Generation Next: The Athenian

By Finn Scott-Delany

- Last updated on GMT

The Athenian restaurant on its future plans

Related tags: Street food, Greek cuisine, London

The Greek street food player has just secured a restaurant in London Bridge for its eighth site. Owners Neo Christodoulou and Tim Vasilakis discuss bringing souvlaki to the UK.

How did you get started?
Neo Christodoulou:​ I started doing Greek doughnuts aka loukoumades, and Tim was up the road doing souvlaki. We met on Twitter, had coffee, and did a pop-up stall doing souvlaki and loukoumades. It really resonated where we could take Greek food so we joined teams, doubling up the van and doing festivals.

Tim Vasilakis:​ 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 product?
TV:​ I was cooking at home the food I was missing. At the time, Greek food in London didn’t justify going out and paying for it. I kept getting better and better, and saw 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.

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

How did you develop from your street origins?
TV:​ When it was just street food we only had so much space, so we 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 to cater for everyone with vegetarian and gluten-free so everyone can have access.

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

TV:​ Areas that have more of an office demographic do really well, such as Shoreditch, which is great throughout the day. As a product, souvlaki has a lot of appeal across demographics.

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

Athenian-3

How have you found the leap from street food to permanent restaurant?
NC:​ 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; you either have a dedicated team, or it ends up as a side project.

TV:​ Quite early it was clear there was a demand for the product. But it was also clear that street food was not something to do for a long time – it’s not scalable. At the end of last year, we completed the transition from street food to restaurants.

What is your approach to expansion?
NC:​ We assess new sites according to the opportunities. With Boxpark Wembley we had a relationship and after a discussion it seemed like an obvious thing to do. 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 food quality. It also allows us to be lean and find solutions as we go.

TV:​ 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 to open in more food hall-type sites?
TV:​ Market halls are great and low risk. But they charge for a revenue share. It’s probably good for really small operators just starting out. There are some schemes we just wouldn’t do, because we’d have to pass on the cost to 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 money on that. The model is here to stay and 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 are your growth plans?
NC:​ We want to expand slowly. We’re taking our time to iron out operations. 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 be a bit more selective. As far as London is concerned, there’s only two others areas we’re interested in. There’s no reason to expand endlessly in London.

TV:​ We don’t want to lose our soul as we grow. It’s harder than it sounds. Also, we want 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 people don’t like anymore. It’s important to understand the market, that it’s constantly changing, and be ready to adapt and see where things are heading. The pace of change has increased. We need to be ready for it.

NC:​ Brexit has been a major factor, with long-term staffing and tariffs on imports. It makes it difficult for us to plan. 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.

What else are you working on?
TV:​ We’ve been turning our attention towards plant-based options. We’re also interested in sourcing Greek pita bread in a gluten-free version, which is difficult as that type of fluffiness is hard replicate. It would be a game changer for us if we could offer the same experience but without gluten.

Generation Next is a club for the rising stars in hospitality. For more information on how to join, contact wb.jnggne@jeoz.pbz

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