Alex Hely Hutchinson - 26 Grains

by Michael Cleland

Alex Hely Hutchinson of 26 Grains and Stoney St. on being a restaurant owner during Covid-19, the role of pop-ups and managing teams. 

It’s crazy to think that porridge once just meant a bland microwave breakfast to most of us in the UK and now has become something we know can also be indulgent, healthy, modernised and refined - served night or day, savory or sweet.

It’s crazier even to think that 26 Grains, the restaurant that has spearheaded this rebranding of porridge in the UK, began as a modest pop-up in Old St. station in 2014, developed a cult following, grew into a permanent site and then blew up into a globally renowned London food destination with its own cookbooks and recently a second site.

What’s mind-boggling though is that the whole thing was conceived, planned and executed by a 25 year old.

Alex Hely-Hutchinson is a professional cook, an author, an entrepreneur and an owner. She continues to lead and build her business with the second site, Stoney Street by 26 Grains opening late 2019 in Borough Market and countless other projects being worked on including most recently home cooking.

The 26 Grains story reads like a fairy tale of new business success so I thought I’d use this forced quiet time to catch up with Alex and find out what her secret recipe is - and whether it will need some tweaking in this new future.

Why’d you start a cafe/ restaurant?

It happened without me really realising. I loved the work and the more we grew I loved the people. Both who I worked with and the customers that came in. There's a camaraderie in hospitality that is very unique. The work ethic of everyone in the industry blows you away and the creativity it can cultivate and inspire is so fun to be a part of. I do enjoy being a leader and being in charge and learning from the people around to build a concept.

 

You master a new food concept, start a pop-up, build a brand, open a site off the back of a small Kickstarter, succeed, scale-up. Is that the magic formula for opening a restaurant/ cafe?

I would say it’s not a bad way to start! I was apprehensive at the beginning because I was inexperienced in running anything let alone a restaurant and didn’t have a sense of how difficult it might be. So in that way, my ignorance was bliss and we just made it month by month by really put everything into it; customers, food, structure, marketing, collaborations. I loved it. 

 

Do you feel like there’s the same culture and interest around pop-ups. What’s changed?

As you can imagine, the landscape for restaurants is going to change. When I first started, pop-ups were such a valuable tool in understanding your business - what it was that you were offering, running a business, building a community. In more recent years, I don’t feel like this has been the case and there have been more opportunities for people to start from the get-go as a restaurant. However, with the shock to the industry following coronavirus, I suspect that the pop up may make a resurgence as a viable option for people trying to get started without making long commitments to leases. 

You don’t see pop-ups in coffee - is it something people should be looking into? If so what’s the objective e.g is it building an audience, reaching investors, revenue? 

Yeah definitely, however, I know from events it can be expensive to hire coffee equipment for a short period of time, making it difficult to make a coffee pop up a viable option. That said, if you have an original idea, brand, objective and you can engage with customers and not expect to make a huge margin on it or even put it down as a marketing expense, it could be the best thing you do to enable you to get to the next stage of your business or concept.

Post Covid-19 what does running a restaurant look like?

I think anything goes. I don’t think we’ll be able to operate as a cafe/restaurant in the same way we were before. Cute close corners sharing a cup of coffee or wine, or on a sharing table where you strike up a conversation is sadly not going to start again for a while. So we have to think about what it is that we can do to adapt and diversify to what our customers need. We value our suppliers and producers, so bringing that to our customers. We have our unique recipes, so bringing them into homes and helping our customers discover that they can cook! We’ll have to come together as an industry at the same time as respecting the change in economic behavior as a result of CV.

What does this period of forced closure mean for Stoney and 26 G?

Forcing us to be creative, think about what we’ve craved and wanted while we’ve had a moment of pause, start again and think anything goes so let’s try some cool innovative ideas out and see where they get us. The hardest thing is not knowing what’s going to happen next, we don’t have many weeks left in us to not see a return. So it’s both an exciting time to see what we can come up with, but also a seriously nerve-racking time. 

As an owner-operator, you’re inevitably closest to the brand and the most invested in the business. How do you manage a balance between or what have you learned?

Create clear times with your team when they know when you expect them to take charge and when you’re going to come in and discuss things and have an input. The team at 26 G knew I was busy with the opening and that I’d be coming in 1-2 times a week. So they took charge, contacted suppliers, understood costs, created new recipes. It was awesome and such a joy to watch. I’m still yet to get to that stage with Stoney as we try to establish our menus, costs, customers, etc but when we do, I need to be honest with myself and let the team do their thing.