5 to go Co-Founder Radu Savopol on becoming a Romanian coffee giant, making brave choices, and the mathematics behind its rapid acceleration.
For years, Radu Savopol was used to getting home at 6am as the owner of nightclubs and restaurants. These days, the role is reversed as he wakes at the crack of dawn to begin his day managing one of Romania’s largest coffee chains.
“Moving into the coffee industry was one of the biggest bets I’ve taken in my life. I had to trust my feelings and my vision to create 5 to go, the brand, and the business where all my Hospitality, Restaurant and Catering (HoReCa) expertise came together with my inherited passion for art and architecture,” says Co-Founder Savopol.
“When I first decided to take a step into the coffee industry, I attended the 2015 HostMilano expo. At that stage, I had just opened six or seven shops. I remember going through the expo and seeing everything the industry had to offer. It was like being a kid at Disneyland. It was an amazing atmosphere. Nobody knew who I was or what 5 to go was. Fast forward to this year’s HostMilano [in October] and I’ve already got a lot of invitations, private meetings, and events to attend. The experience couldn’t be more contrast.”
Savopol established 5 to go in 2015 with then 20-year-old business partner Lucian Bădilă after mapping out their business plan on a café napkin. Savopol describes his role as the “mathematician mind” while Bădilă is the “ultimate salesperson”, a complementing partnership that has so far proven successful.
They were excited to bring the coffee-to-go concept to Romania after observing its fast uptake and ease of implementation in other countries. Up to that point, Savopol says Romanians enjoyed traditional Turkish coffee amongst a landscape “dominated by very poor-quality coffee from vending machines”.
“There was no well-developed coffee culture back then. Even now, there is a lot of room for improvement,” Savopol tells Global Coffee Report. “We wanted to come up with a business model that responded to the modern consumer [who is] constantly on the move, who needs quality and tasteful products at an optimal price and a simplified purchase process, and a brand to resonate with. And we succeeded.”
In order to get closer to customers and respond to a need it detected, 5 to go espresso-based drinks were first priced at 5 Romanian leu (about USD$1.10) with a goal to deliver “simple, fast and efficient” coffee. That price point has changed for the first time in six years due to rising inflation and operational costs, however, Savopol says the company still aims to offer customers quality products at a fair price, and customers have remained loyal.
The brand started with a small coffee shop out of a garage in the old centre of Bucharest, but Savopol’s plans were big from the beginning.
“From the first 5 to go coffee shop, which was no more than 12-square-meters in size, the pace of development has accelerated. At the end of 2022, we reached almost 450 stores nationwide, and each month we break our records and set new benchmarks,” Savopol says.
“It’s been an amazing journey. It’s only natural for a brand to be proud of its accomplishments, but we are 100 per cent entitled to be proud for reaching a strong position in the HoReCa segment in Romania in record time, and an outstanding 90 per cent brand notoriety in our country.”
Five to go opens an average of 13 locations monthly, with the company’s transition into a franchise model key to helping reach approximately 500 coffee shops. Around 420 of those venues fall under the brand’s ‘classic concept’, with others representing ‘coffee corners’ thanks to partnerships with retail and local businesses including Carrefour, Donuterie, and more.
“[As of August 2023] we are the largest branded coffee chain in Romania, with a market share of 48.7 per cent, and the largest chain of cafés in Eastern Europe, but also the most accessed franchise in Romania. We already have operations in France, Belgium, Great Britain, and Hungary and we are still targeting important international markets such as Spain, Germany, Poland, Republic of Moldova,” Savopol says.
“Each venue is strategic. I don’t just open one location internationally. It has to be accompanied by 10 to 20 locations and needs one to two years to really access its validity and market position.”
The biggest challenge as the company scales, Savopol notes, is how to transfer his business know-how and vision to his 235 franchise partners who contribute to winning the trust of tens of thousands of consumers each day.
“Ensuring all our partners embrace our vision and remain happy is very important. I try to visit each store after it opens and spend up to an hour building a connection with the franchisee partner,” he says.
