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With exciting plans to extend the global reach of restaurant franchise Heavenly Desserts into a string of new cities, co-founder and managing director Yousif Aslam discusses the company’s challenges and successes - and how in-depth research has been a powerful strategy.

SCOUTING for new international locations, getting to grips with local planning laws, tackling supply chain issues and tweaking its secret recipes… that’s all part and parcel of Heavenly Desserts’ ambitious expansion plans.

When detailed consumer research revealed that the popular artisan and luxury desserts on its menu might need to be a little sweeter for a certain international audience, the company took the challenge in its stride.

As Yousif explains, flexibility and a willingness to respond to customer feedback is vital to taking the plunge and leading your hospitality business into new overseas markets.

With close to 60 branches in the UK, Heavenly Desserts is about to enter its third country. After opening its first franchise store in Ontario, Canada, a year ago, it is now planning four more. It is also working on two new stores in Pakistan - and has a keen eye on future openings across Asia and the Far East. [CC1] 

“It’s been good for us to learn and understand the lifestyles and cultures of different nationalities - the things that no one tells you about when you’re expanding into international territory,” says Yousif. “What gives us confidence is the knowledge that people from all cultures will always enjoy socialising together as they eat delicious food.”

Here Yousif reveals what the company has learned as it evolves overseas…

Tapping into the right consumer lifestyle:

We opened our first store in Canada nearly a year ago and discovered a few differences in the lifestyle and work culture compared to Europe - it definitely has a more relaxed pace. But the traditional opening hours here in the UK still work for most markets.

The premium dessert sector in Canada is a new concept and, following a successful visit to a Toronto franchise show, we have signed up several franchise partners who really see the opportunities.

Before choosing an area to expand to, we need to ensure there’s a good match for our business model regarding population numbers and demographics by using data including census figures.

In Asia and the Far East, our market and consumer trends research has highlighted the consumer affinity with Western brands. The likes of McDonald's, Starbucks and KFC do well because there are no home-founded alternatives in those parts of the world. So we think our target consumers there will be happy to adopt Heavenly Desserts.

We don't serve any alcohol, as that isn’t as big a social factor in Asia and the Far East as it is Westernised communities due to different cultures and religions. It’s important that we create a family-friendly environment - you can take your children, or a group of young women would feel completely safe in our venues.

Hitting the sweet spot in Canada:

We've had an interesting first year of considering our guests’ feedback - and discovered that the North American taste palate was much sweeter than the European one.

As a result, we have tweaked our recipes, adding more sugar to make the products sweeter. And we realised we needed to slightly increase our European portion sizes.

Luckily, these were minor changes, fairly negligible from a cost perspective but enough to make a difference to the consumer. Our continued growth, the increased volume of purchasing and expanding supplier network will positively impact the cost of ingredients in any case.

Finding the perfect location - and audience:

We’d identified our second store in Canada - in Pickering Ridge, a small city in Ontario - before our latest franchise partners came on board. That was their desired location, and we now have a three-store agreement to develop within that province.

After earmarking a viable location, we research potential franchise partners to go through our recruitment process to be assigned a restaurant. It’s part of our early market research to identify the growth opportunities in a city or town, with factors such as regeneration schemes where there could be funding opportunities to help new businesses.

We’re looking to branch out into Western Canada, to Alberta and Vancouver, as we aim to have a further three stores in the country in the next 12 months.

We’ve had a lot to learn regarding competition clauses and property acquisition and regulations in Canada. The planning process is longer than the UK’s, with a robust process of health and safety checks that can take between four and six months.

In Pakistan, we're working on two simultaneous store openings, in Lahore and Karachi, and hope to acquire more sites by the end of the year, translating into new store openings in the early to middle part of 2024.

Sourcing the ideal supply chain:

It was relatively easy to set up a supply chain in Canada, as it has a thriving food and beverage scene and benefits from its proximity to the USA, so there is a ready supply of specialist ingredients.

We found it a greater challenge to source those ingredients in Pakistan and we are initially importing them from the UK to avoid compromising our menu. I think that will be a common theme in parts of Asia where the food and hospitality industry is not as developed.

But it’s heartening to see a gradual increase in Western brands going into the market over the last few years. There’s a real opportunity just because of the sheer number of people - Pakistan has a population of more than 240 million.

Hopefully these moves will strengthen the industry and the supply chain, giving manufacturers and importers more confidence to grow.

Continuing our international growth:

It's been a tough time economically for a lot of consumers, with high inflation not just in the UK but in most of the world. Despite that, our target audience of 18 to 35-year-olds still has an appetite for going out and socialising.

The rising demand for 0% alcohol alternatives has also worked well for us and our menu now features an extensive list of non-alcoholic mocktails. We’ve capitalised on that in some of our overseas markets such as Pakistan.

Our diverse and multicultural food menu is easily translatable. We basically serve a happy product - chocolate and inviting desserts that put a smile on everyone’s faces.

The last few months have been a fantastic opportunity to consider different cultural practices and tastes. We want to grow our business and become the world's most recognised dessert brand - and the biggest thing we’ve learned so far is having the ability to adapt.

Interested and want to know more about Heavenly Desserts?

The Heavenly Desserts profile outlines all aspects of their franchise opportunity and allows you to contact them for further information or to ask a question.

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