20 June, 2012
The Continental-style London cafe chain Apostrophe comes of age with a 21st site this summer. Peach Report casts an eye over the brand
The concept French boulangerie- patisserie meets Italian coffee in a modern metropolitan fast-service café setting
Key selling points “What London was missing before Apostrophe was a café concept that was strong on both food and coffee,” chief executive Amir Chen says. “The idea was for a place where people could pick up a morning coffee, come back for some lunch and again for some cakes and tea in the afternoon.” He says customers also like Apostrophe’s communal tables (“They’re everywhere now, but at the time it was quite a groundbreaking thing to do”) and that the chain started the idea of cafés as places to linger, with free newspapers and jugs of water. “We wanted to get away from the grab-and-go formula. We want people to stay and feel at home.”
Story so far The first Apostrophe opened in Shoreditch, East London in 2001. A couple more followed, but the business then stalled. Chen got involved in 2004, invested fresh capital and professionalised the business with new systems and structures ahead of an expansion. It has since grown to 17 standalone sites, and from 2007 moved into Heathrow and Gatwick airports in tandem with The Restaurant Group; its next airport site at Terminal 4, Heathrow will be its 21st location in all. Early this year the catering giant CH&Co took a 50% stake in a deal that will also see it run Apostrophe concessions at office facilities and visitor attractions that it services, the first of them at the Tower of London.
The people Chen gave up a career in investment banking with Lehmann Brothers to take the helm at Apostrophe, and he has put his experience to good use. “The way I run the company is a function of what I learned in banking. It taught me a slightly different way of looking at hospitality: to analyse and evaluate and be diligent and thorough. And it’s a great thrill to see your work in action rather than sitting at a computer. Someone told me that running a hospitality business gets into your blood, and it has.”
Food and drink As well as long lists of French-inspired pastries, tarts, cakes and muffins, all artfully displayed, there are upmarket sandwiches and wraps and Italian-blend coffees. Apostrophe has edged away from its original boulangerie- patisserie formula to broaden out the food offer to soups, stews and salads.
Prices Keenly pitched for an upmarket concept. A regular latte is £2.25 and sandwiches top out at £4.
Audience The capital’s creative, media and City types are among the regulars, but Chen thinks Apostrophe is inclusive. “We try to exude quality and freshness, but without being snobbish about it. It’s a welcoming, democratic concept.” Apostrophe likes to take photos of customers with particularly elegant or quirky style—its “Apostrophists”—and keeps an online photo board of the best.
Marketing The vivid pink logo is typical of Apostrophe’s efforts to stand out in a crowded café market in the capital. So, too, is its social media activity, which includes daily tweets of menu highlights and Facebook-based design competitions. It is trying to spread the word about the brand (“We want people who walk past Apostrophe to be better informed about what they can get from us,” Chen says) but has steered clear of price incentives. “We’ve never offered discounts, even through the recession. We always try to add value instead.”
Social responsibility Apostrophe has always been big on community activity, supporting local projects and encouraging staff to be open to charity requests. Its unsold food is thrown out at the end of each day, so where logistically possible it donates it to homeless charities instead. “We try to help out wherever we can,” Chen says. Environmental issues are important too, with packaging sourced responsibly and area managers getting around branches by bike.
Future Chen thinks Apostrophe can easily reach 50 sites in London, with the City, West End and Mayfair top of its hunting grounds. Does the concept have potential beyond the capital? He has been offered sites in cities including Manchester and Liverpool, but does not want to risk compromising quality by going too far afield too soon. “We know central London well, and operationally it works for us. So going out of London will be driven by the operations. Until I know we can deliver the consistent quality that we’re happy with, I won’t do it.”
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