Having read about Ulster graduate Katie Waddell scooping lots of awards, including the accolade of British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) Young Person in Business, we wanted to find out more about her and her business, Spoon Street. Scroll met up with Katie in her Ann Street store and left with a new knowledge of ‘froyo’ (that’s frozen yoghurt to the uninitiated) and what it takes to become an award-winning young business woman.
Spoon Street, a self-serve frozen yoghurt store and the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, launched in the Belfast suburb of Ballyhackamore in October 2014. Katie, 24, and fiancé Harry Wang, 31, brought the concept to Northern Ireland from America. Their second store in Ann Street in the city was opened in October this year, and they are currently planning the launch of their third store.
The Big Idea
The idea of bringing the concept to Northern Ireland struck Katie when she was working in New Jersey on her placement year from her BSc Hons Marketing degree. She says: “The town I was living in, Morristown, had a similar kind of concept so myself and the girls and guys I was living with, we were all kind of addicted to these places. And I remember my parents coming to visit and I would be dragging them in saying, ‘look at this place, wouldn’t you love to bring this concept home?’ and then the idea just snowballed, especially when I met my now-fiancé, Harry, over there, who thought it was a great idea as well.”
Katie and Harry then dedicated every weekend to coming up with the Spoon Street brand. “We sat in a café in Queen’s, New York, where Harry is from, and through a lot of brainstorming we came up with the name. That’s when we came up with the original idea for our mascot, ‘Spooner’, as well. We then worked with a very talented friend, who freelances for Pixar, and he did all the graphic design,” Katie says.
Then, on her return from America, whilst most students were panicking about their final exams, Katie was also launching a new business. But she explains, she wanted to keep the idea under wraps until they launched, as the concept was original to Northern Ireland: “I told nobody about this, nobody at all and I remember going to lectures all dressed up and people would be like, ‘What? Where are you going?’ Normally I would be dressed in leggings and a hoodie but instead I was wearing a dress and jacket and going to meet the bank manager or an estate agent. I was doing whatever it took to get the business off the ground. And whilst I was doing that Harry would be sourcing suppliers, especially in China as he has got a Taiwanese background and so can speak the language.”
Katie continues: “Even when we were meeting with estate agents, we would be tiptoeing around our actual idea as we wanted to be the first in Northern Ireland – we wanted to be the pioneers and we wanted to set the bar. We always had the idea of opening up with a bang, with a wow factor.”
Ahead of the Market
The concept of frozen yoghurt has been available to buy in super markets here for a number of years, but explains Katie, it has grown in popularity recently as people are looking for that healthy alternative. She says: “Compared to ice-cream it is healthier with regard to calories, fat content and sugar content. And we actually do have a lot of sugar free options. People automatically think ‘sugar free’ means ‘unhealthy’, ‘it must contain aspartame’, but our product is sweetened with Stevia and so all the ingredients that we use are all natural.
“We import some of the ingredients but also use local suppliers, such as Clandeboye Estate. We have created 16 flavours in each store and try to cater for all needs, so we do dairy free, lactose free, gluten free, vegan and vegetarian options. I think one of our unique selling points is that it is all made in store and is fresh,” Katie says.
When asked how she learned how to create their full range of flavours and how to make the yoghurt, Katie replies matter-of-factly: “We just had to, it was just part of the process. That’s the thing with starting a business, you just have to do everything – you have to be an accountant, you have to do your HR, you have to do your marketing and everything else.”
The Spoon Street Experience
Explaining how the Spoon Street experience works, she says: “It’s all self-service, so the customer is in control. It’s basically like a pic-n-mix idea – you grab the cup size you like and then you choose your flavour at the machine wall. They are all labelled with each flavour so you can mix and match with whatever flavour you want, and you can put in one or 16, whatever you like! And the topping bar is all up to the customer as well so again you choose what you want. So it’s your little creation at the end of it, it’s exactly how you want it.”
Katie continues: “It’s all about the experience at Spoon Street. I think that through the whole aesthetics and atmosphere as well as the really high quality product, it creates the Spoon Street stage. That’s what we wanted to do, to create a fun experience, it cheers you up. And we brought in a lot of hot sauces in the winter time as well so you can still enjoy it, even on the coldest days.”
So far, it all sounds like a dream come true for Katie, but she points out that it was extremely difficult in the beginning, as is perfectly natural for any start up. She explains: “Because we had no credibility, we were only starting off and building the brand from scratch, we didn’t know how it was going to turn out for us.
“We were also working together on the launch but from different continents, until Harry moved to Belfast in February 2014, so that made things more difficult in the beginning.”
Katie continues: “One of our biggest hurdles was finding a property. We had a lot of ideal locations in mind through the research we had done but actually finding a landlord that wanted to take that risk on us was difficult. We believed in our dream, but it was making other people believe in that dream that was the main issue as they wanted a safe bet, which was fair enough.”
Being new to the market, Katie also had to teach people about the whole concept of frozen yoghurt. She says: “It’s funny because at the start there was a small minority that knew the whole concept from America so seeing repeat customers coming in and walking down the shop floor and knowing exactly where they’re going, grabbing their cup and going over to the machines and their flavour, that was good to see. But there were a lot of people who needed educated not only on the product of frozen yoghurt, but also on the whole operation and how we flow.”
Overcoming these initial hurdles quickly and surpassing all expectations, Katie and Harry have created a very successful business, so far employing 25 people. Katie’s dedication and impressive entrepreneurship has seen her win the BCC Young Person in Business award.
Katie explains: “I got an email through one morning saying that I was the regional winner for Northern Ireland and from there I went on to the national finals in London and was up against eight other people in my category. There were over 500 people there, it was a huge event.
“When they announced my category, which was sponsored by Sky News, I just could not believe it, they said something about a spoon, they hadn’t even said my name yet and I was gone! It was unbelievable. It’s recognition at the end of the day for all you have achieved.”
Not stopping at one award, Katie was also crowned ‘Young Business Woman of the Year’ by Women in Business NI and Spoon Street was given the accolade of ‘Business Start Up of the Year 2015’ by the Ulster Tatler.
So what does the future hold for Spoon Street? Katie says: “We didn’t set out to open one shop, the dream was to build a chain. We are currently planning store number three and then we will see what happens from there. But we have been talking to our franchise lawyers to try and get our franchise model up and running so that we have that option as well within the local market.
“One very exciting development for the business was visiting China in November and meeting with an investor who is opening up a pilot Spoon Street store in Beijing, with works starting this year. If business is good they want to open a chain, so this would be a great expansion for us on an international scale.”
What Katie and Harry have achieved in one year is very inspirational and we have the feeling we will all be sampling Spoon Street frozen yoghurt in a town near us very soon.