When Ex-PR man Pete Tomlinson took his redundancy package and went travelling with his wife through Central and South America little did he imagine that a few years later upon his return to Blighty he would have ended up converting an old victorian public toilet into a top-notch underground cafe. We sat down with Pete at The Attendant over a delicious flat white to find out more about this unique location.
How did all this start?
Well me and my friend Ben Russell were sat upstairs at The Crown and Sceptre (the pub next to the Attendant) and over a pint had this hair-brained business idea. We thought it’d be great to open up a coffee place which did nice food and had a great neighbourhood feel to it; so sat there we saw that the old Foley Street toilet was to let and it went from there. We came down to have a look around the place and fell in love with the space. We felt the space lent itself well to great coffee and great sandwiches. We knew it could become a great focal point and landmark in Fitzrovia.
What has the conversion process been like?
A lot of hard work. Our landlord bought the toilet off Westminster Council in 1989 with the idea of turning it into a design studio. So he installed a kitchenette and had all the urinals unplugged and concreted in and had electric and telephone lines installed, though his idea never came to fruition. Though when we came in the place still needed lots of tlc. We had problems with the London clay behind the tiles, as rainwater would seep through, the stairwell had been left open to the elements and that took a long time to smarten up. The iron cage upstairs had eleven layers of paint on it dating back to the Victorian period, that took eight months to strip all that back and restore it to it’s original splendour. It was a labour of love, but we knew it was our shop entrance and it was so important to get right.
How much of the place is original?
Everything pretty much. The floors and the wall (i.e. the tilling), the urinals, the cisterns, the attendants door which is now our little kitchen. The urinals were put in in 1890 and were made by Dalton & Paisley based down in Lambeth, and probably brought up here on a horse and cart.
What the reaction been like to a coffee shop in a old toilet?
Overwhelmingly positive. A lot of people who live in the neighbourhood and have been here for decades were really appreciative that we’d cleaned up what had become a blot on the landscape. Some of the older generation, some of whom had used this as a working toilet were a little sceptical.
Where do you source your ingredients?
The coffee comes from Caravan Roastery up in Kings Cross where they have a beautiful facility where they get single origin coffee sourced from sustainable partners all over the world, they are a great help with our staff training too. Our milk is from Ivy House Farm in Somerset, it’s stocked in Harrods and Selfridges and is used in the English version of the World Barista championships. Our cakes comes from Bittersweet Bakers, recently named London’s best biscuit makers by the Evening Standard. Even our crisps come from a little husband and wife team who are the first UK maker to cook their crisps in olive oil. So we try to pull together people who are doing great things and are passionate about food and drink and present it in one place. In that spirit even our coffee cups are sourced to provide the best experience, they are made by Not Neutral and were voted the best coffee cup in the world by the LA Times. They are designed to be a seamless marriage of form and function. The inside of the cup provides the best fluid dynamics for the perfect pour while also accommodating the drinker’s nose to take in the aroma. The bottoms are thick to retain heat and the handle is also designed to be as easy as possible to hold.
What is it now like seeing people enjoying the place?
Now a couple of months into it I am just use to it, but at the start I just couldn’t believe it. It makes yourself so proud to see it such a popular place in a short amount of time. And the press has been great, we were in Timeout last week for instance. The reputation has gone global as well with features in papers in Sao Paulo and in The New York Times for example.
Do you think a place like yours is indicative of modern city living?
Yeah, as a city grows and as a new business not being able to afford the rents on the street. And with a sea of different individual coffee shops it always helps to differentiate yourself. In that light spaces like this are going to be used more. Though saying that one of the reasons we felt we had to work so hard on our coffee and food was because we didn’t want it just be a gimmick, a tourist attraction. They would come down, like the space but not come back as the coffee wasn’t great. We do get tourists from all over the world though, and think a used space like this is great for London.
And what about the future?
Just looking to build on our success, we are going to be opening seven days a week soon. We will then attempt to roll out The Attendant Brand more and try and do something totally different that nobody would expect.
MHG & PT