Caravan Restaurants has come a long way from one Exmouth Market café with a roaster in the basement. With five London sites under their belts and on the cusp of launching new Silk Road-inspired concept Vardo, founders Laura Harper-Hinton, Chris Ammermann and Miles Kirby tell Katherine Price about their journey so far – and what's on the road ahead
We used to sit around after work, drinking a lot of tequila and talking about opening a place," reminisces Laura Harper-Hinton, co-founder and creative director of all-day dining and coffee chain Caravan Restaurants. The group has five sites across London and is about to open its sixth, a new concept called Vardo, in Chelsea.
Harper-Hinton and fellow Kiwis, husband Chris Ammermann (director of operations) and chef-director Miles Kirby, met more than 20 years ago at Mondo Cucina in Wellington, New Zealand. She was the maître d' at the restaurant, Ammermann was on the bar and Kirby was in the kitchen.
A few years later and they all found themselves in the same roles at Peter Gordon's the Providores and Tapa Room on Marylebone High Street in London. "We came up with the idea for Caravan pretty early doors," says Harper- Hinton, however they didn't want to launch into opening a restaurant with limited experience of the London restaurant industry.
It was to be nine years before Caravan became a reality. During this time, Ammermann and Harper-Hinton left the Providores to work for Jonathan Rutherford Best's Urban Productions, which was later sold to Richard Caring, and Harper-Hinton was promoted to managing director. Kirby stayed at the Providores and worked his way up from to head chef.
The conception of Caravan
"We recognised quite quickly that there was a really amazing opportunity in coffee. There were Starbucks and Costa, which have done a wonderful job bringing espresso to the masses, but the UK perhaps wasn't as evolved in the craft coffee scene as New Zealand and Australia," says Harper-Hinton.
There were Starbucks and Costa, which have done a wonderful job bringing espresso to the masses, but the UK perhaps wasn't as evolved in the craft coffee scene as New Zealand and Australia
"There also wasn't a lot of brunch happening in London. If you wanted an all-day dining experience 10 years ago in London, you had to go to a French brasserie, which was a little… tired. It was the combination of the coffee roasting with the all-day dining experience that was crucial to what we wanted to do. When we first opened, there probably wasn't anywhere else in London doing that."
The first Caravan opened in Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell in 2010, a 40-cover site offering a globally inspired, all-day menu and coffee roasted in-house. They also launched their wholesale operation, Caravan Coffee Roasters (CCR), which they say is now "a really fantastic business in and of itself", which has supplied Rochelle Canteen, St John and the Modern Pantry since it launched.
Within two years the site hit capacity and the trio were eyeing up a second, larger site – a Grade II-listed Victorian grain store at Granary Square in King's Cross. At that time, the area was a culinary and cultural wasteland with very little else other than Kings Place opposite, the events venue which also houses the offices of The Guardian and The Observer.
More than 40 operators looked at the site and turned it down, and business contacts advised them against it, but the trio fell in love with the building and went for it. They suggest they were persuaded, in part, by Roger Madelin, then chief executive of landlord Argent, who explained the big plans for the area, which is now home to Central Saint Martins arts college, the Waitrose Cookery School, multiple retail and hospitality operators, including Dishoom, and the Coal Drops Yard shopping and restaurant district, which opened last year.
"We were busy from day one, really. We went from a 40-seater to a 180-seater with an outside terrace. It took us a long time to get on top of that," says Ammermann.
"We were actually hoping for it to take a little bit longer than it did, because we opened and then it was just rammed, and we were like ‘holy shit, we're not quite ready for this'," says Kirby. "But we won everyone back by smiling and just doing the best that we could," adds Harper-Hinton.
The group has never had a grand plan, but went on to open sites in Bankside in a former tin factory in 2016, and in the City's Bloomberg Arcade in 2017. A sixth outlet opened in Fitzrovia last year, in the former home of BBC Radio 1.
Caravan Restaurants and CCR have also since moved into new headquarters in the old Lamb Works warehouse in Islington, which is expected to have its own café overlooking the roasting floor open to the public by the end of the year. Part of this was due to outgrowing the King's Cross site, which serves more than 5,000 customers a week, as well as supplying wholesale demand.
"We were petrified about burning the building down as we were roasting three tonnes of coffee a week in a Grade II-listed granary building," says Ammermann.
