‘I was in investment banking until I reached a point when I thought to myself, “What am I doing with my life?”
Neo Christodoulou, co-founder of The Athenian, has lived out a career in flux, eventually following his nose – and an adrenaline rush – towards building a street food business.
Together with co-founder Tim Vasilakis, Neo is bringing the Greek greats to the UK market: Souvlaki and much more.
They now boast six restaurants dotted all around the capital, and have one in Bristol.
StoreKit’s Adam Stead caught up with Neo to talk about future plans and technology takeovers. It was recently The Athenian’s fifth birthday, so it seemed like a perfect time to take stock on their success.
‘We had an interesting start. Tim and I didn’t know each other. We met on Twitter’, Neo explained.
If this seemed unusual, consider that Neo was a man comfortable with taking things in new directions often. In fact, he had already interrupted himself – like his career, our conversation bounced from subject to subject very quickly. He was now telling me about how he’d entered food in the first place – it was the next step after the world of… finance. ‘I took a one-way ticket to Sierra Leone. Everyone freaked out, especially my family.’
‘I went all the way to Ghana, which is a very interesting journey on its own.’ Some details about Ghanian public transport, now.
Neo returned to England with new goals and a better sense of focus. ‘I was scoping my options in a way…I wanted to do something.’
‘I realised I wanted to stick to the private sector as it’s much more fast-paced.’
He explained that he was – and still seemed, palpably – excited by what was going on in dining in the UK. This was the “food revolution”, which, after a year of soul-searching, how can one ignore? ‘There was the Chilango of the Buddhists popping up, Patty and Bun…There was Franco Manca. Everyone was raving about the Blazing Bricks market. And I thought that while all this is happening, there’s nothing Greek.’
He realised it was time to take the plunge. And, one near-success Greek restaurant attempt later, ‘I started another concept with Greek donuts, Loukoumades…’
‘I was selling on Brick Lane in the market on a Sunday and Tim was trading down the road. He found my Twitter and messaged me to say “I’m doing souvlaki, at the same market you’re doing this treat. Why don’t we meet and do a pop up?”
This was the beginning of The Athenian, as it exists today.
Souvlaki combines soft pitta bread, meat skewers and delicious sauces like Tzatziki, a Greek yoghurt-based sauce with cucumber and a garlic undertone. The Athenian menu combines that with salads, gyros, and at the time of writing – a veganuary menu.
‘We met, did a pop up and it went really well. So we realised there is a lot of potential with The Athenian. So we partnered and the rest is history.’
They shortly became a seven-day operation, taking on opportunities to trade as and when a space in London’s streets cropped up often running two stalls in different markets at the same time.
Built from the bedroom: The First Athenian
In March 2016, Neo and Tim opened up their first permanent location in Elephant and Castle, in addition to their Brick Lane stall.
‘During our street food days we were operating out of our flats. Both of our second bedrooms were turned into storage units to keep costs down. So when the opportunity came up and the rent was reasonable, I didn’t think twice!’
‘We were on the verge of exhaustion,’ said Neo. ‘We would set up and sell during the day and then in the evening everything from procurement, finances, to scheduling, marketing and social media had to go through us.’
Neo recalls the first weekend they announced the restaurant opening on social media. ‘It was heartwarming. Two guys came all the way from Kingston. And then another couple came from Reading on their way to the West End! I couldn’t believe my ears!
Apparently they had been to one of our pop ups on Broadway markets. When we did a pop up on Broadway market about 400 people were queuing per hour. It was insane.’
Neo’s enthusiasm is infectious. He speaks like he’s there – like recounting the anecdote takes him right back.
‘At that moment I remember thinking, “that’s why I do this!” It was very gratifying for me.’
‘We are now 105 people strong at seven sites and we managed to get to this point by growing everything organically. So we have no debt to investors.’
By organically, I infer, Neo means with their own money – no VCs, no big backers. It’s a point of pride for him. They grew from street stalls to a Greek food chain of seven stores in just 5 years. That’s the dream, it’s what he set out to do, and it’s what he did.
I asked him what he’d learned from the experience.
Initially, it was daily profit and loss. After opening a few more permanent sites, they ‘moved to a monthly reporting cycle. It was a big adjustment for us, which inevitably meant that there was a delay in identifying issues and reacting. But we were an agile team and we turned things around.
The one piece of advice that Neo would give to his younger self starting up a restaurant four years ago is: ‘Data doesn’t lie. The numbers don’t lie. Review them without delay, it’s very easy to get carried away with the fun stuff!’
Technology is helping out with the brains of the business. ‘You can automate a lot of things from how you do your orders, your inventory management system, and once you have your POS integrated too…then it enables everything. And then your delivery system.’ The benefits can be seen in revenue terms.
He gave an example. Advanced reporting allows Neo to pinpoint exactly why a food cost is, say, higher than expected. ‘Technology enables us to make more informed decisions about what we sell.’ They can then cut their menu so that it’s tailored to be exactly what the consumer wants.
‘So these are the lessons we’re learning.’
‘I’m a mathematician by education’, affirms Neo, and so crunching numbers is familiar ground to him. ‘What do the sales say?’ Listen to the data – especially when you’re in the hospitality industry and there are very low margins to play with.
Because of Brexit, says Neo, there’s been a host of other challenges; ‘the pound is down, inflation, consumer sentiment, uncertainty …And we don’t know how that will affect our business, because we import quite a bit from Greece.’
2020 and beyond
The conversation shifted to The Athenian’s culture. ‘Now that we have a strong team around us, we are focusing on developing our culture as an employer. I am keen that this reflects our values and that it is centred around people’s growth’ says Neo. ‘For example, our current Projects Manager, Manos, started working with us back in our market days and then grew to become a stall manager and further. Most of our people started in other positions, but seized opportunities within the business and grew alongside it..’
Vegan food, Neo opined, is also here for the long run – it’s always been important to The Athenian. ‘We turned 30% of our menu into veggie and vegan…The trend for less meat is definitely here to stay.’
As Neo tells us, there’s plenty more on the horizon. He’s hoping to increase the number of sites. ‘We are on track to increase our size by about 50% over the next 12 months.’
‘We would like to continue to grow outside. We took the first step with our branch in Bristol and it paid off. Spreading beyond London though comes with its own challenges in terms of spreading our operations so we are reviewing what the best approach for us will be to balance increasing our presence, but not spreading ourselves to think geographically.’
And delivery? It seemed to be more practical and operational than something Neo aspired to.
‘We have to do it, because it’s where the market is going. But we realized that as we keep growing, being on multiple platforms makes it difficult to keep track of things.’
One of the issues they encountered was merging all the systems and making them all speak to each other. There’s other factors to consider too, explained Neo – such as, will our product be delivered warm enough?
For Neo, ‘delivery won’t replace the need for interaction with the customer, but it’s not something to ignore.’
Dabbling in AI and robotic arms…Is it for the Athenian? Neo sounded excited, as opposed to daunted, by a future in which quantum computing and artificial intelligence will become keystones in the hospitality industry too.
We’ve seen the rise of 3D printers in people’s homes. Would you click a button and they get The Athenian home printed?
‘Yeah, I mean…you never know’, laughs Neo.
Of course, that’s how it all began – taking a plunge into the unknown and learning from every step of the way.
If you’re looking to start your own Athenian, be sure to check out our epos system pages and determine the best way to start your own restaurant journey.