In July 2023, 5 to go announced the opening of a flagship store in the historical centre of Brașov. Savopol says regional development is an important strategic pillar for the brand.
“One of the most important objectives of the group remains massive development at the national level, by reaching a total of 1000 cafés in Romania in the next four years,” he says.
To do that, the brand will track 150 store openings this year, with 64 opened as of August. The rest, Savopol says, is mathematics.
“Romania has a population of 20 million people and it’s a population that enjoys its coffee,” he says.
“Our growth strategy is not very complicated. We look at a map, we analyse the population numbers of each city, and how many high schools and hospitals there are in the area, then introduce a 5 to go store. Our brand becomes a meeting point for a city, a place for friends, parents, and children to gather.”
A key reason for its consistent growth, Savopol says, is the fact it’s a Romanian business that started from scratch and has a commitment to quality and diversity of products backed by a consolidated team.
“Our brand is more than a product customers appreciate. It is an experience provider, defined by the barista who we continuously train to be a source of information and inspiration for consumers – by the smile with which they are greeted, and by the variety of options available,” Savopol says.
That variety extends to 350 alternative beverage and foods options, but what Savopol has worked hard to critique, is the quality of 5 to go’s coffee, a blend of Arabica from Cerrado, Brazil, and varieties from the high plains of Colombia. About 160 tonnes of coffee is roasted each year thanks to Bristot Coffee, with the aim to be roasting 200 tonnes by end of year. Savopol says the rate of uptake is strong, with venues averaging 33 kilograms of coffee per month, compared to 20 kilograms per month in 2015 when 5 to go launched.
“The taste of coffee is among our top values, and it cannot be found anywhere else because it is a distinctive blend with an intense, full-bodied, creamy aroma, created especially for 5 to go,” Savopol says.
“But certainly, [our customers] want more than a coffee. They want a tasting experience and an environment that’s comfortable, social, and has a good energy. We are trying to always exceed their expectations.”
Meeting those expectations is something Savopol takes seriously and is why the brand launched its own specialty coffee brand called Lucky Cats, available in-store and in retail markets.
“Staying flexible and focused on the market’s current needs is a must. For instance, 5 to go is a global brand with a presence in the hospitality industry, but also with an accelerated growth in retail,” he says.
“I strongly believe that nowadays, the only constant is change. What we can all notice is that people’s passion for quality is constantly growing, and this also applies to coffee drinkers. We have a younger coffee audience. We try to keep up with them and their preferences, and to surprise them with innovations, from the launch of new ranges and products to creative campaigns and special offers.”
The last few years haven’t been easy for Romania’s HoReCa industry. The restrictions of COVID-19 resulted in large periods of uncertainty, while the war in neighbouring Ukraine forced the brand to adapt and make location and portfolio changes. Savopol says 5 to go has come through the other side thanks to making brave choices, which included being one of the first coffee brands to open additional cafés after lockdown.
“We used those difficult times constructively and worked more on strategy improvement, but what mattered the most, was that Lucian, I, and the entire team can rely on each other and completely trust our business model, so we were confident that together we can come back strong, no matter how difficult the situation,” he says.
“A leader should be the one to bring new perspectives, to inspire and motivate their team. Positivity and patience are very important. Because a relaxed environment favours trust and courage to express brave ideas and daring proposals.”
Those daring proposals include increased regional and international expansion where 5 to go intends to constantly increase turnover and market share. By the end of the 2023 financial year it had exceeded its estimated turnover by 5 per cent and is experiencing a 55 per cent increase on last year’s results.
In January 2023, it was estimated that more than 1.65 million customers drink at least one coffee in 5 to go’s network per month, and that 72 per cent of the Romanians have heard of the brand.
“In 10 years’ time, I hope every single person in Romania will know about 5 to go and I hope [our portfolio] numbers will make us proud even internationally,” Savopol says.
“Coffee has changed my life in so many ways. What I appreciate most, is my team and their success. Sometimes, I go to visit a 5 to go shop and sit there with my laptop and listen to the client’s interaction with the barista. For me, seeing customers come to our shop every, and happy, is the best reward.”
This article was first published in the September/October 2023 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.