Dominic Hamdy — Lundenwic/ Crispinby Michael Cleland
Dominic Hamdy of Scotchtails, Lundenwic and Crispin on the pursuit of better, maintaining creative freedom and opening businesses with his best mate.
One trait that seems common among people who are successful in business is a perpetual pursuit of ‘better’ irrespective of the end goal.
I mean to be successful you also need end goals, short goals and it probably helps to have some plans and rigour too but I’m talking more about an innate instinct to constantly experience, review and improve. I’m talking about a more fundamental way of reacting to the world, that inevitably becomes intertwined with the business but exists by itself too.
It’s characterised by an insatiable curiosity and heightened appreciation for the finiteness of time. Decisions are allowed to be wrong and even celebrated for the learning experiences they offer but just don’t stand still. Keep moving, keep improving and tomorrow we'll all be better.
We first became aware of Dom and, business partner, Oliver Hiam, in 2014/15 when we’d heard about the two University mates who had built a cult following for their business, Scotchtails, renowned for having the best Scotch Eggs in London. Next we heard they were opening a coffee concept called Lundenwic on the Strand in central London. It too soon garnered a cult and then widespread following.
These days at Crispin, in Spitafields, they’ve created an all day cafe turned restaurant/ wine bar by night with one of the most interesting guest chef programmes in London where chef’s from the world’s best restaurants pop-up for extended residencies.
Whatever it’s channeled into, Dom and Oli, seem to be driven by creating and developing in the pursuit of ‘better’ so I caught up with Dom to find out what makes ‘better business.’
How did it all start?
Oli and I were at university together when our shared interest in good food and creating came together in the form of Scotchtails. We’d basically been frustrated by how hard it was go get a good Scotch Egg and were inspired by all the innovation that was happening in food at the time so decided to dive straight in.
We converted an old Post van and took a pitch at the Berwick Street Market in 2013 and by 2014, while I was in my last year at Uni, were were trading 5 days a week. Then we were asked to apply and were granted a pitch in Borough Market and scaled up with subletting a production kitchen and working through the night to supply delis then places like Wholefoods and Selfridges.
We soon learned, though, that making a good Scotch Egg is quite a difficult process to scale up and around the same time we’d been getting really into coffee so we started looking for bricks and mortar.
It’s always moving and evolving with you guys. You’d rather get stuck in than wait around?
It’s just the way we are. The end goal with us is never prescribed. There are some things it’s responsible to be proactive about e.g staffing but other than that we’d prefer to jump straight in and work it out as we go. I know what we’ll be doing in 6 months but can’t say what the future will be in 5 years and I value that creative freedom.
It’s one of the reasons we’ve stuck with incremental growth and evolving hospitality businesses that allow for flexibility rather than take investment. We don’t want to be tied to the concept that an investor has bought into and compromise the freedom to evolve and explore creatively. I would say this is particularly pertinent in the current climate, as the whole hospitality industry will have to look different when everyone reopens.
So you took the leap with Lundenwic. What was the concept?
Initially the concept was a cafe with a quick-service food offering alongside specialty coffee as good as was being served in London. The concept followed the discovery of the space which was a run-down sandwich shop at the time, with the owner having long since lost motivation to improve or change. This was 2015.
We wanted to be as central as possible, low competition, high footfall, decent rent. The holy grail really. It was right next to Australia House, LSC, Kings with no independents around so seemed perfect.
We spent 4 months fitting it out on a shoestring budget and had been inspired by places like Coffee Collective in Copenhagen and the Monocle and Workshop cafes here.
This was a sort of learning period for us. Lundenwic became a testing ground where we could try new things and learn with relatively low risk . We got to understand more about what to do, what people wanted, what works, what kind of things we were passionate about. In hindsight creating a concept that was fairly nondescript apart from good food and good coffee in a nice space with friendly staff has allowed us to develop and evolve Lundenwic into what is has become.
It wasn’t until maybe 1.5 yrs in that we stepped out fo the day-to-day and started working around and on the business. By that point we had built up a local and loyal customer base, many of whom are still regulars and have witnessed Lundenwic grow and evolve.
What did you learn in those 1.5 years. What is it that people ‘want?’
