Greek democracy: The Athenian founders discuss bringing souvlaki to the UK

The Greek street food concept has just secured a prime unit in London Bridge for its eighth site.

7 June 2019
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How did you get started?

Neo: I started doing Greek donners, and Tim was up the road doing souvlaki. We met on Twitter, had coffee, and did a pop-up stall doing souvlaki. It really resonated where we could take Greek food and so we joined teams, doubling up the van, and doing lots of festivals.

Tim: Very quickly we got into Brick Lane market, which was every Sunday. That was a game changer for us, because we were constantly sold out from the first day. A little after that it become a seven-day operation, and we doubled up on markets, doing two at the same time. For those first two years we were only doing street food.

Why souvlaki as your hero ingredient?

Tim: I was cooking at home the food I was missing. At the time Greek food wasn’t there in London to justify going out and paying for it. I kept getting better and better, and I saw that there was a gap in the market for souvlaki.

It’s one of the things people in Greece eat the most – but also one of the things people not from Greece knew the least. It was about bridging that gap. If this is so popular in Greece, why couldn’t it be popular outside of Greece?

Neo: Greece was going through a crisis at the time, it was quite emotional. Working in the City, I would see Coco di Mama, Franco Manca, and I thought, why hasn’t a Greek concept happened? We wanted to put souvlaki on the map, and do it in a healthier way than conventional fast food. It was a perfect time and place.

How did you develop from your street origins?

Tim: When it was just street food there’s only so much space. So we just stuck to chicken and halloumi. It was only when we opened a permanent site we could offer a bit more. We now have halloumi fries, croquettes, loukoumades and salad - but the core product is still the same. We try and cater for everyone with vegetarian and gluten-free so everyone can have access

Neo: Elephant & Castle was our first permanent site, which gave as a base to start realising the potential for new things, such as craft beer from Athens. We have tap beer in Canary Wharf - we’ve found souvlaki and beer are the perfect match. None of our sites are really dinner sites – but we’re working on it. Boxpark in Shoreditch is very busy in the evening. The rest we do well in lunch - that’s how it’s been from day one.

Tim: Areas that have more of an office demographic do really well. Areas like Shoreditch are great throughout the day. As a product souvlaki has a lot of appeal across demographics and background.

Neo: We’ve been evolving it the food from the early stages. A vegan option is not something you’d find in Greece. We want to keep the authenticity, but also adapt the brand, and make it current for what people in London eat.

You have a number of container-type sites with Boxpark and Cargo. How do these differ from the other locations?

Neo: Our first location was a container, it was like a stall but permanent. For us it was such a big difference – we didn’t have running water, or heating – so to go inside was a dream. It was great to be part of the street markets, but with time we realised it’s a different animal, and you either have a whole dedicated team, or it ends up as a side project.

Tim: Quite early it was quite clear there was a demand for the product. But it was also clear that street food was not a sustainable thing to do for a long time, it’s not operationally sustainable. You can do it for two to three years, but it’s not scalable. We thought this was a way we could still grow, and then eventually go into more permanent sites. At the end of last year, the transition was complete from street food to restaurants.

What is your approach to expansion?

Neo: We assess new sites according to the opportunities. Some are opportunistic. With Boxpark Wembley we had a relationship, a discussion, and it seemed like an obvious thing to do. Also we’ve been quite open – we haven’t said we will only do this or that. We didn’t want a loan, we didn’t want external funding, or to pay ridiculous premiums or rents. That’s helped us grow organically without jeopardising the brand or quality of the food. It also allows us to be quite lean and find solution as we go.

Tim: The decisions we made two years ago, we probably wouldn’t make now. It really depends on the size of the business and the time. We are in a better position to negotiate differently now.

Will you look for more food hall-type sites?

Tim: Market Halls are great and low risk. But they are charging so much for a revenue share, I think people will just go in and go out once they realise. There will probably be a shift. It’s probably good for really small operators just starting out.

Boxpark doesn’t operate like this – but I wouldn’t be surprised if they change in the future. There are some schemes which we just wouldn’t do, because we’d have to pass on the cost to the customers and inflate our prices  or we would not be able to make a profit at all.

Some charge 25-30% commission. If you do delivery, that’s another 30%. The food hall operators also control the bar so you’re not making any money on that. Even airports don’t charge so much.

The model is here to stay. It’s a cool concept. People can go and share from different vendors. It's just finding the economics to make it work for everybody.

What is your outlook in terms of growing the business?

Tim: Number one – don’t lose our soul as we grow. It’s really important and harder than it sounds.

Also to continue to make food accessible to lots of people, but not to cannibalise ourselves, or jeopardise our brand and become another one of those restaurants that people don’t like anymore.

It’s important to understand the market, and understand that it’s constantly changing, and to be ready to adapt and change and see where things are heading. The pace of change has increased. We need to be ready for it.

Neo: We want to expand slowly. We’re taking our time to iron out operations. We will see. We are not adverse to getting out of London. Bristol has been great, and we will look at opportunities in the north and south, like Brighton.

At this point, we feel like we can afford to be a bit more selective. As far as London is concerned, there are only two others parts we’re interested in. There’s no reason to expand endlessly in London.

Brexit has been such a major factor, with long-term staffing, and tariffs on imports. It makes it really difficult for us to plan anything. If tariffs are too high, it will call everything into question. Hopefully, it won’t come to that, but at the moment there is no clarity.

Anything else you’re working on?

Tim: We have for the past few months been putting our attention towards plant-based options. That’s an interesting area. We’re also interested in sourcing Greek pita bread in a gluten-free version, which is difficult as that type of fluffiness is difficult to replicate. That would be a game changer for us, if we can go offer the same experience without gluten.

This article is part of MCA and Restaurant magazine’s Generation Next series, which celebrates the future stars of hospitality.

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