I meet Alex Hely-Hutchinson in the Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden where the 25-year-old entrepreneur opened her first 26 Grains café. It is a temporary venue but it’s impossible to imagine a better location for a health food joint, cooking up fresh porridge from a variety of grains, milks and scrumptious toppings: oats with hazelnut butter and almond milk, summer berry smoothie bowl with granola and bee pollen or tomato, coconut, avocado and halloumi brown rice bowl for a savoury tooth. It’s the middle of the afternoon but the café is busy. I notice the customers like taking pictures of their bowls – they are indeed the prettiest bowls of breakfast staple I’ve ever seen in what’s swiftly becoming London’s porridge mecca.
I ask Alex what inspired her to set up 26 Grains. Alex studied Economics at Trinity, Dublin. Students were encouraged to spend a year abroad, and she chose to go to Denmark. Alex fell in love with the Danish lifestyle, food, Copenhagen’s sense of community and the concept of hygge, meaning “cosyness”, “comfort”, “camaraderie”. She experienced it first hand in Danish cafés where friends meet to enjoy steamy bowls of porridge cooked with various grains and always topped with spices, nuts, berries or fruit compote with unapologetic flare. What a contrast with boring “oats, milk and sugar” combination Alex was used to at home!
Back in Britain, Alex spent the summer working with Jenny Dawson and her social enterprise Rubies in the Rubble making chutneys from discarded fruit and vegetables from London’s wholesale markets. After graduation Alex got a job with a health food brand Rude Health helping founders with PR and communications. The experience at food start-ups helped her make up her mind to launch a venture of her own.
“There is a great sense of community among women working in food from entrepreneurs to bloggers to women who simply love food and help spread the word about new projects”, says Alex. She started with pop-ups offering 26 Grains at independent cafés and other venues, catering for events before opening her first own shop in Neal’s Yard in June 2015.
“If there is something I’ve learned in the 11 months prior to opening my own store is that things don’t all happen at once. Everything takes time.”
Her patience paid off: even at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, customers flock to 26 Grains for a bowl of porridge. Alex is already masterminding next steps: improve brand awareness, write and publish a book of 26 Grains recipes, launch a retail product, perhaps. “My priorities right now are quality and consistency”, says Alex, which makes me think I am interviewing a seasoned businesswoman, wise beyond her age.
I ask Alex what she likes best about her business and she tells me about the relationship with customers. “It’s really humbling to see people making time for a freshly made bowl of porridge in the morning. They don’t mind waiting and we like chatting to them.” It’s hygge again, a sense of community Alex is determined to ingrain in London.
I also try to probe into the challenges she has encountered as a budding entrepreneur. “I am inherently bossy by nature so I sometimes find it hard to let go and let my team get on with their jobs. But it’s been a learning experience, I reckon I am a better boss now.” Alex also confessed that she found it hard to be on her own. “Sometimes I think it would be good to have another person who is similarly invested in the business and has the same vision for it. There is so much to do like being the face of the brand, speaking to the builder or a supplier, being an employer and thinking ahead that I wish there was someone I could share all these responsibilities with.” Luckily, Alex knows a lot of people her age who have similarly started their own businesses. “Apart from my family, there is a lot of support through shared experience among my peers.”
We talk about women in business and Alex says that she tends to consider everything twice before making a decision, while a man would just go with a hunch. Sometimes it feels to her as a waste of time; “I wish I just bit the bullet”, but on other occasions it pays to take time and weigh all options. “Ultimately, running your own business is the best school and the most rewarding experience whether you get it the first time or not.”
What is your greatest achievement? Probably seeing a customer coming back – it’s a really special experience to see someone return for another bowl of porridge because they liked it the first time. I also served about 250 bowls of porridge to people who slept rough last November to raise money for Centrepoint [UK’s leading charity for homeless young people].
What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Do it the way you want the first time. Stop doubting yourself, stop making lists, just go for it.
What are you good at? I don’t know… I am good at sweeping the floor! Oh and I can guess what a customer will order from how they look.
What is your weakness? I am not so good at pulling the trigger when making decisions.
What would you do, if you knew you would not fail? I’d become a popstar! (Laughing) No, I’d do something to engage children in cooking and appreciating healthy, wholesome food.
To find out more about Alex and 26 Grains, please visit www.26grains.com