Sam Roberts, founder of the 16-strong Boston Tea Party (BTP), the modern independent British café concept, grapples with the challenge of growing a business without comprising its core principles.

I’m often asked about the future of BTP and how many cafes we plan to open? What’s the end game? My response is always the same that we’ll continue to grow BTP at a rate that allows the business to get better. Better at what? Well hopefully better at providing great service, atmosphere, coffee, food, ethics, sourcing. I see my role as the guardian of such things. We’ve always set out to ensure each BTP is unique, a one off, rather than a component part of a homogenised roll out.

This brings me to the title of this blog, is it possible to scale a business like ours up and retain its ‘soul’? What do I mean by soul? Well our soul is embedded in our mission, which is: To serve good things in great spaces that nourish the body & warm the heart.

To not compromise on quality or ethics, to seek openness & integrity in all our relationships and keep our independent spirit alive. We see this mission as a mind-set, something that allows people to instantly understand what’s sacred and what’s taboo and act on it, rather than have to be told.

As we grow we want to develop teams that spread and instill this, so we scale up a mind-set, not just a footprint. So is it possible? Evidence to the contrary is strong. I’ll name no names, but time after time I see great concepts/brands slowly eroded as they scale up.

The biggest threat to ‘soul’ is speed of expansion, it’s just not possible to retain and nurture a business’s cultural identity (mind-set) when rolling out a breakneck speed. That sort of roll out means recruiting hundreds of new faces, quick time. Can you impart core brand values on a truly emotional level in a room with a flip chart and Jo-Lo style mic’d up brand champion bouncing around? I don’t think so.

Many will see this as the emotional ramblings of an idealist and site numerous examples of businesses that have scaled up incredibly quickly and made the owners (and often private equity groups) a fast buck. But what’s the medium to long term impact on these businesses, which are subsequently passed around different private equity houses with each new management team trying to find new ways to squeeze value (or soul) out?

The trick to multisite operations is to try and minimise, or even better, eradicate the erosion of the original concept as you grow. Sinking everything you have into a ‘one off’, obsessing about every little detail, ensuring the vision is executed perfectly every time can lead to extremely rewarding results.

Now try and do that in five different locations all at the same time. That’s the challenge we, and businesses like ours, face. You find yourself pressured to ‘streamline’, simplify, drive economies of scale and buy products in as opposed to make them in house, squeeze GPs, slash labour % and ultimately drive the bottom line. All fine if your primary objective is to make more cash.

Is there another way? Is it possible to scale up business and retain (and dare I say it, perhaps enhance) its soul? I do hope so. Time will tell I guess.