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Humble Grape owner James Dawson
Arts & Culture Series: Magazine

Flavours of City

From the simplicity of fresh fruit and veg to the complexity of opening a teahouse in a bustling Burmese metropolis, City alumni have launched all manner of businesses in the food and drink industry. Julian Rogers profiles a handful of the most interesting and hears the story of their successes.

by City Press Office (General enquiries)

This article is taken from the 2015 Alumni magazine, City Magazine.

City University London is not short of entrepreneurial alumni who have rolled up their sleeves to launch startup businesses in the competitive but exciting world of food and drink. For starters, ex-Business Studies students Matthias Gilles, Olympia de Proyart and Jules Couten founded popup style restaurant Flambée, which celebrates the traditional Alsatian and South German dish tarte flambée.

Meanwhile, Economics graduate Garvin Bhangu quit his job in Dubai with Deloitte last year to take charge of London-based Fusion Catering and Fusion Rasoi, two bespoke catering companies gaining a distinguished reputation for their Asian-influenced cuisines.

And then there’s 23-year old Peter Honegger, who launched Austrian wine store Newcomer Wines in trendy Shoreditch pop-up shopping centre Boxpark while studying at Cass Business School.
But perhaps the biggest success story is that of former hedge fund manager and City alumnus Niall MacArthur who, together with his wife Faith, founded award-winning sandwich chain empire Eat in 1996. With this in mind, City Magazine caught up with four former students  to hear why they chose to take the plunge and dive into the food and drink industry.

James Dawson, Humble Grape

By his own admission, former Cass Business School MBA student James Dawson has always been fascinated with wine. Besotted even. The 41-year old is what’s known as an oenophile. Explaining at the Canada Square headquarters of his boutique wine merchant and tasting event business Humble Grape;

I really love the product and I’m so passionate about it, the romance of the industry and the vineyards really grabs me. I'm totally obsessed with wine and learning more about it.

It was while working in the City six years ago that he decided to import 20 cases of wine and organise informal wine tastings in his dining room. The next day he would strap the bottles he sold the previous night to his motorbike and crisscross London delivering his cargo before commencing work. Yet this moonlighting left some friends and family members a little bemused.

But this wine connoisseur remained undeterred: after establishing Humble Grape with £10,000, he rented a warehouse and imported wines directly from France. He also organised tastings for financial institutions, law firms and tech startups. Indeed the corporate market, which accounts for around 40 per cent of revenue, insulated the fledgling business from the prolonged economic maelstrom.

Today, Humble Grape employs six people and imports wines from 54 family-owned vineyards across seven countries. Dawson recently raised over £500,000 in capital, including £360,000 from equity crowdfunding site Seedrs. Most has been ploughed into creating a Humble Grape wine bar and shop in Battersea Rise (opening in July 2015), alongside a subscription-based wine club whereby a ‘vinotyping’ algorithm selects wines to suit members’ palates based on questionnaires.

We’ll have about £50,000 left after the wine bar opens, so for the first six months we’ll try to break even and keep the lights on – it’s pretty hairy.

Indeed, he credits Cass for giving him the impetus to take the plunge. “I met a bunch of people there who were thirsty to set up businesses and who thought anything was possible. Cass gives you the confidence that you can just go out and do it.”

Htet Myet Oo, Rangoon Tea House

Htet Myet Oo had long yearned to resettle in his homeland of Burma – a country he left at four when his parents, both doctors, migrated to the UK. And that urge intensified for the City Economics graduate at the turn of the decade when the Southeast Asian country began to open up economically and politically.

The 25-year-old grafted 20 hours a day for six months in order to launch his co-owned upmarket teahouse in the steamy commercial capital Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon.

There was no place selling Burmese food to the level of Indian or Italian food in the UK, so there was a big gap in the market.

Teahouses are an institution in Burma – typically down-at-heel venues with an assortment of plastic chairs and stools spilling onto the pavement. However, the more salubrious Rangoon Tea House, situated in a historic, colonial building, caters for a burgeoning middle class and the steady influx of foreigners, including diplomatic staff (the American and British ambassadors have visited).

