The Real Eating Company is looking to open more than 15 additional sites over the next three years, building its estate to 25 café-coffee shops, founder and managing director Helena Hudson told MCA.

The business opened its seventh site in Cambridge last week – a former Pret A Manger – and is hoping to capitalise on the available site opportunities, due to the pandemic, in order to boost her footprint at a more rapid pace than previously planned.

The expansion of the business began a couple of years ago, before the pandemic, when several other coffee shop chains, such as Patisserie Valerie and EAT had closed sites due to over-expansion.

Hudson told MCA that through a contact at EAT she ended up taking their site in Chichester, and also took a former EAT site in Canterbury. “The value for us was that they were looking to get rid of these sites, quickly, with minimal cost. In some cases they were actually subsidising us to take these things on,” she explained.

The Real Eating Company opened its first London site in 2020, on the King’s Road, and is now looking at further opportunities to grow in the capital and the south east of England.

Hudson said the pandemic had accelerated the opportunities for businesses such as hers. “There are lots of empty sites and it’s given us the opportunity to trial London and other places,” she added.

“We have quite a few others in the pipeline that are close to completion,” said Hudson, adding that the desire for landlords to occupy those sites has meant, “the barriers to entry have massively dropped for companies like us”.

“The window of opportunity isn’t going to be there forever so we need to build our footprint. By the end of the year we should get to 10 quite easily, if not more. Over the next two to three years I think we should get to 20-25,” said Hudson. She said there was plenty of opportunity in London but at the moment she still viewed openings in the capital as “a bit of an experiment”.

She said the business has the funds to move forward with those plans, though she has been exploring the option of investment – which for the moment has been put on hold till at least winter this year.

Hudson has also been building the team in order to grow the scale of the business, with recent hires including a new group operations manager, formerly from EAT, a buying manager, formerly of Black Sheep Coffee, and former employees of Pure and Pret to work on operational standards and creative and branding, respectively.

“It’s an exciting time for operators. It’s felt like a bit of a rollercoaster because of how trade is, but the opportunities are there,” she added.