We chat to JP Then, Co-founder of Crosstown Doughnuts and Slerp and founding member of early-lockdown powerhouse, the Collective.
Thinking back to the start of the year, what were your plans for Crosstown and Slerp?
That feels like a different era, it may as well have been four years ago let alone four months! The plan for Crosstown was to continue the growth we’ve seen for the past 6 years. We wanted to get as many Crosstown donuts into peoples’ mouths and satisfy as many taste buds as possible. With Slerp, it’s at a very different stage of its lifecycle. We’re moving from startup to scale up. The focus was building out the core team and continuing growth but from a different starting point.
It’s strange to think that it took a pandemic to show that direct to consumer online retailing is a thing, but it has.
Fast forward to March, what were the immediate challenges?
With Crosstown, it was like the rest of the hospitality sector where revenue fell off a cliff in a matter of days. Our focus shifted from growth to survival. We had to make huge structural decisions on a daily basis for a matter of weeks because everything is moving so quickly and nobody has done it before.
For Slerp, inbound just started flying in. People wanted to increase their online revenue as it was the only revenue stream for many businesses. It’s strange to think that it took a pandemic to show that direct to consumer online retailing is a thing, but it has.
How did you react as a business?
We always try to look at our strengths. We had a supply chain of food, warehousing, bakery, logistics and an established online channel that generated a lot of organic traffic.
We decided to band together with what we call the Crosstown Collective. We partnered with other food suppliers to start selling online. Within half a day we pulled together an offer of curated food boxes. That really gave us a lifeline to engage with our customer base and provide something that was clearly in demand.
Already it’s evolved and grown into its own thing. It’s become its own sub-brand.It’s hard to imagine running Crosstown without the Collective! Although it was a reaction to stay alive, it’s become part of our DNA overnight.
There aren’t many times in your life when the opportunity cost of doing nothing is actually worse than doing something. Knowing if I just stand still and do nothing, it’s certain we will fail is pretty motivating, you have nothing to lose! You get fast creativity when you’re pushed to do it because you have no other choice.
How were you able to react so quickly?
Slurp was absolutely pivotal! The platform is all about online, direct to consumer, retailing. At Crosstown we were early adopters of Deliveroo but hated the lack of control. You have to hand over your brand which you put blood sweat and tears into creating, pay a fat commission and you don’t even know who your customers are.
Staying true to their brand and their concept is really important to the operators who use Slurp – especially the more premium ones. They want their customers to have the same experience online as they do in person.
The Collective is an amazing partnership of independent brands, what drew you to them in particular?
The food industry is a real community. I don’t think people realise that. There are strong connections between many suppliers. I’ve known Shaun since before he started the Estate Dairy. In another life, before we both started our businesses, he used to serve me as a barista!
The real upside that has come out of this crazy situation is the sense of community. The collaboration and partnerships but also consumers shopping local. People have realised how much good produce you can buy within your community.
How have you maintained your culture during this period?
We talk everyday – I think in some senses we’ve communicated more than ever. We go into meetings with an agenda, a purpose – I don’t feel you do that as much in the office. It feels more structured, not in a negative way. I think what we miss is some of the creativity, getting people in a room together and bashing things out. Call me old fashioned but I think we need a central point where we can meet and brainstorm.
Working from home is a huge part of the future and will change how we work, how we live and the types of homes we buy. As a founder, you want to empower your staff as much as possible but you also want control. Let’s be honest – all founders are control freaks. This has taught me to let people get on with it.
It’s been a really mixed bag dealing with landlords… some that have been great … others are even trying to raise our rent!
Have you had an opportunity to talk to your landlords?
It’s been a really mixed bag dealing with landlords. There have been some that have been great, kept a dialogue and even given us some relief during this time. Others have not engaged, are still chasing us for rent or even trying to raise our rent!
Current contracts are extremely rigid with all the risk and pressure all on the tenant. There needs to be a shift to a model where landlords and tenants work closely together. Every single operator will say this. The obvious model is a turnover rent where you benefit from the upsides together and you share the pain together. They have their obligations too so we need to work together to create something that works for everyone.
How are you finding consumer sentiment right now, as everything begins to open?
I think people really want to get behind their local f&b favourites and support them through this crazy time. Consumers are acutely aware of the challenges that the sector (and so many other sectors) are facing – f&b make up the physical fabric of communities and they don’t want to see such concepts fall away. It’s very difficult to predict how fast things can bounce back, but I’m optimistic that consumer support is there and that many operators are resilient enough to fight through as best they can.
What are your hopes/fears/challenges for the rest of the year?
My hope is that London regains its pulse – it is a brilliant vibrant city that is currently in forced hibernation. My fear is that London sleeps through another winter (and maybe longer)… The challenge is to remain positive when there is uncertainty at every turn for the foreseeable future. We all just have to hang in there.