Serial entrepreneur Frank De Jesus explains how great customer service links his former role in retail with the move into hospitality and businesses ranging from Coffee Republic to Urban Kitchen. Emily Moore reports
WHEN it comes to timing, launching a takeaway business just weeks before the Island headed into lockdown could be seen as somewhat fortuitous.
Indeed, when Frank De Jesus saw his long-cherished dream come to fruition in January 2019, he could not have predicted the way in which previously unimagined rules would drive demand for his new offering.
‘A lot of people assume that Wicked Chicken was born from the pandemic but it was an idea I developed during my travels in America,’ explained Frank. ‘For a year or so, I’d been telling my business partner and head chef, Roger White, that this was a service we should develop and eventually we launched it in January 2019. The timing was unbelievable as, only two months later, all restaurants were forced to close during the lockdown and takeaway dining became the only option for people who didn’t want to cook.’
While there may have been an element of luck in the timing of their new venture, Frank and Roger – whose previous workplaces include Le Gavroche, The Oyster Box and The Bass and Lobster – did not leave any other aspects of the business to chance.
‘Home delivery was a game-changer for us but it wasn’t without its challenges,’ admitted Frank, who also owns Coffee Republic and the Seafish Cafés in Liberty Wharf and St Aubin.
‘Having spent time devising and perfecting the menus at Seafish, we know that when the food comes to the table, seconds after leaving the kitchen, it is in perfect condition.
‘When we created the Wicked Chicken offer, which includes a range of burgers, ribs and noodles, we had to find a way of ensuring that the food was still great after travelling from the kitchen to the diner’s home.’
Accordingly, for several weeks before launch, the team focused extensively on the best ways to wrap and package the food.
‘We spent about three weeks just sending food to people’s houses so that we could find the right solution,’ he added with a smile.
It is a meticulous approach, with a focus on quality, customer service and attention to detail, which applies across Frank’s businesses.
‘Coffee Republic was the first of our enterprises and it is a really friendly, customer-focused coffee bar where food accounts for about 30% of the total sales,’ he explained. ‘Some coffee shops fly their sandwiches in from the UK, but here everything is made fresh on the premises every day.’
Having worked in fashion retail for a quarter of a century before launching Coffee Republic 12 years ago, the switch from clothing to caffeine may seem like a big step. However, Frank says there are many parallels between retail and the industry in which he first developed an interest during his childhood.
‘I first moved to the Island when I was nine years old and my dad was the manager of L’Auberge du Nord,’ he reflected. ‘His job definitely sparked my initial interest in hospitality; I never wanted to work in a bank.
‘While I spent 25 years as a fashion buyer, I don’t see the move from retail to hospitality as a big shift. It’s still retail. It’s all about the fundamentals of great customer service, reading the marketplace, understanding the product and having the right location.’
And the location, on the corner of King Street and New Street is, in Frank’s words, ‘amazing’.
‘It’s perfect for both shoppers, students and those working in town,’ he elaborated.
With the coffee bar welcoming a long line of commuters every morning, is Frank nervous about the return of the government’s advice for people to work from home?
‘The only thing that would worry me is another lockdown,’ he said. ‘The beginning of last year, when we were in lockdown, was quite challenging, although we never closed completely. We operated a takeaway service and delivered sandwiches to offices where smaller teams were still working.
‘Since Easter, though, sales have been very strong. The beauty of our product is that it’s something people can buy several times a week. If there are people in town, we are busy. Increased home-working may have impacted the times when we are busy but the demand is still there.’
While the Coffee Republic team, led by manager Carlos Silva, have seen a sustained demand for their products, Frank has noticed pandemic-related changes.
‘I think Covid has made everybody – individuals and businesses – evaluate what they are doing and consider the best way forward,’ he commented. ‘One of the greatest lifestyle changes we have seen is the increase in people choosing to entertain at home. I would definitely say that staying at home is the new going out.’
And, having seen a growth in demand for takeaways, Frank and Roger are now working on another home-dining initiative.
‘We are working on a brand called Urban Kitchen, which is a really exciting project for us,’ Frank said. ‘This is really designed to cater for dinner parties. As the host, you would contact us with details of the size of your party and how much you want to spend per head, and we will then create a special menu for you.
‘Just before your guests arrive, we come along with the dishes – and wine or beer pairings if required – and set everything up.’
While the Urban Kitchen concept was born from the pandemic, Frank is convinced of the longer-term potential for such a service.
‘Dining out is expensive and a lot of people now want more relaxed evenings, where they can invite friends around and enjoy spending time in the comfort of their own home,’ he added. ‘We come from a more casual environment. We can prepare more elaborate food if required but out focus is on quality comfort food from burgers and chicken to Asian noodles and linguine.’
And, given the attention to detail which preceded the launch of Wicked Chicken, it is no surprise that the team is taking a similar approach to Urban Kitchen.
‘At the moment, Urban Kitchen is almost an offshoot of Wicked Chicken but the long-term plan is to open a separate kitchen with a wide menu,’ he said. ‘Initially, though, we will launch with a small menu where we can vouch for every single item we offer. Then, as we grow, the menu will expand but not until we are confident of the quality of each new dish.’
The plan to ‘elevate’ traditional takeaway favourites is inspired by the Seafish Café ethos.
‘Seafish was all about elevating fish and chips,’ Frank explained. ‘It wasn’t about reinventing the wheel but it was about providing a relaxed and casual environment where anyone could come in and enjoy really good quality fish and chips – washed down with a bottle of champagne if they want.
‘Seafish is classless. We can – and often do – have multimillionaires sitting at one table and young families sitting at another. It is a space where everyone is comfortable.’
Developing a product with widespread appeal underpins Frank’s approach to business.
‘Jersey is a small island and an expensive place in which to do business. That is why I’m keen to sell products which appeal to 80-90% of the population,’ he said. ‘You also need to innovate to maintain that appeal. I think the pandemic has shown that very clearly. You need to stay close to the customer to understand what they want and close to your team.’
It is a philosophy which Frank clearly embraces, frequently whipping up cappuccinos in Coffee Republic and knowing many of his customers’ names and drinks orders.
‘I love the buzz of the shop floor but my role is more about overseeing the businesses,’ he reflected. ‘Really, while my team is responsible for looking after today, my job is to look after tomorrow. I make sure they still have a job tomorrow, they make sure there is still a business today.’