Close to five tonnes of coffee is roasted each week at the new site. The group spent £1.2m painstakingly restoring the 9,000 sq ft Victorian warehouse, attempting to retain as many original features as possible. "It went over-budget, but we're thrilled to have a space for us and our support team to work in now," says Harper-Hinton.
Lamb Works is also home to Caravan's coffee training school, quality control space, a croissanterie and sourdough bakery, as well as a drinks lab, where kefirs, kombucha and ginger beers are concocted. After opening the café, the plan is to host events and barista courses from early 2020.
In order to plough ahead with the Fitzrovia site and the new headquarters, the partners decided the time had come to take on private equity, and in 2017, Active Partners (which is also an investor in Honest Burgers, Leon and Chick'n'Sours) became a minority shareholder in Caravan Restaurants.
"We chose them not because they were offering the most money, but because we felt we could work with them the best," says Harper-Hinton. "We didn't sign ourselves up to a business plan, we don't want to be forced to open anything we don't want to – we have control and autonomy over growth, the buildings that we choose and how we protect the brand."
And now, nine years and five Caravan sites later, comes Vardo. Caravan Restaurants is opening the new all-day global dining concept later this month in a glass and concrete pavilion on Duke of York Square in Chelsea, owned by the Cadogan Estate, having beaten off bids from more than 30 operators. The building and location were a huge attraction, as the team had already identified Chelsea as an underserviced area for the volume of people.
Nex Architecture won an international design competition in 2012 for the site. The circular building is the first in the UK to feature totally retractable glass walls that sink into the floor, and it also has a public roof garden, accessible by an external spiral staircase, that overlooks the Saatchi Gallery. The building has already won a New London Architecture award, and Lou Davies of Box 9 Design has worked with the trio on the interior.
The 120-cover restaurant, named after the ornate Romani travelling wagons of the 1800s, will have a private dining room in the basement "which will be like walking into the interior of a vardo".
When asked if there will be anything location-specific about the site, Ammerman emphasises that they want it to be a restaurant "for the entire community". Kirby interjects: "If your question is, are we just going to be putting the prices up because we're in Chelsea, then the answer's no. We've always been about welcoming everyone."
There will be elements recognisable as ‘Caravan' in Vardo, says Harper-Hinton, but they want it to have its own identity. "It's been a really great creative outlet to reinvent some things and come up with some new ideas," she says.
Vardo's menu offers similarly ‘well-travelled' all-day dining, and, of course, coffee, but the menu focuses more on the Silk Road as opposed to Caravan's menu, which has some south-east Asian influences. Caravan's signature cornbread will be on the menu, but in "a different format", and hearty "low and slow" cooking techniques will come to the fore in the winter months.
"It's been fun jumping back into menu development," says Kirby, who has designed the offering with head chef Tony Roberts, previously head chef at Beaufort House restaurant in Chelsea. Dishes will include shiitake donburi, red cabbage, avocado, carrot, smashed cucumber, brown rice and furikake; and charred aubergine, saffron buttermilk dressing and grilled Turkish chilli.
Ensuring they're engaging their creativity is important to keep the partners challenged and the brand evolving. "The temptation when you grow is to consolidate, to streamline, to structure such that you're actually hindering creativity and innovation," says Harper-Hinton. "We're not interested in owning a business that is so consolidated that it's literally just cut and paste."
We're not interested in owning a business that is so consolidated that it's literally just cut and paste.
After all, the London dining scene and coffee scene have both changed dramatically over the past 10 years and Caravan is no longer one of a few disparate craft coffee brands in the capital. "It's always been a tough sector," says Kirby.
"The reason people consolidate and shave and shave and shave is because it's tough in the first place." Caravan, he explains, "will continue to evolve for years". He points out that the original Caravan in Exmouth Market is quite different from the newer openings in size and design, and the concept and menu have developed over the years, and hopefully this evolution will keep the brand growing.
However, Caravan is subject to the same cost pressures as the rest of the industry. Harper-Hinton describes the "upward-only" rent reviews as "absolutely nonsensical" and says rates are being hiked "to a ridiculous level". But, thankfully, she says the business is in a "really good place" and is seeing annual sales of over £16m and like-for-like sales growth of more than 10%. The real issue, as with so many operators, is staff: "People are the biggest challenge right now. We are finding it difficult to recruit the best people," she admits.
