We’ve all seen it, heard it and tasted it – the London street food scene has exploded. The popularity of new dining destinations such as Brixton Village and Street Feast has proven that you don’t necessarily need four walls and a hefty investment to start a food business. Lot’s of us dream of quitting our desk jobs to do something we love, so I’m off in search of essential advice and inspiration from four plucky food purveyors who have already made the move. For better or worse, the Do What You Love era is here!
First up, it’s the Hackney & Bow Belly: my local foodie spot that rescued me during a painfully Wifi-less month in my new house…
Nell (31) and Omer (35) worked for years in the food industry, learning the trade at delicatessen, restaurants and bakeries before taking the plunge to start out on their own. Beginning by delivering artisan sandwiches by bike to London coffee shops, the pair then started a deli stall selling home-made cakes, chutneys and soups from locally-sourced ingredients. In October 2013 they opened their first bricks and mortar deli café, a cosy foodie haven nestled between Roman Road and Victoria Park.
“I’ve always loved food,” says Nell. “I’ve wanted to open my own cafe since I was 15, but life gets a bit sidetracked.” She worked as a baking assistant with a pastry chef before moving onto high-end restaurants like the York & Albany and Marylebone deli La Fromagerie. “I haven’t had school training – I learnt everything from my mum and dad”.
Working their way up in the food business has set Nell & Omer up with some useful friends. “We’ve got a kind of group of people who are all foodies who support us,” explains Omer, who used to manage Artisan Foods. The coffee is imported and roasted by a guy called Howie at Counter Café down the road. Their silent partner Klaus owns Prufrock café, a coffee shrine that runs training sessions from the World Barista Champion. As you can imagine, the coffee here is good.
“In an emergency situation, if I was dying or something and had to go to Costa – they foam the milk and leave the jug there and just walk off. You have it and it’s like molten lava. That’s not a fluke,” Nell chides. She has poured her discerning tastes into delicious organic & gluten-free products: savoury muffins of squash, goats cheese & sage; roast tomato, pesto & ricotta; kale, cumin & pumpkin seed; courgette, rosemary & cheddar.
“We’re good at activating friends,” laughs Omer, who got a pal to design their logo. Another friend John, an adventure playground engineer, helped fit out the cafe; sourcing the colourful boards on the café’s walls from a former Brixton playground. A local artist painted a mural outside and a first-time customer promised the pair her unused butter churner. “This business definitely taught us that you can basically start and run a business through kindness,” says Nell, who has been overwhelmed by the local response in this friendly residential area.
A lot of the café’s regulars live round the corner, and Nell & Omer go out of their way to make customers feel at home. There are board games, a chess table, a book swap shelf. “One of our customers described this as an extension of her living room,” smiles Nell. “I wanted a place that people come to as a sanctuary, that people can make theirs.”
Nell and Omer have been friends for 8 years and their strengths complement each other – Nell does the cooking while Omer does the accounts. “Start a business with someone who doesn’t irritate you. I’ve seen so many other businesses completely mess up because of personal issues,” warns Nell. “We can have a go at each other about something but we know it’s on a professional level”. “Then we go to the pub and get drunk!” Omer laughs.
In the beginning Nell & Omer were getting up at 2am, working 16 hour days to source, prepare and deliver their produce. “You need to realise you are gonna have to work whatever hours are needed” says Nell. “The first two or three years you’re gonna work hard and not pay yourself a lot of money – the rest will follow.”
The pair was rightfully very cautious about finding the right place. “This one doesn’t carry too high a risk – its small enough and has a one year lease.” The premises has housed three previous businesses in quick succession: a cafe, hair salon and tattoo parlour, all lasting less than 6 months. “People think they’ll have a go and make money easily. In reality it’s actually very hard to make money as a small business.”
How much money would you need to open a café? I ask naively.
“A place like this, at least £20,000-30,000 – taking into consideration you won’t make money for the first 6 months. It’s a lot cheaper outside of London,” says Omer. “It’s supplies, rent, wages for ourselves, bills, the solicitor, the accountant and tax,” lists Nell, eyebrows raising.
They emphasise the need to set a target. “There’s some people who will just try everything…they’ll try and revive it but you just have to have a stop point and say this isn’t working.”
But for now, things are looking chipper at this corner of Victoria Park, which Omer says is the last affordable nook. After two months, the cafe has started to draw queues. That’s when Nell got excited. “My friend was here and took a photo of the whole thing – I was so giddy with excitement because every table was full! When people come and don’t mind waiting, that’s a big sign for me.”
As new residents continue to pour into this leafy corner of Hackney, the area with the highest house price rises in England & Wales, I’ve got a feeling that business is going to flow nicely for Nell & Omer.