The trio behind Caravan joke that they should have copyrighted the concept of relaxed, all-day dining. Though it sounds far from revolutionary these days, when the Antipodean-style restaurant/coffee shop hybrid opened its doors in 2010 it was one of a handful of London venues that made a good fist of selling food and drink throughout the day.
Along with the likes of Bill’s and Loungers, New Zealanders Miles Kirby, Laura Harper-Hinton & Chris Ammermann can take some credit for the more casual end of the restaurant industry’s shift to all-day dining. While the space in which the now four-strong Caravan operates has become far busier, its business model remains as potent as the espressos it serves.
The trio met at Wellington restaurant Mondo Cucina in the late ’90s. “I was the maître d’, Chris was at the bar and Miles was head chef. We used to sit at the bar drinking tequila and talking about what we wanted to do, and became good mates in the process,” says Harper-Hinton, who leads the brand marketing and business design. Kirby oversees food as executive chef and Ammermann looks after coffee as well as finance and property.
As many Kiwis do, the trio ended up in London as part of their BOE (Big Overseas Experience) and quickly spotted a gap in the market for a relaxed restaurant with a well-travelled food offer and in-house roastery. Opening such a business in New Zealand would have been like trying to sell ice to Eskimos but, in London, it was a breath of fresh air.
Caravan opened in Exmouth Market in 2010. With its downstairs roastery, the 50-cover restaurant was well received but it was the second site that got the group noticed and established the blueprint for future sites.
Though they were warned against it at the time, the trio struck a deal with developer Argent LLP to open in an enormous former Victorian grain store in Granary Square in King’s Cross in 2012. Now far and away the group’s busiest site, it serves up to 650 brunches on Sundays.
In 2016, Caravan opened a site at the Old Metal Box Factory in Bankside, another area of London that’s currently being regenerated. Then, last year, it opened in the City’s Bloomberg Arcade – very different territory for the brand. “It’s a new demographic for us but we could not be happier with it,” says Ammermann. “The biggest surprise is the strength of the brunch business at weekends; being in the heart of the City, we thought it would be quiet. At the moment we are using it as overflow for King’s Cross. If we’re fully booked, we send people there.”
“The thing about [Bloomberg] that excites me is that we feel like we’re really catering for the women of the City,” chips in Harper-Hinton. “We have always skewered towards women because our offering is healthy and our venues are relaxed. There are a lot of rather masculine venues in that bit of town, so Caravan City is a good counterbalance.”
One of the strengths of Caravan’s model is that its restaurants sweat their assets throughout the day, from an early morning pastry right through to a late-night espresso martini. Restaurant design has played a crucial role in this.
“Lighting is key for transitioning from day to night, you need to be able to control it properly,” says Harper-Hinton.
“Another thing that helps is that we’re very picky about where we go. We like characterful buildings and ensure our sites reflect the feel and demographic of what’s around them. For example, the King’s Cross site is next to Central Saint Martins so we designed it to be suitable for use as a canteen or work space.”
A well-travelled food offering
There’s a considerable amount of menu variation at each location but the price point and key dishes are the same. All made fresh in-house, the food is high quality, global, eclectic and distinctive with confident use of spices and other punchy flavours. All sites offer breakfast, brunch and, from 12-noon, all-day menus that have considerable crossover in terms of dishes and – sensibly – mise en place.
Key breakfast dishes include jalapeño cornbread, tomatillo salsa, smoked pimenton cotija, fried eggs (£9.50); and slow-roast pork belly, kimchi pancake, gochujang ketchup and duck egg (£12). Lunch and dinner mains – or ‘plates’ as Caravan calls them – include baked cod, chat masala dhal, lime pickle, cumin yoghurt (£19); and Iberico secreto, ramsons, corona bean purée (£16).
All the restaurants apart from the smaller original Exmouth Market location serve pizza and there is also a wide range of dishes designed for those watching what they eat.
Kirby says: “Los Angeles and San Francisco are driving a lot of food innovation. California is where much of the diet-related trends are coming from. We’ve always been health-led. We do lots of plant-based stuff. We bake energy balls. We were one of the pioneers of avocado on toast in London. So I guess anyone that hates that stuff can blame us.”
