Falcon Garage is an amazing new development that displays great vision. And so will its customers when plans to open an opticians on the forecourt reach fruition later on this year. The site, in Tadley, Hampshire, is owned by Suresh Patel and his wife Usha, and has been totally transformed during the 27 years since they bought it as a traditional-style Texaco-branded forecourt with workshops and a tiny shop.
Everything about it has changed beyond recognition since it was razed to the ground last year, and was re-born as a spacious modern forecourt featuring car washing, customer parking, a 300sq m Budgens store and a Subway.
However, there was one element of the business which unusually for forecourt developments these days hadn’t disappeared along with all the old bricks and mortar. Suresh had stuck to his guns, and ensured his servicing business was part of the future his modern workshops are located next to another unusual feature, an empty unit which will soon house the opticians."It was always our dream to redevelop the site," explains Suresh, who has a long background in the motor trade, as he worked in the family business which owned several workshops and forecourts in London, before he bought Falcon Garage in 1987. The business was initially a bit run down but Suresh soon revitalised it by putting in new tanks and six pumps, plus a canopy, so that it looked very smart by the time the Queen drove by on a visit to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) next door. The shop was modernised as much as possible, but at 600sq ft there was a limit to what could be done with it. Shop sales were about £10,000 a week, and fuel sales about 4.5mlpa.
One of the problems deterring a significant redevelopment was a lack of space. However, the site was located next to a pub called The Falcon, which ultimately presented an opportunity. "Luckily about seven years ago the pub came up for sale, and we were fortunate in being able to buy it," explains Suresh.
Initial plans to develop the site were put on hold when Suresh put his foot down about his precious servicing business. He was advised against having workshops: "I was told oil and food don’t mix together. So I said no, I need my workshops. I felt better having the extra income from MOTs, repairs and servicing, in case the fuel didn’t make money because of the supermarket competition and so on.
"But I also wanted to keep it because I love the garage business I would rather be in the garage than in the store. It’s in my blood, and something we’ve always done as a family." Eventually the development went ahead. Everything was knocked down in July last year and the site was redeveloped and re-opened on October 31. "Developing this site was a dream for me, because I never thought we could achieve such a big project," stresses Suresh. "It’s a big commitment. It has only been through the drive and encouragement of my son Dilen that made me go through with it."
Dilen is a dentist, who runs his own practices, and although a director, is not involved in the forecourt business on a day-to-day basis. Dilen’s wife is an optician, hence the plans for the empty unit. The running of the forecourt and shop is handled by the company’s trusted and experienced site manager, Debbie Wernham, who has a long pedigree in the forecourt business, having worked for Roadchef, Symonds Forecourts and Peregrine Retail.
Debbie was employed a month before the new site opened, and has taken a great pride in employing and training the staff of 14 and running the site, literally on a daily basis. She works seven days a week, from 6am until 2pm and will likely return later in the day to keep a check on things. She reports to Dilen on a weekly basis.
"It’s a great company to work for," she says. "I have loved seeing the business grow and the staff develop. They brought me in because of my experience and the transformation from what they had to this was massive. Fuel volume is averaging 170,000 litres a week, some weeks its 184,000 litres. The store is growing at the rate of £500 a week we’re currently at £41,000. Subway is doing almost £8,000 a week, and about 1,700 transactions are going through the tills every day. I’ve changed the ranges a lot, and I’ve changed the layout of the shop. For example, at the entrance of the store was a chilled promotion end recommended by Budgens. But this is a forecourt everyone is going to work. They want sandwiches and pies, they don’t want to see a steak in the morning when they walk in. They want to see a Ginsters sandwich, crisps, hot pie and a Costa coffee. I had to prove it to Budgens, and I did sandwich sales went through the roof, increasing from about £90 a day to £250 a day with Ginsters (at cost), just by moving the chilled section. The sandwiches had been next to the Costa machine, but because of the crush to get a coffee, people couldn’t open the chiller doors to get a sandwich out!"
AWE provides a big part of the customer base. It employs around 6,000 people, including a lot of contractors from Scotland who rent houses locally and travel back home at the weekends. So Monday to Friday is very busy in the morning and at lunchtime; the evenings are more about the local residents.
Average spend has gone up from £3.28 to £5.02 compared to when it was first opened, according to Debbie: "The chilled section accounts for 22% of sales £7-800 a day comes from that one aisle. It’s a very important part of the business. It’s where the money is, but it’s where the waste is as well. It’s difficult to run and needs careful managing."
Apart from a healthy flow of customers, being next to the AWE site also has another significant benefit security. "We don’t have a great deal of crime, because AWE behind us have their own army police patrols 24 hours a day, and if you’re really lucky you’ll see a policeman, fully armed with gun and dog and they do regular patrols round the forecourt," explains Debbie. "We have occasional non-payments, where people have forgotten their wallet, but actual drive-offs are one every two weeks, if that. Plus we don’t get any trouble at night either, because AWE patrol around Tadley. So for that reason I think we’re quite lucky."
Local competition comes from an Esso site, with customers tempted by the Tesco points for fuel. "But we get the shopping," says Debbie, "as people are so impressed with the store."
As Falcon Garage establishes itself in the local community it is starting to get involved in local activities, including fund raising for the local primary school. One staff member has done a skydive for Macmillan.
As Falcon Garage continues to go from strength to strength, for Suresh and Usha Patel, it is a dream come true.