Going from a gazebo on Soho’s Berwick Street to a bricks and mortar site in the City, Sub Cult founders Ben Chancellor and Gareth Phillips reflect on their brand’s burgeoning popularity. James McAllister reports.
Ben Chancellor (BC): Everybody loves sandwiches, but we wanted to show that there’s more to it than just sticking some meat or cheese between two pieces of bread. I’d been watching London’s street food scene go from strength to strength with the rising popularity of traders such as BAO, MEATliquor and Pizza Pilgrims, and thinking more about how there might be a gap in the market for a deli-style sandwich concept akin to the ones you see in the States.
Gareth Phillips (GP): In the beginning we had talked about opening a smoked meats stall, and this felt like a more focused distillation of that concept – we’d seen the evolution of burgers and pizzas, and we thought ‘why not sandwiches?’
Where does the name come from?
BC: It’s a play on the term ‘subculture’ that acts as a cheeky nod not only to our brand, but also our friendship. Me and Gaz met on the London rave scene, which in itself is a subculture, and so I was trying to figure out a way to combine this concept with a brand that specialised in American-style sandwiches. And then I had a ‘eureka’ moment in the bath, aptly enough, and thought ‘why don’t we make it submarine sandwiches, and call it Sub Cult?’
Was it hard to establish the brand?
GP: It wasn’t easy. In those first months after we’d created the concept, Ben and I worked on all the ideas from his flat. As we didn’t have much money, we decided to get a loan from the East London business centre and used it to buy a gazebo that acted as our stall when we launched on Berwick Street. We did well, but it was often hard to get the attention of other markets – people didn’t think sandwiches were that interesting at the time. Thanks to contacts I made when I was working in London kitchens, though, I was quickly able to hook us up with a residency at the Duke of Wellington in Dalston that ended up running for 18 months. And eventually we managed to parlay that popularity to help us secure stalls at Brockley and later Maltby Street market.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
GP: There were times after we shifted operations to a van when we came close to throwing in the towel. We had two at the time, and both broke down in quick succession – one we had to scrap and the other cost £7,000 to fix. It had been a rainy winter, so the markets had been quieter, and our takings were down. It was so demoralising, and I think we both really had to dig deep to get through that stretch.
BC: Definitely, it was tough. But looking back on it, the whole situation helped us forge a greater appreciation for how hard you must work as a street trader. Because unless you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you really do need to trade in as many markets as you can and spread yourself extremely thin to make ends meet.
How has moving into bricks and mortar premises helped your operation develop?
GP: It’s given us greater freedom over preparation. We’re using sous vide methods to cook all the meats in house every day, so the quality remains consistent. And we’ve been careful to make sure the menu remains manageable. We launched in 2014 with four sandwiches and that’s doubled now with the original Rodeo, Sub Marine and Sub-terranean rolls still included. We’ve tinkered with the recipes, but generally speaking very little has changed.
BC: It’s also given us the space to develop our resources. We’ve got Gaz’s brother, who previously cooked at Ottolenghi, working as our head chef, as well as a larger front of house team to ensure we’re able to serve our sandwiches as quickly as possible. For both of us Sub Cult has always been about being able to offer diners something gourmet that can be served at speed, and I think we’ve done that.
London’s sandwich scene has grown significantly – how do you view the competition?
BC: To us the likes of Max’s Sandwich Shop in Crough Hill and Monty’s Deli aren’t competitors, they’re contemporaries. It is a crowded market, but the space is so vast and each concept so different that I think there’s room for us all to exist comfortably – none of them are doing the same sub rolls as we do. Max, for example, has a huge following, but he’s more of an evening operation, while we are catering for the breakfast and lunch market.
What are your plans for the future of the brand?
GP: We need to be comfortable here before we take our next steps. It’s wise to be modest, and we wouldn’t want to over promise and then under deliver. Should this site prove to be a success then we’re totally open to the idea of rolling it out, but there are no definite plans right now.
BC: This is a huge step for us. We’ve moved from a shipping container to something four times the size – it’s important to really make sure we’ve got this right. We’ve always wanted to open our own place, and now we have we need to take stock of it, then we’ll establish what the next steps are.