Tottenham-based distributor Chiller Box is a great example of how a proverbial oak of a company can grow from an original acorn. The brainchild of cousins Marios Poumpouris and Michael Michael, in 2004 the firm began life in Poumpouris’ Enfield home.
Having been involved in the construction industry and managing multi-million pound projects, Poumpouris had previously tried to break into the foodservice market as an independent operator with an ahead-of-the-curve gourmet burger concept. But he was thwarted in finding a site by London’s high property prices.
Nevertheless this gave him the kernel of another business idea. “When I was trying to launch my burger concept I spoke to a number of suppliers and I didn’t feel anyone gave me a lot of time. And I thought, ‘there’s something in this’. I had a significant budget and no-one actually phoned me to follow up their quote.”
Meanwhile, Michael was running his own commercial refrigerator engineering business but was looking for a new challenge, and so the cousins put their heads together to form Chiller Box, so named as it was on the back of Michael’s business and initially they believed they would be primarily selling fridges.
To generate publicity they placed adverts in operator magazines and this prompted enquiries, leads and, after a few months, orders to flow in. Until January 2005 Poumpouris was still juggling Chiller Box with his construction project manager role, but at that point the business became his sole focus. “Michael still ran his engineer business in tandem for a little while but he was slowly converting his customers into Chiller Box customers,” recalled Poumpouris.
Within a year the distributor was based in its current permanent premises in Tottenham, initially on the first floor and latterly taking over the ground floor of the unit too. The firm also then took on a couple more staff members including an administrator.
Swiftly their customers were enquiring about more than just refrigerator purchases. “They were exactly the kind of people that I would have been on that side of the fence, had I got my concept off the ground. We saw that we could hand hold them through that process,” said Poumpouris. “They were opening new premises and they needed a complete kitchen. So we started to offer them more and we got more suppliers onboard in our supply chain.”
He appreciated the supplier support Chiller Box received, even before it moved to an office. “I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor at my coffee table at home with a cup of coffee and having a chat with reps, because I was a bit younger and bit naïve. But they heard what we had to say and what we were trying to achieve, and most of them did take us seriously. A lot of those suppliers are still with us today.”
Poumpouris’ background in project management then proved useful as the distributor went on to offer complete kitchen schemes. “In the last 10 years or so, we have massively shifted to almost being totally a project house,” he reported.
This meant that the focus moved away from maintenance. “We felt that in order to do that, you had to be dedicated to it and heavily invest, so we took the commercial decision that we wouldn’t continue offering servicing, though we are very much there during the warranty periods, sometimes even bypassing the manufacturers,” Poumpouris reported. Instead, Chiller Box uses a network of subcontracted engineers for its installations and for when warranty repairs are required.
This decision was prompted in part by the 2008/9 recession. “At that time we were doing one-off sales, projects, service work and we had developed a website under a different brand name to compete with internet sales,” Poumpouris detailed. “We looked at all of those areas and saw what was and wasn’t profitable. The projects were the thing end users couldn’t buy off the internet, so we decided to focus on them and got rid of the website and the servicing.”
While independent start-ups still form a significant tranche of the distributor’s current clientele, it has grown with some original customers which have turned into multi-site operators such as Grab Thai and Barrio bars, as well as venturing into the education and corporate catering sectors. “But the independent restaurant sector is still booming,” said Poumpouris. “Most of our work is London-centric – London is such a melting pot and is a place where people want to try new things and be part of the gastronomic culture. Sites are constantly being churned so it means there is work for people like us.” But the distributor has at times worked as far afield as Sheffield and Brighton.
Currently the company is working with the owners of restaurant chain The Diner on a large project. Another scheme on the slate is for staff dining for accountancy practice BDO, plus Poumpouris reported that a growing trend is for landlords of multi-tenanted office spaces to add in foodservice facilities, of which Chiller Box has recently picked up a number of projects.
The distributor has always aimed to be bold with its brand, using bright yellow and blue in the logo and eye-catching initiatives like painting a 50s pin up girl on the yellow Fiat 500 the directors drove to trade shows in. “It was all about getting ourselves noticed – our website and our branding have always been fresh and we were one of the first to dabble in social media,” Poumpouris said. In fact, Chiller Box has just updated its site once again, this time ensuring it is mobile device compatible.
In terms of staff, historically the firm has numbered between four and seven, as well as Poumpouris and Michael. Functions such as marketing, IT support, human resources and payroll are outsourced. “We have got a bigger business mentality with a small core at the heart, doing what we do really well – winning and delivering projects,” commented Poumpouris.
Until now, he and Michael have led the project sales and design processes, liaising with the in-house CAD designer to come up with a final specification. But now they are looking for additional experienced project managers and possibly salespeople, going forwards. “They are key members of the team that we would like to add to facilitate growth,” he said. “This will free up some of our time to develop new business.
“We are at that stage where we want to push for the next level of growth. We have had a fantastic year insomuch as the projects that we’ve won and delivered. The business has plateaued a bit over the past couple of years, but that has generally been the pattern for us, we have a little growth spurt then we plateau.
“The whole post Brexit period was tough but there’s been no shortage of enquiries. We have tried to be as profitable as possible, selling ourselves on our standards as opposed to price. Sometimes that’s meant we’ve had to turn work away, but we’d rather do work and earn what we think is fair for the service that we give than do it just to win on price.”
In the next few years, the distributor is targeting a 50-100% turnover increase and accordingly a larger team to cope with the influx of work – with possibly even a larger premises on the cards.
Poumpouris concluded: “Every step of the way we have upped the ante. I have worked in businesses large and small and I have tried to take all the best bits of all of those and mould them into Chiller Box. It’s all about service excellence and giving our customers the confidence that they are talking to a professional and knowledgeable outfit. We are still very hands on; clients are dealing with an owner of the business at pretty much every stage.”