To ensure Caravan is an employer of choice, they have tried to cultivate an environment where staff feel comfortable in expressing themselves at work. For instance, there are no staff uniforms, and yoga and meditation sessions have been introduced at the new headquarters. And as well as a ‘happiness champion' to ensure staff are kept motivated, there are also community charity initiatives such as Kitchen Social, which provides healthy meals to children in London from disadvantaged backgrounds during the school holidays.
"There are ways other than being competitive with pay that you can attract people to the business," Harper-Hinton says. "As well as the customer journey we're also focused on the staff journey – what are their opportunities at Caravan and how can we look after them day-to-day?"
New sites tend to be mostly staffed by employees from existing sites, ensuring the ‘Caravan ethos' is established from the start. Around 60-70 members of staff at Vardo have come from other Caravan restaurants, including general manager Greg Rosser, who has joined from Caravan City.
"We know what it's like to work in a restaurant and grind out 55 hours every week – it's not just about pay," says Ammermann. "They want to work for someone who gives a shit," agrees Kirby.
Staff also want to know they're working for an employer that cares about the environment. Every Caravan site has a sustainability champion, both front and back of house, focusing on the three ‘Caravan Cs': carbon, consumables and community. Caravan To Go (CTG) offers an industry-leading 50p discount to customers who bring their own cups (and those who don't get recyclable Detpak cups).
Caravan Restaurants is also looking into managing food waste better through solutions such as technology solution Winnow and using the leftover whey from burrata to make lacto-fermented drinks. The restaurant is already work with Pale Green Dot, a company that collects food and biodegradable waste for use as compost. And, surprisingly, it seems that nobody has noticed that Caravan hasn't served beef since 2017.
As a result of all these initiatives, in a recent staff survey, 92% responded affirmatively when asked ‘does Caravan promote a positive work environment?', and the top two words used to describe the working environment were ‘fun' and ‘creative'.
Caravan Restaurants clearly has no plans to stand still, with another site in the pipeline and further expansion on the horizon – although Vardo will be a standalone concept. The intention is not to open too many sites in the capital or exceed more than one new restaurant per year. Harper-Hinton explains: "We're looking outside London and wouldn't ever rule out international if it was the opportunity at the right time. It's certainly not the right time for us right now. We want to make sure our existing estate is operating as we want it to. Get Vardo right, get the next site right, and we'll see where we get to."
The possibility of expanding the CTG coffee stand concept into standalone sites is still being explored (there is currently one operational as part of Caravan Fitzrovia). And CCR recently won the accounts for the Office Group – a flexible workspace company which has nearly 50 sites across the UK – as well as a yet-to-be-announced partnership with a five-star luxury hotel in London.
A lot has happened since the trio's days of drinking tequila and dreaming of opening their own restaurant. Who knows what the next 10 years will bring?
The evolution of Caravan
2010 The 40-cover Caravan Exmouth Market in London's Clerkenwell and Caravan Coffee Roasters wholesale business are launched simultaneously.
2012 Caravan King's Cross restaurant and roastery opens in Granary Square, one of the first operators in the site and more than triple the capacity of the original site at 170 covers.
2016 Caravan Bankside opens in a former tin factory.
2017 Caravan City opens in the Bloomberg Arcade. The group takes on Active Partners as a minority shareholder.
2018 Caravan Fitzrovia opens, the group's first West End site in the former home of BBC Radio 1. The group also moves its HQ and coffee roastery to Lamb Works, a restored, Grade II-listed Victorian warehouse in Islington.
2019 New concept Vardo is set to open in Chelsea's Duke of York Square on 23 September. Caravan Restaurants will have 400 staff by the time it opens
A sample of the Vardo menu
• Flatbread, garam masala labneh, fenugreek-chilli butter, chickpea crunch
• Shiitake donburi, red cabbage, avocado, carrot, smashed cucumber, brown rice, furikake
• Charred aubergine, saffron buttermilk dressing, grilled Turkish chilli
Breakfast and brunch
• Green baked eggs, spinach, yogurt, elote, refried beans, ladopita
• Peanut butter and jam brioche French toast, vanilla mascarpone, maple
• Quinoa, edamame, buckwheat, broccoli, pickled daikon, toasted chickpea and mung bean grain bowl with sesame and soy
• Tamarind and coconut lamb mince on toasted sourdough, poached eggs, coriander and chilli
• Amalfi lemon tart with house crème fraîche
• Islands chocolate tart with blackberry cream
• Vanilla and caramel soft serve with a choice of garnishes, such as caramelised pineapple or rum-soaked raisins
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