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The Quirky Coffee Shop

We spoke to co-founder Ryan De Oliviera about his quirky coffee bar in a 19th-century public convenience.

Ryan De Oliveira, The Attendant, Fitzrovia

Occupying an original and unexpected underground location in Fitzrovia, you can find this quirky coffee bar in a 19th-century public convenience.

The Attendant, which was built in the late 1800s and ‘mothballed in the 1960s’, sat empty and unused for more than half a century before its transformation into one of London’s trendiest hangouts.

With porcelain urinals supporting the tables and the original attendant’s office converted into a kitchen, it’s certainly a coffee shop with a difference.

We first spoke to co-founder and director of The Attendant, Ryan De Oliviera, for UK Coffee Week, but couldn’t resist finding out more about his story.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background? 

I came to the UK in January 2005. I was 18 and had £40 to my name.

I started out working for a door-to-door sales company. Then I went into hospitality. After three years I decided I wanted a change and, ironically, vowed I would never work in hospitality again.

It was when I started working in insurance that I realised If I really wanted to make a difference in my life I would need to go to university. It was difficult to apply because the whole process didn’t accept the South African curriculum.

I graduated in 2011 and landed a job at Bloomberg. I enjoyed my first year but the repetitive nature of the role began to take its toll on me.

 So I took the decision to quit and figure out what I wanted to do. I like to call this part of my life the ‘crossroads’. During the crossroads period I met up with my friend (and now business partner), Bosh, to discuss my circumstances and future ambitions.

He had more experience when it came to running and managing a business, as he had previously owned a nightclub and events company in Bristol.

After nine months we bought The Attendant in January 2014 Nine months later we began negotiations for our second site in Shoreditch and are now in the process of opening our third and fourth sites. 

How did The Attendant come to your attention?

We originally wanted to open our first site in Shoreditch but came up against a number of barriers to entry.

Landlords were wary of letting a unit to us. This was because we had no coffee experience or retail experience.

After the 2008 recession landlords seemed to become extra cautious. Our estate agent came across The Attendant for sale and the moment we saw it we jumped on it. It was an opportunity for us to hit the ground running and it fitted well with our ethos.

What’s your ethos?

At Attendant, we believe that true innovation can only be achieved when everything has been considered and we take our passion for innovation far beyond our craft.

Our mission is to leave the world better than we found it. We only source raw ingredients that are ethically farmed, where the focus is on provenance and sustainability.

We want to ensure that what we have today is here tomorrow. Because it’s our responsibility to make sure that when crafting our coffee and food, we are also caring for the people involved and our planet.

It’s the attention to detail. Making the difference!

What makes the perfect coffee (and the perfect coffee shop)?

I would say that it is not possible to create the perfect coffee or environment. Running a coffee shop means that you must continually strive to improve both. And I think that it comprises a number of functions:

Quality – fresh/locally sourced ingredients and seasonal menus.

Environment – tailored to the character of each location, an interior that detaches you from the outside world and is re-energising and invigorating. 

Sustainability – bringing a sense of permaculture to cafe operations

Community – a throwback of spirit from traditional coffee houses; a space for free thought

Service – bringing customer-led hospitality to UK café culture without the premium pricing

What advice would you give to someone thinking about buying a coffee shop?

Make sure you have enough market data – primary and secondary research is essential. Know the market sector you want to enter well.

Write a solid business plan. Get help if you are doing this for the first time.

Get some work experience, some training in the industry. Talk to cafe owners, staff and suppliers. 

Have a clear idea of what you want your business ethos/brand to be.

It’s very easy to be led astray when you don’t have a clear direction or vision. You can send mixed signals to your customers, which will confuse them.

But at the same time, it is good to be flexible and adaptive to change as long as it is towards your direction or vision. 

Make sure you understand how to read and use financial statements, including: profit and loss, cash flow and balance sheets.

Know the difference between mark-up and margin so that you can achieve the right GPs [gross profits] to run a sustainable business. 

Create financial projections for three years. Run three scenarios optimistic, mean and pessimistic. Make sure you have enough cash for the shortfall in the pessimistic projections. 

Make sure you have enough working capital or cash to fund losses over the first years. It is very rare that an F&B [food and beverage] business is profitable from the word go from first timers. 

Have clear operational procedures. Doing things on the fly can cause havoc during busy periods; it’s better to have systems so people know what to do. 

Have clear standards for your team to follow, so they can meet the standards and ethos of the business. 

Have regular ‘coffee cuppings’ and team-building meetings.

Think about how you are going to manage your team and their performance.



Melanie Luff

About the author

Mel wrote for all titles in the Dynamis stable including BusinessesForSale.com, FranchiseSales.com and PropertySales.com as well as other global industry publications.

@Be_TheBoss

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