Myet Oo admits to being very much hands-on, spending seven days a week at the teahouse, which opened its doors in November 2014 and can accommodate up to 75 diners. He employs over 40 kitchen, bar and floor staff and two permanent electricians because the city is plagued by intermittent power cuts during the summer months. In fact, the teahouse’s back-up generator blew up on the day Myet Oo spoke to City Magazine.

Myet Oo, who imported and sold 4x4 vehicles to help finance the project, concedes that it has been a “huge learning curve”. Ultimately, though, the goal is a chain of Rangoon Tea Houses in Yangon and abroad. “In four or five years I’d love to open this in the UK.” Don’t bet against him doing just that.

Carmel McConnell, Magic Breakfast

It’s not often a boss candidly admits to wanting to see their enterprise put out of business. But that’s exactly the mindset of Carmel McConnell, founder of charity Magic Breakfast, which provides free, nutritious breakfasts – porridge, cereals, fresh fruit and bagels – to 17,000 children in 440 schools.

We absolutely plan to solve this problem and make sure there is no child hunger in our schools at all in five years – we want to put ourselves out of business.

But McConnell,who completed an MBA at City in 1993, certainly isn’t resting on her laurels, especially with 300 schools currently on the waiting list – the highest since she established Magic Breakfast in 2003.

McConnell was first alerted to the issue while penning a book about creating a fairer society. As part of her research, she visited schools in London’s East End and probed the teachers on egalitarianism in society. “Their response was ‘well, we’re bringing in food for hungry kids so what does that tell you?’ It was pretty shocking that children close to my offices in Liverpool Street were too hungry to learn.”

Moved by their plight, McConnell took it upon herself to deliver bagels to five schools for the next 12 months. And her altruism immediately led to tangible improvements, with teachers noting better attendance, punctuality, concentration and behaviour.

Inspired by the impact the food was having, she founded Magic Breakfast. Commercial partnerships with Quaker Oats and Tropicana later allowed Magic Breakfast to expand from 50 to 180 schools. Today, the charity has 34 core corporate partners and has passed the milestone of doling out six million healthy breakfasts.

Yet McConnell, whose varied cv includes everything from management consultant to anti-nuclear protestor, shows no sign of slowing down. “This is what I live and breathe.” For her it’s simple: hunger shouldn’t be a barrier to education. “The education system in this country is excellent and these kids will do well, but they won’t if they are going hungry.”.

Keith Abel, Abel & Cole

In the summer of 1988, Keith Abel needed a job and so hatched a curious plan to buy a bulk-load of potatoes from Covent Garden Market and go knocking on doors around South London selling them in 10lb bags. It begs the question: had Abel astutely spied a major gap in the market? “No, I just didn’t want to work in a bar,” the 51-year-old recalls with a smile.

As well as convincing friend Paul Cole to go into business with him, Abel, a 1992 graduate of The City Law School (then known as the Inns of Court School of Law), says his mother helped with the selling and his father bought him a pick-up truck to replace his spluttering £300 Sherpa van. However, it was when he met a Devon farmer who informed him of the concoction of chemicals sprayed on Abel’s potatoes that he decided to switch to organic, agrochemical-free spuds. That pivotal decision spawned the Essential Organic Veg Box.

This was at a time when consumers were taking an increasing interest in food provenance and organic was perceived as somewhat trendy. Indeed, many of Abel’s early customers were a mixture of journalists and, as he describes them, “it people”.

Partly through word of mouth, the business began to snowball. And by the mid-1990s, turnover was £3 million a year. Then the internet arrived. “It was really an internet business set up waiting for the internet,” says Abel.

Cole left the company (amicably) in the 1990s, but Abel’s eponymous operation soon expanded into organic and ethically sourced meat, fish, poultry, dairy and all manner of household items. Today Abel & Cole boasts an annual turnover of around

£75 million, handles 80,000 weekly deliveries and employs almost 1,000 people across the company’s 12 depots.

The business just wants to keep getting better at what it does, It’s still very healthy, with double-digit growth.
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