Coffee Republic and Skinny Candy: Sahar Hashemi

The Coffee Republic co-founder talks about entrepreneurship and how she's building on previous success

The notion of Britain being a nation of tea drinkers was a myth that, along with bowler-hatted businessmen and stiff upper lips, the country seemed quite happy to believe in. That was until Sahar Hashemi exposed us for the coffee addicts we really are when she opened her first Coffee Republic outlet in 1995.   Sahar, along with her brother and co-founder Bobby, realised that, unlike the US and much of Europe, the UK’s caffeine cravings weren’t being satisfied by coffee houses handily dotted around our cities. With British high streets now crammed full of cafes selling every type of coffee imaginable, it’s hard to believe that such a large gap in the market existed just 10 years ago. “I did some market research and realised that we were drinking less tea and more coffee,” explains Sahar. “We were taking on a lot of European habits, due to the increase in foreign travel. I thought the market was heading that way, so I made a gut instinct decision. “I loved the ideas as a customer, so I thought ‘let’s go for it.'” Sahar, a former lawyer, was inspired while spending time in the coffee houses of New York, on a trip to see Bobby, who was an investment banker. Although the duo had no experience of selling coffee (or any other product, in fact), they ditched their jobs to set up Coffee Republic. Sahar feels that being related to Bobby helped, not hindered, their fledgling partnership. “In terms of being siblings, my brother and I got our training around the sandcastle aged two!” she says. “You learn to fight with your siblings and then forget about it, you get it all out and then that’s it. “With friends, you are perhaps not as forthright with what you think and there can be a bit of politics, whereas there is no politics with a sibling. That relationship is going to be there forever, they are not going to just walk away.” Famously, the Hashemis’ business plan was rejected 19 times by the banks before they finally secured funding for their concept. “Getting finance is not easy, it takes a lot of persuasion and persistence,” Sahar admits. “But it’s unrealistic to expect people to throw money at you, when people talk about a funding gap I get annoyed, the structures are in place so there’s help there if you need it. “When I started up I hadn’t even heard of Business Link. Everything was difficult in the early days because you’ve got a new idea that’s very fragile and you’ve got to turn that into reality. It’s an uphill struggle to persuade yourself, your friends, bankers, suppliers and customers – it’s one big challenge.” Once the coffee bug began to bite the UK public, Sahar and Bobby found it easier to secure further investment to expand their business. Coffee Republic was floated in 1997, with turnover hitting £30 million. “It was a fantastic time,” she says. “It was the little things that made it so exciting, like seeing the first person carrying your cup of coffee in the street. That’s the beauty of life, you’ve got to be happy with the little victories until you’ve gone the whole hog.” Since leaving Coffee Republic in 2001, Sahar has turned author, with her book Anyone Can Do It becoming a bestseller. She has also launched a new venture, based on sugar-free confectionery, called Skinny Candy. Although she was once quoted as saying that there was “no way” she would start another business in the wake of Coffee Republic, she realised that, outside health food shops, no-one was making a serious attempt to sell branded sugar-free sweets. Targeted at the higher end of the market, the sweets, priced at 99p for a 40g bag, are being trialled in Coffee Republic stores with negotiations ongoing with high-calibre stockists Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. Having embarked on a second entrepreneurial career, Sahar feels that the UK is the ideal base for startups businesses. “I think the UK’s a fantastic place to start a business,” she says. “Around 10 years ago we may have been behind America, but if you look at the high street all the big brands are entrepreneurial startups. When we look back at this era, we will look back at it as a very entrepreneurial time.”


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