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Damson & Co / Evelyn’s

London / Manchester, UK

Words: The Ozone Family

With a background working in his family business of Indian restaurants in Manchester, Sax Arshad now heads up five unique and contrasting dining locations, Damson & Co, Evelyn’s, Railway Kitchen, Mughli and Queenswood. With these locations spread across the UK, Sax discusses the challenges and opportunities of operating in different markets.

What did you do before you opened your first site?

Before we opened our first coffee shop I worked for our family business of Indian restaurants in Manchester.

Why did you decide to open your first business?

I wanted to have a crack at London and do something completely different to what I knew. The idea was to create a local neighbourhood space. Even in the hustle and bustle of Soho there are locals, people you see daily and we wanted to be part of that community. That idea of creating a familiar space and environment which customers can use multiple times in the day was always important for us as we also needed to maximise the revenue stream, so the idea of coffee shop by day and wine bar by night really worked for us.

Was your opening a second site always in the dream pipeline?

Yes. I’ve always wanted to be part of a group of multi-site operations. The experience I’ve gained from opening new sites and going through the individual hurdles of each has constantly put us in a better position for next time.

Were there any brand new curveballs you hadn’t encountered the first time around? Were some things a little easier?

Our locations are all in different areas with different set of challenges. For example, Soho rents aren’t cheap and for us to just have a ‘coffee shop’ wouldn’t have been a viable option in that location. Working with Ozone on the coffee was great to ensure a strong coffee focus but we had to deliver the same thought process to the evening which is why we have a fully organic, biodynamic or practising list using a range of small independent suppliers.

With Evelyn’s in Manchester, we had the experience from Damson to be able to put a brunch offer together but then, with our Indian restaurant Mughli in mind, we really wanted to create a new cross over brasserie where East meets West. The Northern Quarter in Manchester where Evelyn’s is based is a creative hub where anything goes and people are more adventurous – so it seemed like the right place to try it out. It was a slow burner but now people get it and love it. It’s great to see. In fact later this year we will be expanding the space to include a basement bar which will complement the offer we have especially on weekends where we have wait times. I guess in essence we like to find the right fit for the location, it’s not easy but when you get it right it feels good.

Aesthetically, how did you approach the second location? Did you look to differentiate the look and feel of the existing space?

When Evelyn’s came up, we applied very much the same philosophy as we did for Damson. However in this case the space was larger, we had a full kitchen and plenty of seating available so it only made sense to go for a cafe restaurant operation. Again to be that ‘local’ go to spot where the overall experience no matter what time of day you go is a warm and comfortable one. Home away from home type of feeling.

How did you approach staffing and recruitment? Did some of the existing team move to the new location? What effect did this have on your original space?

Through our history in Manchester, we have always had a good reputation as a business who deliver great hospitality, so we were of course eager to preserve that. Building a new team is always difficult and is a slow process. There’s a big difference between service and hospitality. I was very lucky that one of our managers from another site was looking for the next step and was really eager to relocate and take the lead in the new space. He was able to drive the business culture having spent time in our existing businesses.

How similar are your businesses to each other? Were location, clientele and competition factors in defining the two sites?

Both locations have a similar clientele of young creatives, however the pattern of trade is different due to different geographical locations. Damson in Soho is always busy during the week and weekends, whereas Manchester builds throughout the week to the weekend.

What’s next for you, the business, the brand, the vision?

We want to continue to be creative in our approach and continue to seek out organic growth. We also want to utilise the talent we have across the sites more efficiently.