Magazine article Marketing

Brand Builders: S&M Cafe

Magazine article Marketing

Brand Builders: S&M Cafe

Article excerpt

Its flagship outlet on the site of a legendary greasy spoon, S&M has reinvented the London caff.

Take a seat on one of the red-topped, 50s leatherette chairs at the Essex Road S&M Cafe and it's clear you're part of one man's celebration of British caff culture. From the baby-blue Formica tables to the black linoleum floor and painstakingly restored Vitrolite-panelled ceiling, this has been a work of blood, sweat and tears - and the best part of pounds 250,000.

The man behind it is Kevin Finch, founder of the S&M Cafe chain, which now has four (soon to be five) London branches; Essex Road is the flagship.

Finch used to run the Hartford Group, which included high-class eateries The Pharmacy and Montana. S&M - the name refers to sausage and mash rather than whip-wielding dominatrices - is a different proposition entirely, dishing out hearty, high-quality portions of S&M, shepherd's pie, chocolate pudding and other comfort food favourites to a predominantly local customer base, who spend an average of pounds 6-pounds 7 a time. Design gurus and food critics alike have praised the execution, with The Observer's Jay Rayner concluding: 'Good sausages. Fine mash. Small bill. What's not to like?'

'We were looking to contemporise the greasy spoon,' explains Finch. 'Nobody was pushing hearty British food and the cafe setting had all these warm, comforting, positive attributes. It seemed like the perfect match.'

That the Essex Road site doesn't feel like a horrible facsimile 'theme cafe' is attributable to the efforts made to source original materials. This was essential, according to Finch, 'because if you're not careful, you might as well end up calling it Churchill's and sticking some 40s posters up'.

At Essex Road the company was helped by the site's heritage: it was a caff known as Alfredo's for 80 years, the venue featured in the film Quadrophenia and a haunt of the Krays. At the other sites - in Portobello, Liverpool Street and Acton - the process started from scratch each time, the aim being to avoid heavy handed branding.

A visit to the Portobello version is a more full-on experience. The Westway flyover and Hammersmith & City Tube line thunder by, competing with pumping 'club classics', to deliver that quintessentially inner-West London ambience.

'We're not going to come close to creating an authentic caff if we start trying to con people into believing there is one caff and it looks like this,' says Finch.

He wants each cafe to look to the locality, the community role it played in the past. He stresses that customers who buy a 70p cup of tea are just as important as those who pay pounds 6 for a plate of S&M. …

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