LONDON — Long ago are the days when you could easily identify the coolest and scrappiest start-ups.
You had an inkling that the guy with the tattoos and check shirt polishing his copper vats in a railway arch was making a product untrammelled by the compromises of big business. Words such as “craft”, and its crusty offspring, “artisan”, were bandied about with abandon to soothe your nagging doubts that, months earlier, you’d witnessed a drunkard urinating in that same, as-yet-unreclaimed arch.
The plummeting currency of those buzzwords is tacit admission that some of the gloss of craft branding has worn off. It also signals what we deep down suspected all along, and which UK culture minister Matthew Hancock proudly proclaimed in September, that “the hipster is a capitalist.”
Lately, London’s food and drink businesses make no bones about chasing world domination, blessed with big-money backing from the outset (a trend led by Byron), while stripping the plaster away from restaurant walls for a veneer of casual chic. Here’s our top five picks of brands you may be surprised to find aren’t quite as “craft” as they once made out.
1. Meantime Brewery
Rifle through those racks of quirkily labelled beer bottles in your local offie, squint at the small print and you won’t find reference to the giants behind the brands. “Born and brewed in London”, trumpets this trailblazer of the UK craft-brewing scene. Except, that is, when it comes out of a Grolsch vat in the Netherlands, as the brewery was forced to admit happened last year, “sometimes”, just three months after it was sold to one of the world’s largest brewers for an undisclosed sum (a recurring theme).
Hark back to 2004, when Meantime was extolling “our philosophy”.
“The goal of the brewery is to provide a more flavour conscious public with a range of beers that provide them with real flavour choice, a quality currently not catered for by the bland range of beers offered by the big breweries.”
Skip 11 years and the business, founded in a tram shed in 2000, joined the big leagues, sitting alongside Foster’s and Miller, as part of SAB Miller’s lineup (as sales of lager slip and the still-small craft market rises). It was offloaded to Japanese mega-brewer Asahi Group Holdings in April 2016, but still talks about “modern craft” on its website. Which is unfortunate for the consumer, because most Brits think they’re supporting small businesses when they buy a ‘craft’ beer (54 percent), while more than a third think a company cannot be considered ‘craft’ if it’s acquired by big business (source: Mintel).
2. Camden Town Brewery
Camden Town Brewery sold to AB InBev, home of Budweiser, Beck’s and Stella, in January this year.
Here’s how it set out its stall when it opened in May 2010:
“From June 2010 London will have its very own craft beer and as the name suggests, it will be brewed in Camden. Using only the freshest ingredients and no brain aching chemicals, we’ll be brewing lager, wheat beer and pale ales. The best city in the world deserves the best beer.”
The brand soon ditched the word ‘craft’, instead letting its designy labels and hip aesthetic do the talking. “It’s taken us a long time to be proud of what we do, but within another three years we might change [the labels] again,’ founder Jasper Cuppaidge is quoted as saying. “Just so long as they are never too crafty or anoraky or corporate.”
That was before Camden went decidedly corporate — for a cool £85 million ($110.5 million). Like Meantime, ‘brewed in Camden’ is now more a guideline than a statement of fact.
3. Gail’s Artisan Bakery
Not so much hip as homely, but with “Artisan” slapped bang in the middle of its name, this retail spin-off of a restaurant bread supplier opened its first shop in 2005. Here’s what its website said back then:
“Remember when your local high street was full of independents? Today every high street is like stepping onto the set of the Truman Show – it all looks the same. These goliath-chains put small shops out of business, force property prices up and ultimately result in reduced consumer choice.”
That was before it sold an undisclosed stake to Risk Capital Partners in 2011. Gail’s was set to be floated on the stock exchange in 2014, but wasn’t considered big enough yet and needed fattening up.
In recent years, the venture capitalist has also got its hands on once-quaint Soho icon, Patisserie Valerie; its 31 outlets in London sit in portfolio with original London artisanals Baker & Spice (4), burger bar Grand Union (9) and farmers’ markets stalwart Flour Power City Bakery. Today, Gail’s has a whopping 32 stores in London.
4. Euphorium Bakery
“The story of Euphorium Bakery began in 1999 when a simple bakery opened on Upper Street, Islington. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know that we were starting a baking revolution…”
Having once touted “the best of British baking”, founder Daniel Bear said in 2012: “We want to replicate our bakeries elsewhere, but the important thing is to stay true to our products. We only want to get to a certain place, where everything that we sell is of the highest quality.”
Last month, Bear cashed in his chips on the opening of a chain of carveries called, appropriately, Carve. The Evening Standard best summed up his achievement: “Euphorium founder Daniel Bear walks away with his pockets stuffed full of Tesco’s dough. Good luck to him.”
5. Franco Manca
Worthy of an honourable mention is this sourdough pizza start-up. Straight out of the nu-gentry incubator that is Brixton Village and Market it strode — straight into venture capital. What makes this one different is founder Giuseppe Mascoli, who has generally eschewed the hostage-to-fortune route by opting not to extol noble missions. But in an interview with Brixton Blog last year, he said, “Shopping centres are awful places, they should be torched.” This was despite Franco Manca having opened a restaurant in Westfield Stratford, one of Europe’s largest malls.
The burgeoning chain was bought in 2015 for £27.5 million by serial food start-up backer David Page’s The Fulham Shore, which has also plunged cash into burger chain Bukowski, infuriating-queue merchants MeatLiquor, and FM’s Brixton neighbour and fast-rising purveyors of truthful sandwiches, Honest Burgers. FM has gone from 10 to 26 outlets in just a year since.
To Page’s credit, he’s publicly hung his hat on a price policy — that FM’s most expensive pizza will always be at least 50p cheaper than a Pizza Express margherita. We looked today and it was £7.95 versus £9.10 in Soho. We’ll check back again in another 10 years to see if that claim still rings true…