How did Balans get started?
In 1987 me and my ex-business partner Prady Balan opened a sandwich bar on Old Compton Street, which is the Balans Cafe now. In those days there was no Pret A Manger or other coffee shops, so there used to be a queue out of the door for lunch.
We started opening later at night to serve all the clubbers coming in to Soho and ended up with a 24-hour cycle. Christmas Eve was always a nightmare as we could never find the key to close, because we never shut otherwise.
There was no great strategy. The sandwich bar was packed so we opened [the first Balans Soho Society] up the road, and hired a chef who led us in to being a restaurant.
Taylor was a boring name so we ended up calling the restaurant Balans. Nowadays you’d spend 100 grand on someone inventing the name for you, whereas for us it was because we were filling in the licensing form.
30 years is a long time for a restaurant to be open, what is the secret to Balans’ longevity?
I bought Prady out in 2013. The business was run like a one man band with no great strategy, and I think that took its toll in the early 2000’s. We had several restaurants in Miami, five over here, and no real identity. We had lost the sparkle we had earlier on. Prady kept America and I bought out over here. I put a real effort in to rebranding but keeping the spirit of what we had, and it seems to have paid off.
How important was the rebrand?
Hugely. Because if we had carried on we would have slowly withered. Someone famous said ‘when you’re green you’re growing, and when you’re ripe you rot’. It was very important because the alternative was a slow decline. We rebranded five Balans restaurants in 2015, updating the design and slimming down the menu, and in 2016 our sales were up 18 per cent. We’ve connected with the sort of age group we were connecting with in the 90’s, the people in their 20’s going out.
What’s on the menu?
The High Society Eggs Benedict with Poached Eggs, Lobster, Avocado, Bacon, English Muffin and Hollandaise (£12.50); The Infamous Balans Burger with Cheese, Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, Dill Pickle, Red Onion, Brioche Bun, and Double-dipped Chips (£13); and Togarashi and Peanut Tofu with Coconut Black Rice with Bok Choy (£10).
Cocktails include the Porn Star with Vodka, Vanilla, Passion Fruit and a Champagne shot.
You’re opening in Clapham in March, what can we expect to see in the new site?
We’re going to serve brunch and dinner and have got a 2am license on Friday and Saturday. Because it’s quite a big site we’ve put in a fireplace and a sofa so it’s a place you can go and have a drink as well as sitting down to eat.
What are your long-term expansion plans for Balans?
We opened in Seven Dials last year and will be in Clapham early this year. As long as Clapham trades as I think it will then we’ll actively seek new sites somewhere else. I’d like to be able to go in to east London.
Balans has a very bohemian feel, will it be difficult to maintain as the group expands?
If we were opening 20 a year then absolutely, but one of the strengths of the company is our staff retention. Out of 205 full time staff, five have been here for 20 years, 27 for more than 10 years and 51 for more than five years. We’ve got a real family feel, so I think we can open a few more sites without losing the flavour because it’s so built in to the staff.
There’s been a lot of talk about how Soho is changing…
Everyone remembers Soho as it was when they were first there. You have people being nostalgic about the 90’s, but I was there in the 70’s-80’s! I think the death of Soho has been exaggerated, but the rents and the rates are a problem. If you walk down Old Compton Street there are about eight places that have changed hands in the last couple of years, but they don’t last. People take the high rent because they think they're in the land of milk and honey and then find it’s not quite how they imagined, and then they disappear again.
You’ve had a lot of famous faces in Balans over the years…
Yes, because I don’t tell journalists who they are! The other day we had someone photograph Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss sitting outside the café, and I know Amy Winehouse was carried out of here a few times. While the publicity is great I’d never want to be somewhere the paparazzi are hanging outside the door. I think that’s why a lot of ‘cool and famous’ people come here, it’s not for the PR, they just feel like they’re coming to their own place.