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Saturday02 August 2014

Building study

Dirty macs to organic snacks

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Wilkinson King Architects finds the perfect recipe for a sandwich bar at the Flavour café in London’s Soho

Photographs: Morley von Sternberg

It sits opposite Hemp Trading UK Ltd and a hairdresser who trims tresses for £6. Most of the other businesses in the vicinity are strip bars — Slinky’s “for the liberated and enslaved” and Spankarama are immediate neighbours. Were this not Soho, it would be an unlikely location for a sandwich bar with a wholesome vibe. But this is Soho, so Flavour couldn’t actually be in a better spot.

That’s the client’s line, anyway. Rachel Gibson waited a year for a Soho site that felt right for Flavour’s wheat-free muffins, low-GI sarnies and its other healthy nosh which has proved popular with the bar’s media-type clientele. So when this three-storey former sex shop in Brewer Street came on the market, she snapped it up.

Her architect, Wilkinson King, was pretty excited too. The practice has made its name in bespoke architecture for one-off residential clients, and this is both the firm’s first gastronomic venture and its first roll-out. Gibson, who knew of the former BD Private Housing Architect of the Year winner because of its residential work, aims to open two more sites in the City or the West End over the next year.

“Architecturally, our aims were modest, but that’s not the challenge with this end of retail,” says principal Julian King. “The pleasure with Flavour will be in refining — keeping and improving the template. It’ll be a new experience for us.”

Essentially, the challenge was to design a container to accommodate the café’s kit and its organic latte, goji berry brand. The client had already decided on the scheme’s industrial-cum-open-market aesthetic before appointing Wilkinson King, and had also worked with a graphics consultant independently of the architect. The practice’s job was therefore to implement the brand, working with packaging and graphics ideas that predated its entry to the project. “The building was only ever meant to be a backdrop, a stage for the food. As with all eateries, customers will ultimately judge the place by the quality of the food,” says King.

It’s a great backdrop, though. The strong neutral palette of concrete, wood, galvanised steel and wire mesh certainly says “market”, and gives Flavour an ambience that competitors such as Eat and Pret a Manger lack.

The exposed ceiling system, with its flexible track lighting, works well with the aesthetic and will be easy to reproduce, irrespective of future ceiling heights — it was chosen here because the ceiling is rather low. In addition, the trowelled screed floor is industrial-looking and bash-proof, and the American walnut veneered table tops, with hardwood lippings on the edges, act to soften the concrete counters and wall panels.

The café is both Wilkinson King’s first gastronomic venture and its first roll-out

But working with the prefabricated concrete proved a real learning experience. An extended lead time of eight weeks, instead of the promised six, was a significant delay for an 11-week project. Wilkinson King ordered concrete panels for the shop’s signage, too, and planned to use peelable vinyl letters on them to display the drinks and fixed monthly menus. In the event, they used blackboards instead — the panels were fabricated, but didn’t turn up on time. “Procurement was a real headache,” says King. “For a project to become a roll-out, you need certainty of supply. I now appreciate why so many food chains look ghastly. They are driven by cost.”

At about £1,000sq m, Flavour’s fit-out costs came in on budget. But there were some additional costs over which the practice had no control, including the discovery that the former sex shop was riddled with asbestos. “It turned out to be a decrepit building,” says King. “Removing the asbestos cost £15,000. The former owners didn’t provide an asbestos record, and had boarded up and painted over everything. An important lesson for next time. In fact, if we come across asbestos again, we’ll abandon the building early on.”

Negotiating with City of Westminster planners also proved to be a testing experience. Naively perhaps, the practice thought the local authority would welcome the site’s change of use and be happy for the upmarket eatery to have a real street presence. To this end, it proposed outdoor seating on the walkway that runs the length of the corner site, and opening the building’s glass front facade so that people could buy takeaway without entering the shop. In addition to enhancing the scheme’s market leitmotif, selling through the shop window would also reduce the need for air conditioning. But Westminster

wasn’t convinced, and turned down both requests. “It said the outdoor seating would be an obstruction, and didn’t want queuing on the pavement. Queuing for sex was presumably OK, though,” smiles King, adding he hopes the council will revisit the subject in the summer.

The science of catering also came as something of a surprise to King. A linear shop floor of just 94sq m meant there wasn’t too much room for manoeuvre in the layout, and he says the lessons on circulation are still being learned. In the next Flavour, for example, the firm is considering having one counter instead of two.

“We decided on two here because we were trying to avoid congestion near the door, but we think we overestimated the problem.”

And he has already mastered the subject of kitchen equipment. Unusually, the architect, rather than the kitchen consultant and services engineer, did the detailed layout for the upstairs kitchen where the food is prepared. But King was surprised by the size of the catering equipment, as well as the ventilation and power loads required — the electricity had to be upgraded to a three-stage supply. In its former guise the shop generated energy aplenty, but now it’s the sort that puts dinner on the table.

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