waters, says Wiese.

By this stage the couple had learnt how to run a successful coffee shop filled with regular customers, but franchising was an altogether different game.

Franchising is all about the system, Wiese adds. ìWe had a product and a brand that we were proud of, but now we needed to find a way to replicate that model with the right
franchisees at the helm.

Brand Growth

By 1998 Wiese had retired from professional rugby, and while he would continue to be involved in the local sports scene as a presenter and commentator, he was also able to spend more time on the Wiesenhof brand.

We began developing systems and processes that could be replicated across a group, and developing a strong brand strategy and value system,î he explains. Up until this point Belinda and I made decisions based on what felt right for the brand and our customers. Now we needed to formalise these decisions.î

The first brand non-negotiable was quality. We had instinctively learnt where we could save money and where we should spend money as our own first store had grown, says Wiese. We now needed to entrench this in our brand values.

Quality is an absolute must. We expect our franchisees to offer generous portions and never skimp when purchasing the best ingredients, for example. Wiesenhof’s clientele are willing to pay more for decent portions of quality food. If we start eroding the value of our offering – even at a lower price – we won’t be delivering to customer expectations.

Wiese is a firm believer that owner/operators will always ensure that the best standards are maintained in every store.

Owner/operators have more to gain from a successful store, he says. In fact, once the sixth franchise had opened, Wiese realised that given his shifting role from owner/operator to franchisor, his personal stores needed to be sold.

We are one of the few franchisors that don’t own head office stores, but the reason behind this decision is my firm belief that managers just don’t care about the business – from the brand to the customers – in the same way that owners do.

Wiese is very involved in the brand from the ground up. He regularly visits each and every store, knows all of his franchisees personally, and is involved with their businesses.

Through these close relationships we have selected a franchisee who assists us in all our training, and of course the roastery offers us a diversified income that assists in the group’s growth as a whole, without us relying on head office-owned store income.

Expanding the Team

As the brand has grown and Wiese’s role as MD of the group has shifted, so the need for an operational CEO became apparent. Enter Rob Barrett, whose background as the operational director for BidAir Services made him the ideal candidate to develop and entrench top-class operational systems within the franchise group.

Barrett and Wiese first met seven years ago on a flight to Cape Town when Barrett was seconded as the catering manager for Comair. Wiesenhof had previously supplied us with our in-flight coffee,î explains Barrett.

But a disagreement over certain terms led to Wiesenhof no longer doing business with Comair, and we then began receiving complaints about our coffee. When we met I asked Wiese if he would be prepared to supply Comair again, and from there we restarted the process, he explains.

Within six weeks Wiesenhof was once again Comair’s supplier of their in-flight coffee, the complaints dried up, and Barrett and Wiese had established a good working relationship.

Two years later, Wiese asked Barrett to join the group for the first time as CEO. I was flattered by the offer, but I didn’t feel I had enough experience, and didn’t want to ruin the opportunity simply because I wasn’t actually ready for it,î Barrett explains.

Two and a half years later in 2010, Barrett would leave his position as operational director for BidAir Services to join Wiesenhof’s team. While Wiese jokes that his new CEO actually took a pay cut to join the group, Barrett admits that the challenge and huge focus on growth within the franchise drew him to the position.

Right now we’re in a period of consolidation,î he explains. We’ve pulled the roastery under our group umbrella and extended the franchise offering to include Refill Espresso express stores, mobile units and even 24-hour Refill stores that will be opening shortly.

Garage retailers have also approached the group and we are looking to have six stores open and operating in fuel stations by the first quarter next year. We’re also focusing on improving our systems for our franchisees.

With 43 stores under its banner, Wiesenhof can currently be found in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Nelspruit, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, but watch this space: growth is very much on the agenda.

[Top Tips]

Kobus Wiese’s top advice for franchising success.

  • Know your customer. Some customers buy on price; others are willing to pay more if the quality delivers. Know what your customers expect and deliver on those expectations.
  • Loyalty is key. Encourage your franchisees to offer managers a small share of the business. It will give them a reason to really care about how well the store does.
  • Always have a contract in place. You don’t want to start an arrangement assuming things will go wrong, and hopefully you’ll never need to use a contract, but always have one in place anyway. It’s far worse needing a contract and not having one than having a contract that you never need to use.
  • Be open and honest. Open discussions allow everyone to be on the same page. Franchisors shouldn’t just tell their franchisees what’s happening – they are also the brand’s custodians. Have open discussions about what’s best for the brand and have an open mind. The only non-negotiables should be any issues that affect the brand.
  • Brand beats ego – every time. Make decisions based on what’s best for the brand, the business and your customers – not your ego. As a business owner, whether you’re the franchisor or a franchisee, your ego is secondary.
Nadine Todd
About the Author
Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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