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The Smell of Success: Talking with the founders of Aroma Espresso Bar

crop1By Peter Saunders
Canada is a crowded, highly competitive market for coffee shops and cafés, but Aroma Espresso Bar has found success recently with an international twist. Over the past four years, this franchise system—based on a popular chain in Israel that specializes in European and Mediterranean fare—has been embraced throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), expanding to eight locations, with two more set to open at press time.

“With a social atmosphere and great service, the customers really enjoy their visit,” says Anat Davidzon, half of the Canadian franchisor team. “The brand speaks for itself.”

Davidzon emigrated from Israel 10 years ago, shortly after Aroma had begun franchising there. As she travelled back and forth over the years, she started to consider bringing the brand to Toronto.

“I was involved in business opportunities between the two countries and felt there was a hole in the market here,” she explains. “Toronto didn’t have a shop like this.”

She teamed up with Earl Gorman, who had experience managing restaurants and real estate. And at the same time as they were discussing the venture as co-franchisors, Aroma was already actively attempting North American expansion—not in Canada, but in New York, N.Y.

“Anat was on the scene with Aroma before me, but things were busy when New York was being set up in 2006,” says Gorman. “They didn’t realize what a market Canada could be for them, as well.”

As new business partners, Davidzon and Gorman opened their first location in Toronto’s bustling Annex neighbourhood in May 2007. It served as a corporate-run test bed, in terms of both establishing the Aroma name and tweaking the menu of gourmet-quality coffees, pastries and bread baked on-site, freshly made-to-order salads and artisan-style sandwiches to suit local sensibilities and palates.

“The name was a marketing obstacle at first,” says Davidzon. “This isn’t just an espresso bar, it’s a hybrid restaurant, with all of the meals made on location. So, we had to build word of mouth.”

crop2There was some existing awareness of the brand among younger people who travelled a lot,” says Gorman.

Through this initial phase, new items like organic oatmeal and steak sandwiches were added to the Canadian menu. Other offerings were renamed, such as the ‘Iraqi sandwich,’ known to Israeli customers for containing eggplant, which became the ‘Mediterranean sandwich’ here.

“You have to adapt to your market in some ways, “says Davidzon. “We are communicating and sharing information with New York about our customers and operations, as we are in the same market. This can be helpful for both of us, as we learn from experience.”

Once the business model had proven itself viable, the first franchisee-run location opened in February 2009 in the Promenade Shopping Centre in neighbouring Thornhill, Ont. This was quickly followed by more across the GTA, including high-profile commercial hubs like the Eaton Centre.

The newfound brand awareness has fuelled this growth, as Gorman and Davidzon say their customers now look for the Aroma name throughout the city.

“We have a good track record for consistency, which builds customer loyalty,” says Davidzon. “We’re amazed how many people take time to write or e-mail us. And they use the word ‘love’ a lot!”

Aroma’s expansion at an international scale has been similarly successful, with more than 150 branches worldwide to date. Nevertheless, Davidzon and Gorman are cautious with growth in the Canadian market, as brand awareness still has a long way to go outside Toronto.

“We need to grow roots before we can grow branches,” Gorman says, “but we are thinking beyond the GTA, including Western Canada and Quebec, when we find the right franchisees.”

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