Pete Tomlinson (pictured) and Ben Russell (not) are the guys behind one of London’s most novel new coffee shops – Attendant, which you’ll find in an old underground public toilet just outside the Crown and Sceptre on Foley St. Serving excellent coffees and bites to eat, you can actually sit in (yes, in) one of the Victorian urinals to enjoy their treats. Josh Jones had a chat to see what on earth they were thinking.
So first things first, you made a shop out of an old public toilet right? Why did you do that? How did it all come about?
Absolutely, we have turned an old bog into a posh cafe! The idea was conceived on a boat in Ibiza (obviously), not that we set out to find an old disused toilet, but we had the desire to create a local, quality establishment that was passionate about service, suppliers and product. Fast track a couple of years, we were having a catch up outside a local Fitzrovia boozer, we saw this elaborate cage and decided this was to be our new shop front. The following week a ‘To Let’ board went up on the cage, and after a lot of negotiations, scrubbing, swearing, blood, sweat and tears – The Attendant was born. Unlike most operators, we had no set operating format in mind, we just wanted to serve amazing coffee, cakes and gourmet grub.
My only experience of those subterranean toilets is when I got caught short once and the walls had spreads from the Sunday Sport stuck to them with elastoplasts. Luckily it was empty of perverts, but I vowed never to go back. Have you kept with a similar interior design theme?
Funnily enough we did find some fairly graphic ‘school boy’ graffiti on the back of the original closet doors, however after much debate we decided working this into the design would be a step too far. In terms of design we choose to let the site dictate the theme, we loved the original Victorian features and creating a urinal seating station seemed the natural thing to do (an idea not shared by our builder)! Our guests, whilst at first uncertain about sitting in a gents urinal, have well and truly embraced the idea and these have become the most sought after seats!
If you had to choose one drink and one tasty treat from your menu to entice people down the stairs, what would it be?
Tough question – all our espresso based coffees are superb, however with an ever changing batch of beans from Caravan, the subtle flavours are constantly shifting. The same applies to our food, we are constantly changing our selection based on what’s in season and how our chef feels that day. Firm favorites have been our truffle mac’n cheese and our pulled pork on brioche buns, however, with spring in the air it’s time to think of some lighter, healthier options.
When people come in for the first time, are they a bit wary of touching the enamel?
Possibly! No, their first reaction is of surprise, but we hope in a good way. There is a lot to take in, people are attracted by the urinal bank, where the Victorian craftsmanship stands out, and love that we have left as much of the original features in as possible, including the iron and copper cisterns, electric hand dryer and original ‘Attendants’ door. We hope to have created a space that people will fall for its charms and want to come back to.
Did you have to apply to the council that you wanted to turn a convenience that had been out of action for so long into an excellent coffee/food destination? What kind of reaction did that get?
After we secured the site, we had to jump through endless hoops – first was securing planning consent for the change of use, then we had to seek building consent. Both processes were drawn out and difficult. Westminster were very keen to see the building being put into use, although they were a little hesitant that it would work! In terms of building regulations, surprisingly they were initially unhappy by the lack of proposed customer toilets! However, given we are largely take-out we managed to get over this hurdle. All in all they seem very happy with what we have created, and the way in which we have contributed to improving the street landscaping.
What’s next for you guys? Got your eyes on any other unusual places to convert?
We have been overwhelmed by the positive feedback – we are not saying no to another posh bog opportunity, but we are not sure if we want to become toilet barons! We have been presented with other interesting opportunities, however, given all our cash went down this toilet – we are now look out for some equity backing – know anyone who wants to spend a penny or two?
Photos: Tom Medwell