27/05/2010 - 00:00

Lemon a fresh twist for Wilson

27/05/2010 - 00:00


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Chris Wilson’s corporate flavour has sweetened Lemon Cafe’s business. Russell Quinn reports.

Lemon a fresh twist for Wilson

IF you wanted the most suitable candidate to run a small cafe business, an executive from the UK telecommunications industry probably wouldn’t be the most obvious choice.

But Chris Wilson, who arrived in Western Australia having founded, developed and then floated a telco on London’s Alternative Investment Market, has thrown such ‘conventional wisdom’ on its head, proving to be the perfect fit for Claremont-based Lemon Cafes.

Mr Wilson says he came to settle in Perth in 2005 with his young family hoping to inch back into the local business scene.

“I’m just interested in business full stop,” Mr Wilson told Gusto.

“I’ve done corporate for 20 years and didn’t want to do more corporate.

“Back in the UK I set a company up called Alternative Networks plc in the mid 90s, in my mid 20s, with a friend of mine and we, over 10 years, became the biggest independent telecoms partner in the UK.

“We went from just the two of us to floating in London in 2005, and I left with about 400 people and six offices in the UK.”

Without doubt he has an impressive commercial enterprise pedigree, but what would attract a foreign corporate player to a local hospitality venture like Lemon?

“For me, I purely liked the brand, and I thought the brand had potential to grow,” Mr Wilson says.

“So I originally came in as a half-owner thinking I could provide a bit of advice and guidance, realised it had a few challenges and, as is sometimes the case, ended up taking it over and we’ve just sorted out the foundations to try put a platform in place to then grow it.”

Lemon Espresso, the first Lemon outlet, opened its doors in 2004 offering a Melbourne-style cafe atmosphere in the heart of Claremont.

Three years later Lemon Lane, also in Claremont, began trading after an extensive $250,000 fit-out and remodelling of the laneway opposite St Quentin’s Avenue running between Bay View Terrace and Leura Avenue.

In 2008, Lemon Station opened on Station Street in Cottesloe Village, and in November the same year Lemon Espresso @ Hkew Alpha started grinding coffee within the domestic airport’s Hkew Alpha business precinct.

Mr Wilson says since the original business owner left on good terms about 18 months ago, he has continued developing and expanding the business, including installing four $20,000 top shelf coffee machines hand made “by two guys in Seattle”, while overcoming numerous challenges.

He says tweaking the laid-back culture of the staff that permeated the business was especially tough but bringing in experienced hospitality managers signalled his employees to step it up. And making the company’s operating details transparent also encouraged staff to take responsibility for the success of the business.

Of course, Mr Wilson also instituted common corporate tools such as key performance indicators, operations management systems and significant IT investment.

And the measures seem to have worked, as Mr Wilson points out that annual turnover from all four ventures has grown to $2.5 million from less than half that three years ago.

He also introduced a novel SMS system for ordering take away coffees, which has proved very popular across all four sites.

But not all problems are solved by implementing advice from commerce textbooks.

“As a retail precinct at the moment Claremont is not happening,” Mr Wilson says.

“David Jones was the drawcard and they’re redeveloping the whole thing (Claremont Quarter) at the moment and as a result foot traffic is just off, about 20 per cent down.

“But that will reopen so you’ve just got to tread through and work twice as hard, so luckily we have more than one location.”

Mr Wilson suggests four more Lemons could open in Perth in future years, and Lemon Lane is currently seeking a liquor licence to trade as a tapas bar in the evening.



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