With its digital train timetables and a steady rush of commuters dashing past, St Pancras International station is a left-field choice for an outdoor food market.
In fact, Dan O’Neill and Ben O’Brien -the co-founders of Sourced Market - admit they initially divided the decision-makers at St Pancras with their proposition to build a convenience store there, with an offering styled on upmarket London markets. But five years on, the pair have proved doubters wrong. The business enjoyed sales of £2.8m last year, up 10% year on year.
“People love a farmers’ market, but the reality is that most people don’t have the time or the inclination to go to one on a Saturday morning to do their weekly shop,” says O’Brien. “Here, they have the best of both worlds.”
“The problem with festivals is you only get two or three days to get things right and it’s difficult to make it pay. So we wanted something permanent”
The success of Sourced Market is all the more surprising given neither founder had any prior retail experience. Both were working separately in the music business when the original concept was born in 2007, prompted by O’Brien’s dismay over pricey food at festivals.
His solution was to bring artisanal fare to large-scale music events, including the Lovebox Festival where he met business partner O’Neill. “It started as a fun project on the side,” says O’Brien. “But the problem with festivals is you only get two or three days to get things right, and it’s quite difficult to make it pay financially. So we wanted something more permanent.”
In 2009 the pair opened their first store at St Pancras International, which enjoys annual footfall of 35 million according to Network Rail. They now employ 35 staff. The store, which is 40m long and 3m-4m deep, is split into two halves divided by a fire escape - a “logistical nightmare”, admits O’Brien. It displays its fresh produce, artisanal bakery and wide range of free-from goodies on one side, and speciality products including charcuterie, chocolate and alcohol on the other.
There is also plenty of local competition. As well as the Kerb street food market at King’s Cross, M&S and Boots are just metres away. “We’re all competing for the pound in the pocket, which means we have to keep on our toes,” says O’Neill.
That means opening seven days a week, 14 hours a day, and stocking about 900 products from roughly 100 different producers, many based in London. A commuter-friendly click & collect meat service is on the horizon. So is expansion - an extensive refit next month will increase floorspace by 35%, doubling the number of covers on offer to those wanting to sit and eat, and adding a bar. The changes are expected to lead to a further 25% increase in sales to £3.5m net.
O’Neill and O’Brien have have also secured a second site, outside Victoria station, which is set to open in September next year, and they’re hoping for an additional three sites by the end of 2016, and 10 over the next five years. Moreover they’re set to launch their own ‘Sourced Academy’, with speakers and workshops aimed at budding foodie entrepreneurs. “It’s for those people who want to leave their job as an accountant or a solicitor and make cheese, for instance,” says O’Brien.
No doubt there will be plenty keen to hear what advice the pair can offer. What may have started as a fun project touring festivals is quickly establishing itself as a serious business.