When Grant Dutton wakes up these days he smells more than just the coffee. The sweet smell of success lingers in the air as well. The managing director of the hugely successful Vida e Caffé chain of European-style sidewalk coffee bars started out as a 40% joint venture partner in the Cavendish branch in Cape Town, the third shop opened by founders Brad Armitage and Rui Estevez.
“At the time, Vida was really a trendy Kloof Street brand and to be honest we weren’t sure the concept was going to work in the suburbs,” he recalls, “But the Cavendish branch opened to ridiculous figures and it was then that I realised this brand had legs.”
Stretching those legs to their full potential became his obsession. After successfully opening the Willowbridge and Greenpoint branches, Dutton pooled his financial resources, approached Tommy Crow and Patrick Hamilton-Russel of Alpha Capital for extra funding and bought out the original shareholders.
“I then got four guys who were willing to put down money in order to take up pivotal roles in the business; some of them borrowed money to do it. I had learnt from running other businesses in the past the importance of empowering people through ownership,” he says.
Sean Bond joined as marketing manager; Lloyd Stocks, project manager, built the shops; Paul Osborne took the reins as financial director and Dutton’s brother, William, became operations director.“They make such a strong team – they all care about the business because they own a piece of it. They live this brand,” says Dutton.
He’s turned the building of strong teams into something of an art
Visit any one of the Vida outlets and what stands out, apart from the red branding and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, is the staff. “They have been a vital key to getting things right,” he says, “A lot of our regulars and even the media have picked up on and love the fact that when you put a tip in their tip glass, they all do some kind of chant. That’s not taught – it comes from them.” It’s no secret that motivated, energised staff who take the initiative are not to be found under every bush, so what’s Dutton’s secret?
Firstly, there’s training. New recruits – known as ‘shoes’ because they still have to be ‘worn in’ – are seconded to existing stores where they learn about every section of the store, getting to know Vida and its brand inside out. All of Vida’s managers started out as ‘shoes’ – Dutton is passionate about development and won’t employ ‘external’ people to manage the stores. And then there’s his approach to staff upliftment. Realising that Kloof Street staff were battling to get to work from outlying areas, Dutton bought a house in Bokaap providing them with a comfortable home close to work. More houses followed because, as Dutton explains, “A baker living in the township has to get up at four in the morning to be at the shop at five to bake. He gets home at seven in the evening. No matter what anyone tells you, that doesn’t make for a happy employee.” And, as Dutton has discovered, happy employees are loyal employees.
Upliftment initiatives, coupled with incentive schemes that afford managers the opportunity to earn up to 40% of their salary extra each month, have meant that Vida’s staff are not as vulnerable to poaching from competitors. “They live the brand because the brand takes care of them,” he says. Which brings us to the company’s other huge success factor. “We went a long way to building a brand before we built a coffee shop chain,” says Dutton. From a loyalty programme that gives back to customers 5% of what they spend, to the company’s in-house magazine Obrigado,Vida’s brand, like its name, is all about experiences centred on ‘life and coffee’. The company has also made clever use of ‘marketing spaces’ in the stores – things like coffee cup sleeves, tags and holders – to showcase different brand partners like Levi and Look & Listen. “I think the thing we’ve done best is to create a brand that people aspire to be a part of,” says Dutton. As they say in Portugal, Parabéns!