Here Maria Johnson explains how her desire for a play centre that would both educate and entertain her children led to the creation of Eddie Catz.
As anyone with children will know finding ways to keep them entertained can be a struggle- particularly when you have two under five! However, when Maria and Darren weren’t satisfied with the selection of children’s play centres on offer, instead of just putting up with it, they decided to create their own.
“The idea was to do “Starbucks meets Playcentre with an educational twist. It was a dream at first but within a couple of years we’d done a fair bit of research and hammered put a viable business plan.”
Maria then used her experiences of working as a management consultant and Darren’s expertise, from being a professional Squash player and a health club manager to create Eddie Catz, a new generation play centre with an educational undertone.
“Our business plan hinged on his operational knowledge. We had a very lucky combination of skill sets, without which we may not have been successful.”
Eddie Catz has now developed into a chain with three centres and many additional features, including an online shop. And despite the ups and downs of developing the business, Eddie Catz has successfully weathered a recession, going from strength to strength.
“Play centres have been around a while but we were one of the first to bring a higher level of quality and a good café, a full pre-school curriculum, seasonal events and a cleaner environment.”
In addition to their high standard of service and educational features, Maria and Darren believe that their signature Character Eddie has also been a big part of their success.
“We invented Eddie ourselves – no fancy brand design or marketing agency – just us brainstorming. At first he was going to be a dinosaur (Eddiesaurs) but then we thought it would be too much like Barney. We decided it would be a cat after seeing a card in the card store. Our biggest compliments are when people ask us if we are part of a USA franchise – or one lady asked me if we were owned by Disney!”
Since creating Eddie Catz the company has experienced award wining success, with the business most recently winning the South London Business Awards “Best Medium Size Business.”
“We really didn’t expect it and we went along just thinking we’d have a nice evening out. It was the culmination of so much hard work so we were ecstatic.”
However, as Eddie Catz success has grown, so has the workload, with Maria and Darren facing the common juggling act of a running a business with a family.
“Our business is a seven day a week operation and even when you are not physically on site you worry – when it’s sunny you worry that you do not have enough customers to cover the bills and when it rains you worry that it is too crowded.”
But however busy their days are, both Maria and Darren believe that spending time together as a family is essential.
“We realize we are one of the few couples we know that spend an equal amount of time with our kids. We have a sort of “blackout” time between 5.30 and 9pm when we are with the kids – but I’d lie if I said we didn’t hit the computers after that.”
This strong family relationship has been a key factor in the creation of Eddie Catz, with both Maria and Darren taking inspiration from their children when developing their play centres.
“They have been up and down the country testing playframes and games with them. Our latest additions – Laser Tag for and a Mini Diva Makeover parties for 7 to 12 year olds are mostly owed to our children now being in that age bracket! The best was our 12 year old photographic the Virgin lounge at Heathrow and emailing us the photos. Our 12yr old is a big helper – especially good at replying to emails while mummy is driving. Our 9 year old is chief game & playframe tester.”
In addition to their children, Maria and Darren have also taken a wide range of global influences when developing Eddie Catz to enable them to create a truly unique brand.
“Our inspirations cover a wide spectrum- both in England and all over the world. As our business covers three main areas – play with an educational undertone, parties and food, so we look at restaurants, healthclubs, schools, amusement park and oddly enough retail shops – mostly in the USA as they really know how to theme.”
Using this wide range of inspiration, Eddie Catz has been able to increase the services they offer customers, in addition to the standard free play. These services include pre-school classes, that mothers can attend with children under 5 and a Salon in their Wimbledon branch where mums can receive a variety of mini beauty treatments, such as threading, waxing and mini facials.
But as Eddie Catz increases the amount of services they offer, Maria and Darren are keen to stay true to their quality values.
“Your centre is like your home, it becomes your pride. It also makes is hard to be objective and not take feedback personally. “
Eddie Catz centres currently include Putney, Wimbledon, Newbury and Berkshire, in the future Maria and Darren hope to continue this success by opening more centres and expanding into other areas too.
“We have a couple of ideas up our sleeve!”