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The Queen of Sandwich

Friday, July 1, 2011 - 08:20

The Healthy Habits sandwich business sells more than just bread and filling. By Josie Gagliano

Katherine Sampson is under no illusions; she sells sandwiches, even if they're good quality and healthy ones.

Yet hers are sold in 35 stores around Australia and New Zealand, with plans for 100 in a few short years. Sampson is very clear about what it takes to compete in the crowded marketplace of lunchtime food options.

"It's about having a brand that people recognise and trust; that's very, very important," she says. "At the end of the day, we sell ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches, and thousands of other stores do too.

"We've got to have consistency among our stores, delivered in a fun way. So if we can continue to deliver those things - plus employ a strong distribution strategy in all the major shopping centres - people will continue to trust our brand."

Sure, it's a simple model, but one built on 18 years of experience for the Managing Director of sandwich bar chain Healthy Habits.

Beginnings

Sampson bought her first store in Knox City, Victoria, in 1992 at age 27. After opening three more stores over the following nine years, she was ready

to develop a franchise model. The first Healthy Habits franchisee came on board in 2005. Then, in March 2009, bookstore giant Dymocks bought into the Healthy Habits business.

Two and a half million Healthy Habits sandwiches are sold every year in Australia, with the business turning over $26 million per annum. Plans to expand overseas are steadily coming to fruition: a store has just opened at New Zealand's Christchurch airport.

Sampson feels her most valuable contribution to the burgeoning company is her intimate knowledge of the business. "I understand what it takes to get customers to the counter. And I have a great passion for the business. It is certainly so much easier to be passionate about something that you've grown for so long," she says.

"I try to be a positive leader and I seek to motivate other people around me. I also think I bring strong legal experience, operational skills, marketing and management knowledge."

Changing habits

Sampson believes the Healthy Habits formula is proving successful for a number of key reasons. In particular, she says that people are becoming very health-conscious about what they're eating, and particularly in the fast-food market.

"Twenty years ago, it was about staying thin," she says. "These days people are eating healthy because they realise it can give them a better quality of life, for longer."

Although this shift in nutrition trends is clear, what sets the company apart from the other players?

"For us, the market has really changed. When I started the business, 80 per cent of our consumers were female, 35-55 years old; 20 per cent of our customers were male and over 55.

"The first category were eating healthy food purely because they wanted to be slim, but the 55-year-old men were coming to us because they were overweight; they had heart disease and diabetes. They were coming to us not through choice but because their doctors told them they had to lose weight.

"The marketplace is now saying that not only do we want good healthy food, we want to know which foods will make us healthier."

"So, what do tomatoes do for us? What are eggs good for? What does 'low GI' mean? Reveal fat and salt content. Customers want facts."

"So we're looking at putting calorie counts on our menus, and showing all the nutritional information, things we never had to provide 10 years ago."

Asked about the unique selling points of Healthy Habits, Sampson says it's all in the name.

"The Healthy Habits brand was not built on healthy food; that was just a given. It was built on selling healthy habits. So, we had slogans like, 'stop and smell the roses' and 'get fresh with someone'. The brand was built on that quirk factor.

"The healthy food was just a part of the range.

But the food isn't the point of difference, because anybody can make a salad sandwich. The brand is our point of difference."

The right people

The Dymocks partnership is proving significant; a private equity firm spotted an article on Healthy Habits in BRW in 2008 where Sampson mentioned she was looking for a 'value-add investor'.

"I didn't want a cash investor; I wanted an investor that could bring experience and value," she says.

Dymocks, who took an 80 per cent stake in the company, relocated Sampson to Sydney from Victoria to grow the brand in New South Wales.

The relocation also served to consolidate resources. With 45 people on staff at Dymocks, Sampson has access to senior management and a level of resources she just didn't have before to get things done.

Sampson maintains that the toughest hurdles can be conquered by having the right people around you.

"That's the biggest challenge I had before I came on board: I couldn't afford to offer opportunities to the right people. Dymocks has allowed me to be able to recruit the right people and see the business grow.

"My core role is to drive growth. So I focus on franchise recruitment, new sites, then oversee the construction of new stores. Then I hand over to the operations teams."

Sampson laughs about her earlier days, when she slept at the office on the 'aero bed' her brother bought her for Christmas. "It seems so silly now, but I worked such long hours because I just didn't have enough people to be able to hand down tasks to."

While more international stores are set to open in the near future, Sampson says the company will continue to concentrate on local business.

"We are very lucky that the brand is so diverse and appeals to such a broad demographic; we are just about to start going into universities and hospitals; we're in airports, and we're talking about going into truck stops and school canteens."