“We put kombucha on the menu a few years ago. Hardly anyone ordered it at first but sales have now quadrupled,” adds Harper-Hinton. Sales of its Golden Spiced milk (what some venues call a turmeric latte) are also on the up, as are its turmeric shots.
The daily grind
What sets Caravan’s offer apart from most competitors is the quality of its coffee. Its single best-selling item is the flat white. “There’s an argument between New Zealand and Australia over which country invented it, but we all know it was us Kiwis,” says Kirby, leaning over to speak right into the dictaphone for extra effect.
Caravan’s coffee wholesale business now eclipses its restaurant arm, accounting for 75% of turnover. Over the past five years, the business has transitioned from using middle men to trading directly with growers (the relationship model of coffee sourcing). It has invested in a Colombian farm called El Phoenix and works with small-scale farmers in other South and Central America countries and also Africa.
“We have to work with importers to get it here, but 95% of the coffee we serve comes from farms we’ve been to,” says Ammermann.
Coffee is no longer roasted on-site at any of the Caravan restaurants, although the original Exmouth Market site does retain one for decorative purposes. “The roasting operation has now outgrown the sites, it’s not practical to roast 3,000kg of coffee per week in a busy restaurant.”
Beans are roasted at a temporary unit in Enfield but, this summer, the trio will open a new roastery within a 8,500sq ft warehouse in Holloway. The Victorian building will also house a coffee shop, a coffee school for staff training, a development kitchen, a space to make Caravan’s range of kombuchas, shrubs and sodas and Caravan’s head office.
One might think that controlling pretty much the whole coffee supply chain would make serving coffee more profitable, but it’s the reverse. “It takes a lot of time and money to build these relationships and you need a big team of specialist staff,” says Ammermann. “The model of direct trade also means that you pay well above the market price of coffee because the cost is dictated by quality rather than the commodity rate.”
A large site in Fitzrozia will open around the same time as the Holloway roastery. Located in the former BBC Radio 1 recording studios, the 6,000sq ft venue, in a nod to the building’s history, will feature a downstairs record room.
The Great Portland Street site will also see the debut of CTG (Caravan To Go). The sub brand will trade from a dedicated area with its own counter and will offer a much quicker, grab-and-go style service.
“It will revolve around a strong home-made patisserie offer but we’ll also offer hot food including chicken and rice; dahl; and breakfast bowls,” says Kirby. “It will all be assembled to order so it will be super fresh. It will have a separate seating area that will transition to a more relaxed drinks-focused area in the evening.”
If successful, CTG could go into stand-alone locations. “The thing that really excites us about grab-and-go is that speciality coffee has so far had only very minor penetration. There’s a huge opportunity for Caravan there,” says Ammermann. Other businesses in Caravan’s space are also eyeing this
nascent area of the market, not least Antipodean-led coffee specialist Grind, which recently made a deal with SSP to open sites within transport hubs.
Caravan is looking at speeding up its coffee service for CTG. “The problem with grab-and-go is people want everything super fast, but you can’t make a great flat white in 10 seconds,” says Kirby.
Alongside a high-quality filter offer, it is exploring technologies to help speed things up, including semi-automatic milk frothing and online ordering. “It’s tricky because we’re offering a high-quality product, it still needs to be handmade by a skilled barista.”
The trio is also aware of the challenges of scaling a business with a reputation for freshly cooked food. “Real cooking is the foundation of what we do. It gets harder when there are four or five kitchens, particularly when our sites have multiple menus to manage through the day,” says Kirby, who still regularly cooks. “We’ve worked hard to have the right people in the right place and we’re also introducing technology to enable kitchen teams to communicate better and also centralise the speccing up of the dishes.”
Kirby also hints that the business may explore centralising aspects of its food production. “If we made all our cakes, pastries and bread in a central location, we could employ specialists, which would drive quality and take the pressure off the guys in the restaurant kitchens. But we would always want to control it,” he says.
Last year, the founders sold a minority stake in the business to Active Private Equity. Caravan has not signed up to a growth plan and, therefore, won’t be under pressure to roll out. While the trio is by no means immune to the headwinds buffeting the sector, they’re more confident than most.
“We’re about to hit a turning point in the market as some operators start giving up sites,” says Ammermann. “There’s a lot out there but we’re waiting for prices to come down. The chances are we will open more locations in 2019.”
This feature first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.