In Focus
EXECUTIVE INSIGHTS | Kevin Santos, Australia

Soul Origin is creating small-format, ‘satellite' stores to navigate a challenging retail environment

The chain is also getting into the plant-based space in a bid to reach a growing flexitarian market, its COO said.

Soul Origin is joining the ranks of retailers opening smaller stores to navigate the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After trialling one in NSW, the chain is opening a new satellite format as part of six greenfield sites to open by mid-December, a store with a reduced menu that aims to complement their traditional store footprint within a shopping centre. An additional six greenfield sites are planned to be open in the first half of 2021.

“After a significant amount of testing and trailing the results have been extremely positive. We have already locked in two more of these satellite sites in the coming months,” Soul Origin chief operating officer Adam Neill told QSR Media in an exclusive interview.

Their first small-footprint standalone store is also in the works, which Neill describes as a “lower cost, modular design store that allows us to access centres that previously didn’t fit our traditional store footprint.” At present, Soul Origin has 115 stores trading.

The past months have been a challenging period for the brand, with COVID-19 having an immense impact on their business. More than 50 stores ceased trading due to government- mandated directives or experiencing no traffic flow to warrant opening. Stores that were able to remain open experienced sales declines of up to 80% at the height of the pandemic.

As a business, Neill said, they had to leverage their strengths that were “relevant throughout this period and implement change fast and effectively.”

“Our franchise partners have been incredibly resilient, courageous, supportive and most importantly trusting of the team at Support Centre throughout the pandemic,” he said. “The Senior leadership team at Support Centre pulled the business model apart and implemented wholesale changes in days which may [have] taken months pre COVID.”

This included the rollout of delivery platforms and order-ahead applications, menu and ingredient rationalisation, supply chain efficiencies, national and local marketing initiatives, and also expanding other aspects of their digital footprint whilst navigating the “ever-evolving” retail landscape in different states and territories.

“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of ongoing diversification within the QSR retail sector and continuing to adapt to the environment around you, and more importantly, customers’ needs,” he said.

Going back to basics, upcoming loyalty programme
For Soul Origin, this meant the business needed to change focus from above the line media campaigns and “bring it all back to the basics” with their digital presence and community engagement.

They invested in expanding their in-house marketing team, including the hiring of a digital specialist coupled with a senior head of marketing, a decision Neill said that “went against the grain of reducing overheads in line with declining revenue.”

“We really started to understand the importance of brand strength. Foundationally, we know who we are as a brand and what we stand for but translating that through digital channels was often being diluted or inconsistent. By bringing these resources in-house, we have been able to define and document our brand identity as well as genuinely connect with our audience, keeping them engaged with the brand throughout the COVID period,” he explained.

Adapting to the environment also meant investing in improving customer experience. Neill revealed Soul Origin will be launching their Soulmate loyalty programme, which will start with a regional trial and followed by a national launch planned prior to Christmas. The brand is focused on analysing the data from this, coupled with an upcoming with our e-commerce store launching in the first quarter next year.

“This is an extremely exciting initiative that has been designed to reward our loyal customers whilst allowing us to better understand our customer behaviors and as importantly the opportunity for our customers to provide instant feedback about their experience in our Soul Origin stores,” he said about the loyalty programme.

Like many chains, Soul Origin saw growth in our delivery and order ahead segments. Late night trading has not recovered to pre-COVID levels but weekend trading is displaying a “stronger” recovery, with the brand having adjusted business operations accordingly.

Soul Origin's soy-based take on their chicken schnitzel. Photo: Supplied

Soy-based schnitzel currently being trialled
It has also partnered with plant-based supplier Plantein in order to provide a soy-based version of their popular Chicken Schnitzel in a bid to reach a rising demand for healthier eating and a growing flexitarian market. The item is currently being trialled and is selling “incredibly well,” Neill said.

“This makes complete sense for the Soul Origin brand because at the base of who we are is a very real value of being part of a local community where everyone belongs and can enjoy our product. We try to be as inclusive as we can, and so providing more options for different diets and lifestyles is what we are all about.”

Looking ahead, Neill stressed that product innovation is “absolute[ly] key” in the next months. The chain, despite the challenges brought about by the health crisis, is banking on its selection of food and coffee to display its brand strength.

“Our customers have told us that fresh, quality food with strong flavor bursts is a must. Focusing on reducing operation costs whilst maintaining quality and service remains a key focus and we have exciting initiatives that we are currently working on with our franchise partners.”

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