The Virgin Startup Foodpreneur Festival didn’t just result in very full bellies for attendees. The event, which took place in London’s Soho at the Vinyl Factory, was a wonderful showcase of talented individuals who have turned their love of food into a viable business.
Jonathan Phillips is one of the victors from the event, winning the Street Food category. It will see the Leeds-based entrepreneur secure access to a pitch in London tech startup hub Shoreditch, providing a taste of what life down south could be like.
Despite graduating from university just one year ago, Phillips is the founder of hummus bar Humpit – a memorable innuendo-laced play on words between hummus and pitta.
However, the business hasn’t been launched on the back of years of studying cookery –Phillips actually completed a real estate degree.
Phillips explained to Real Business how the transition came about while his father, and business partner, prepared a falafel-filled pitta for us in the background.
“I came out of university a year ago, but for part of my course I did a placement in Malaysia, which was amazing,” he said.
“The food culture there is huge and the street food culture is massive, so it was fascinating to see how quickly everything is served and to experience the buzz. The street food scene here is not as big as it is there, so I thought I’d like to do something with that.”
The decision to move into food was sealed when he had difficulty finding work in property, having applied for numerous jobs in London to no avail. With a particular appetite for Middle Eastern cuisine, Phillips decided to focus his efforts on developing a hummus business.
The idea was to keep costs low and experiment with a small street food outlet, so Phillips borrowed a gazebo from a friend, used a domestic fryer and got to work.
“We did the first event and people were literally queueing to get the food. We spent a lot of money on the branding because we had the idea we were going to become big, so wanted to look big. We came up with a name, which took quite a while, and got a cheeky innuendo in there,” he recalled.
Read more from the Virgin Food Fest:
- 5 ingredients for success from Ella’s Kitchen founder Paul Lindley
- Why Richard Branson wants to sink his teeth into the UK’s food and drink sector
“For example, playing with a cheeky brand, we did all of the freshers’ fairs in Leeds and thought ‘what do we give to students that they can keep in their wallets?’. We gave condoms with ready to Humpit on, which went so well that we gave out around 3,000. We really focused on branding from the start.”
With the brand gaining traction with locals, Phillips decided to look beyond pitching at markets with a fixed site, seemingly putting the property experience to use.
“We started as a very small pop-up in a small shopping called the Corn Exchange, which has about 30 independent retailers inside. We initially took a very short pop-up lease, which is quite rare these days, but we were lucky and it was all about timing,” he said.
Shortly after, as popularity and awareness grew, a new three-year site lease was signed in the Corn Exchange for a more permanent presence. While student appeal is there, the brand has also found customers in nearby corporate offices, while arty types also patrol the area.
“We’re a totally vegan brand, so everything we do has no dairy or meat and that really caters for everyone that way. We also have lots of gluten-free options as well. Because we cater for everyone and every religion, we’re popular with everyone which is great,” Phillips detailed.
He added that the Corn Exchange is perfect because it has a quirky vibe that fits with the brand. Beyond an appetite to bring Middle Eastern foods to the UK, however, there’s a very lucrative opportunity for the young business.
“I’ve always loved hummus and travelled to the Middle east quite a few times, which was because I missed the food so much. The hummus market in the UK is worth about £300m a year, which is huge, so I thought if I can just get a small cut of that, we can make the hummus fresh in store to reach people who only know what processed tub hummus is,” he revealed.
“Hummus bars in the Middle East are very popular and we thought why not bring one here? We thought it would mostly attract Middle Easterners in the UK, but we attract everyone.”
Sharing business roles with his father, who manages the operational side of things, Phillips is left in charge of the marketing and day-to-day running of the restaurant – which has three full-time members of staff.
Discussing the journey so far, he said: “Coming from being a student to learning to manage has been a great ride and experience, so I’ve learnt a lot in the past year. We’re hopefully looking to open another shop in another city soon – our focus is really to get low rents in good locations.
“It’s been a great year – the best year of my life and it’s getting better and better. It’s stressful having a business and not as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s a great opportunity. I love working for myself and it’s great managing a team – a lot better than studying real estate at university.”
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