A hidden surprise

27/08/2013 - 14:48
After more than 50 years of lying dormant, an abandoned underground Victorian toilet has been transformed into a new café called The Attendant in Fitzrovia, London. Maria Bracken paid a visit

After two years of planning and restoring, The Attendant opened its doors on February 18th and according to founder Pete Tomlinson, the response has been incredible.

But when acquiring it Tomlinson, along with business partner Ben Russell, knew they had their hands full with the project.

“We spent eight long hard months scrubbing all of the walls, and cleaning everything up.  The construction side and the carpenters etc started works in mid-November last year and finished towards the end of January. There were a few snags we were working on every night but you have to put a stake in the ground when opening a business.”

Tomlinson says one of the main challenges was to preserve as many of the venue’s features as possible.  The original installations were preserved and cleaned, the urinals, produced by doulton & co, were converted into a small bar table, the Attendant’s office was repurposed into a kitchen and the original hand dryer still remains on the wall.

The size of the venue was also a struggle for the team. “It would have been a lot easier if we had a rectangular box to play with,” he laughs.  “Having such a small space to play with, there have been challenges whereby we couldn’t just buy the bog standard multi deck fridge, for example. We had to buy the slim line ones, which of course costs twice as much.”

He says turning this urinal into a coffee shop was the obvious choice for them. He explains why: “There’s so much going on in the coffee scene in London with the likes of Ozone, Caravan, Caffeine, for example. Everyone is pushing coffee to the next level and we wanted to be a part of that.”

 “People love this place. They come underground to visit us to discover what we are all about.”

“And it’s not just people in London”, he adds. “People all around the world are interested in the concept. We thought it would be cool to open up a coffee shop in an unusual space, but this seems to have developed a whole life of its own.”

Tomlinson says The Attendant has fierce competition, with the likes of EAT, Pret, and Abokado just up the road, but believes they have something quite unique. “To start with it’s a toilet,” he jokes. “But on a serious note, we always look to work with great suppliers.  With our coffee the beans are hand roasted at the Caravan roastery and our milk is from a tiny farm called Ivy House Farm in Somerset, who also supply Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason.

“We also have a lot of people booking in for meetings,” he adds. “We recently had eight people from the Houses of Parliament. We do some outside catering to a few offices and showrooms in the area and we also offer a curb side service for people who can’t come down as they may have limited access issues etc. We have tried to cater for everyone.”

Tomlinson is also open to suggestions when it comes to hiring The Attendant. “I am happy to look at hiring the space out for book launches, dating concepts, Mexican themed evenings and also looking at pop up concepts.”

Aside from its strong coffee offering, The Attendant also prides itself on its food range. The breakfast menu includes almond milk porridge, vanilla dipped French toast pastries and muffins, meanwhile its lunchtime offering includes a range of soups, breads, salads, roasted vegetables and cheeses.  Average spend is around £5-6.

Tomlinson explains that when starting out any business, it is important to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. “And if you are going to spend a lot of money on one thing, don’t scrimp on the other,” he adds. “If you have a really expensive coffee machine but cheap lighting, people will notice.”

“And don’t give up. Always pester the agents, they are never easy people to deal with. Create a good little business plan and spend a lot of time researching online, looking at global ideas. Always differentiate yourself and always strive to deliver the best experience for your customer.”

He compares the opening of The Attendant to buying your first house. “You make lots of mistakes and waste lots of money because you go to the most expensive places, but it is all a learning curve. I would do it all over again as you learn from your mistakes and make your next venture even more successful.”

Talking of doing it again, he says they are already talking about Attendant Number 2. “We are talking to a few people who are interested in funding for a second site, but for now it is about perfecting what we currently have.”

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