Tim Vasilakis, founder of the Athenian street food brand, speaks to Lauren Bowes about how the pandemic has led to the rise of dark kitchens, and making his gyros and souvlakis the go-to choice for Greek food.
Where did the idea for the Athenian come from?
I started the Athenian in 2014 as a small street food stall at a market in north London. It was all about changing the preconceptions of Greek food and introducing gyros and souvlaki into the UK food scene. Our long-term vision is to make gyros as recognisable as a pizza or a burger, which is going to take a long time! People are more aware now, but there are still a lot of people ordering their first gyros from us.
How did you move from a pop-up into a multi-site operation?
Very early on, I had an interview with Tower Hamlets council, which accepted my application to start trading on Brick Lane's Sunday market. That was a major boost and we were constantly sold out. From that it was clear it wasn't an experiment any more – the concept had legs and there was a lot of demand for it.
From 2016 we gradually moved away from the pop-up street food locations and festivals into shipping containers – very small but permanent locations – and then into bricks and mortar restaurants. By 2018, we were a multi-site restaurant business.
Then, in 2020, we opened our first dark kitchen with Deliveroo Editions – and then the pandemic hit. It was clear that dark kitchens were going to be the growth plan for the time being until the situation normalised.
How do you ensure quality from a dark kitchen?
In terms of operation, it's not so different because our concept is takeaway anyway. Even in our bricks and mortar restaurants we have a self-checkout kiosk, so customer interaction is limited.
In terms of quality, with Deliveroo, I would say it's actually a little bit easier to monitor standards, because everything is electronic. For every transaction, people leave a review, whereas in a bricks and mortar site, you do a sale over the counter and unless a diner then goes to Google and leaves a review, you will never know how they felt or if they thought the food was any good. In that sense, we have more insight and we can monitor the level of service, the quality and so on.
What are your future plans?
To double in size in the next eight to 10 months. We've already got seven sites confirmed until January 2022, and we're reviewing two more. We've also got really exciting plans for launching the Athenian into an out-of-Europe territory, but I can't say where until it's signed. We're also looking at launching into a European country, probably by the end of the year.
We are also rebranding – the company is still going to be called the Athenian and it's still going to have an owl in the logo, but we are going to bring it along with the times and make it a super-current brand for 2022.
My goal for the Athenian is not just about the Greek category: I want to stand out from the crowd of all food brands. There are amazing burger, pizza and ramen brands, and you look at that brand and say, ‘Wow, that is the best brand I can go to' – I want the Athenian to be that for the Greek category. That is the vision in terms of brand, design, food quality standards and so on.
The new branding is going to scream ‘Athens', but in a very subtle and understated way – but the modern, new Athens. We avoid playing on stereotypes – all the things that have been done to death about Greek food and Greek culture, such as references to Ancient Greece and using blue and white. We try to keep it minimal, current, simple and bold.
The new branding is going to scream ‘Athens', but in a very subtle and understated way – but the modern, new Athens
What has been the impact of the pandemic on the business?
It has completely changed our growth strategy with the turn to dark kitchens. Previously, when we were reviewing an area where we could open a site, whether it was in or out of London, one of the criteria would be offices. Now we don't really know what's going to happen to office culture.
Most companies are introducing hybrid models, where you spend two days a week in the office, but we don't know if employees are going to be happy with it. There are two categories of employee – people who have really missed the office and want to go back, and those who totally embrace the remote working and would rather not live in a big city centre and pay the premium of rent.
I think the hybrid model will fail because it's not satisfying either group. The people who want to go back to the office will return to an empty office and not get what they want in terms of collaboration, while those who want to work remotely are going to be stuck in the same city.
So, for the time being, we are reviewing bricks and mortar locations and there are some good opportunities. But dark kitchens will be our focus.
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