When Al Bruce started his company Olive & Barr in 2018 he had one clear goal in mind – he wanted to provide the best value good-quality handmade Shaker kitchens on the market. Since then he has opened his main showroom in Cirencester as part of the Beswick Stone showroom, and another in Malvern, and has plans to open one in Mallorca as well as a London showroom in the Chelsea/Fulham area at the beginning of this year. This is expansion at an impressive rate by anyone’s standards – so how has he achieved this?
“As businesses grow they start adding lots of company vehicles and then have huge expenses on the office side of things. We outsource our deliveries and try to keep everything as small as possible,” he explains. “You have to be careful, especially in the current climate. If you grow things too big, then suddenly you’ve got loads of overheads when the economy goes flatter, and you’ve got a lot to rein in.” By contrast, Olive & Barr’s investments are all in the workshops, keeping the focus firmly on build quality.
Who are we? Al Bruce, founder and director
What do we do? Design, manufacture and installation of handmade solid wood Shaker kitchens at an affordable price point, created based on the concept of providing consumers with a one-stop-shop where they could source everything for a kitchen renovation project, from the kitchen to the worktops, appliances and flooring
Staffing levels 16 in total – Bruce plus two designers in Cirencester, one designer in Malvern, and 12 in the workshop, including the installation team
Bruce, who comes from a cabinet-making background, has adopted a hands-on approach to his business. He rigorously tests all the cabinets himself before they leave the workshop to make sure he’s satisfied with them and that they’re of the highest standard. Similarly, he designed all of the showroom displays himself, drawing on his own experience as a kitchen maker, and also as the sales director for a large kitchen company.
“We don’t show bits of this and bits of that – we show complete kitchens,” he says. Each display is designed with a different overall look to demonstrate the versatility of the Shaker kitchen, although experience has taught him that while consumers are after a good-quality hand-made kitchen they’re also looking for something with a modern twist. “We try to give Shaker cabinetry a slightly more contemporary feel,” he says.
Al Bruce on the key to creating a successful showroom experience
- Many years ago I had a furniture shop and I was really aware that people found it difficult to actually sit down on the chairs and use and appreciate them. So when I design my showrooms with working displays, I want to show people how a kitchen really functions
- On a Saturday morning you’ll often find me cooking a big breakfast. People come into the showroom for a good couple of hours to have a look around, and we like to use the kitchens and show them being used. They’ll sit on the other side of the breakfast bar as I’m cooking, and they can have fresh coffee and toast and just have a chat. On the weekend I was even cooking shakshukas
- We’re very proud of our cabinetry so I want people to feel relaxed and check it out, swing on the doors, open the drawers and look at the build quality. Last Christmas we had a big cooking demonstration and did all sorts of different canapés. We had mulled wine and lots of people came in and just sat down and got merry. It’s important to put people at ease
“When you look at the cabinets they’re slicker – we really veer away from the shabby-chic look of Shaker past and try to give them a cleaner finish.” They have also just unveiled a new slab door to cater for customers after a completely seamless look. The kitchen displays feature working appliances for cooking demonstrations, which Bruce believes has created a real buzz in his showrooms that helps put customers at their ease and in the mood to buy. But placing cooking at the centre of the displays also reflects his view of how the role of the kitchen has changed in the home. “No one likes to cook on their own in a separate room any more – it’s a much more sociable thing to do these days,” he says. “You need to open the space up so other people can enjoy the process; even if they’re not actually cooking with you, they’re interacting with you as you cook.”
Plans for the future are moving apace, and Bruce is busy building on his business’s positive start. He’s currently working on a project that he believes is going to revolutionise kitchen design and, although he is reluctant to be drawn on what exactly that is, he says that all will be revealed soon. He is also aiming to double turnover in the next year. But for the time being there are no plans to move into bathroom or bedroom design. “We’re a kitchen business. That’s what we do and that’s what we do best,” he says.
What is your greatest challenge? To keep up with customer demand and scale up our production facilities to accommodate our growing order book,” says Bruce
What is your greatest opportunity? I think it’s to give each and every customer who comes to us a kitchen that is of exceptional quality at a price that is keener than any other comparable product
Strange but true It’s always amusing when customers approach us with a long list of cabinetry and appliances that they desperately want included in their kitchen, and then produce a floorpan with extremely limited floorspace – of course we do our best to rise to the challenge and accommodate!