It’s almost been more about understanding what people don’t want as a way of honing in on what they do and how that fits into what we like to eat, drink and serve. We’d learned that things need to keep changing, improving and updating. We’d seen what happened with the previous tenant at the Lundenwic site and how that turned out.
On the other hand we’d had a formative experience where we invested into cold press juices and it became too complicated. I think the sweet spot is somewhere between never changing but staying away from fads. It’s got to be timeless + interesting.
Somewhere along the way we landed on our own style or philosophy which is about constantly developing the offering but developing in the pursuit of making it better - not trendier. We found the ability to attract and hire the best people possible facilitates this.
So then Crispin opens which is closer to a restaurant dining experience. Was this the next iteration of 'better' for you guys?
We were evolving the food to become better and better and we were beginning to find Lundenwic restrictive in delivering where we wanted to be at that time. On one hand there are some restrictions because of the floor plan (the facilities are actually more than sufficient) and delivering a dining experience but it’s also not the easiest sell to a high quality chef.
That is - we were closing at 6 when most serious chefs would rather serve a dining room than a small cafe. A really excellent chef is usually going to want a dinner service. Aside from that it was essential to us to keep the customer base we had already built up at Lundenwc. As such we needed to be consistent in the style of service and food we offered - very quick, casual and unfussy breakfast and lunch.
As I say - we didn’t want to be tied into a concept and investors and we like to learn and evolve and improve. Crispin was just about the right size with ample space for diners, yet small enough to run with a relatively small team. We saw potential in it to explore dinner, weekend brunch and a wine bar offering; all of which were new concepts for us.
Our evening manager, Stefano, is also our sommelier at Crispin. He’s made huge improvements to our wine list and continues to drive it. It’s the latest element we’re trying to focus on and learn how to promote.
The model at Crispin of cafe by day restaurant by night usually means one of those services works and the other doesn’t but you’ve managed to do both and be busy?
We’ve found this to be the biggest challenge at Crispin. We have a loyal following, however the guests we serve for breakfast and for lunch are quite often different to those who we serve for dinner and again for weekend brunch. There are a different mix of people at different times and for different reasons throughout the day and week. What the local office workforce want for lunch is different to what a destination bruncher wants on Sunday and different to what a diner is looking for on a Thursday evening. We offer what we ultimately want to eat and drink, however very much taking into consideration who we are serving and how the space should feel at that time.
You don’t want to drink your early morning coffee in a sexy low-lit restaurant, and you certainly don’t want to be taking your date to a brightly lit café with counter service on a Friday night.
What the model of cafe by day dinner by night does offer is an opportunity to build up a loyal customer base for every element you do. And once your every-morning coffee drinkers start coming for dinner, and your dinner guests start coming for brunch, you’re onto a winner. Our evening residencies have also really helped in a cross pollination of sorts attracting a new crowd every time a new chef starts.
The key is consistency in quality and developing or starting with a clear vision of what the cafe should look like and what dinner should look like.
So you're always using one businesses' experiences to inform the next. What’s next?
After this period I think we’re obviously going to be more cautious. We’ve been lucky in attracting some amazing chefs and having a residency programme which has been really successful in the evenings. It’s become the ‘practice ground’ (as Lundenwic was) again and having a variety of chefs cook different cuisines is how we’re working through how better to run a restaurant, lowering costs, increasing value, working out what people prefer and are willing to pay more for vs. the best way of delivering it.
We’re constantly noting how people respond to different styles, comparing different margins and matching it to how customers enjoy it. Developing all elements of Crispin; the coffee, food, wine and general offering is essentially the ‘next’ chapter. However after that it will likely be taking one element of Crispin and doing it better. Probably the food. We’d like to create a pure expression of what we think dining should be.
Best thing about running a business with a close mate?
It’s great that there’s someone who has the same agenda and always has done. You come into it already knowing each other’s limits and that we have the same free sort of way for developing. We’ve also in a way grown up together whilst running our businesses so have developed a joint vision and ethos of sorts.
It can go either way going into with someone you don’t know incredibly well.
....and the worst thing?
There’s very few of the normal boundaries that govern normal working relationships also so you can imagine it’s easy for things to go too far sometimes.