As White Rabbit Projects prepares to open a new Lina Stores site in London, MCA speaks to COO Éadaoin McDonagh about new offerings at the latest opening and the brand’s plans to expand to other European cities

Lina Stores is always on the lookout to expand, but COO Éadaoin McDonagh says the brand will always take its time to choose the best locations.

“We have a legacy to protect with Lina Stores,” she tells MCA.

With a lineage in Soho dating back 78 years, this is no exaggeration.

Founded as a deli selling fine Italian produce from Brewer Street, investment and development platform White Rabbit Projects helped turn the heritage shop into a restaurant in 2018.

Since then, Lina Stores has opened four UK locations, one international in Tokyo, and another forthcoming in Marylebone.

“We could definitely see Lina outside of London, but right now we’re concentrating on Marylebone,” McDonagh explains. “It’s a large site for us, we want to get it right. But it can be translated to many audiences across Europe.”

Founded by Chris Miller, White Rabbit partners with restaurants and entrepreneurs in the early stages of growth to provide investment and support. It now has 15 restaurants across four on-trend brands.

The Marylebone site, opening in June, will be an expansive two-floor space, with a restaurant and cocktail bar on the bottom floor and a deli on the top. The restaurant and bar is designed to be reminiscent of 1940s Italian cocktail lounges, with an open kitchen counter and live music on weekends. The brand will introduce new shades into its colour palette for the first time but retain the famed pistachio and white stripes it’s known for.

“We’re always about innovation but based on Italian classics. We try to choose sites that fit the key metrics,” McDonagh says.

The Marylebone site was chosen for its office nucleus, which offers an opportunity to expand its grab-and-go range. It plans to introduce new dishes developed specially for the location and replicate its success with the original Brewer Street deli, which has a large neighbourhood following. The brand is also careful not to impact footfall at already established restaurants, choosing Marylebone for its distance from Soho and other sites.

The Tokyo location was chosen due to a strong appetite in the Japanese market for traditional Italian cooking. It combines the deli and restaurant and has a big following, McDonagh reports. With the vast majority of the menu remaining the same, adapting the brand to a new market was less challenging than expected.

The primary challenge was procuring ingredients from the same suppliers Lina Stores has sourced their ingredients from since the 1940s. Pandemic restrictions, such as curfews, meant a change in the food-to-beverage sales ratio but had little impact on sales as customers ate out more during the day.

Lockdown restrictions in the UK, on the other hand, led Lina Stores to debut its online shop. The most popular deli items were immediately introduced online and on delivery platforms.

“It would not have been possible to become omnichannel in such a short amount of time without the impact of covid,” McDonagh says. Lina Stores manages its own delivery, allowing the business to control quality and reduce commission fees.

The pandemic further spurred the brand to introduce meal kits and expand its deli range, which includes Italian cooking essentials like dry pasta, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. The range will expand by another 6-8 products in the next 12 months and sees its strongest sales during the holidays.

McDonagh emphasises that while Italian food appeals to a wide demographic, Lina Stores focuses its digital marketing efforts on a particular cohort. After building a large community of followers on Instagram, it recently tapped into Tiktok to engage a younger audience with its accessible menu and social media-friendly branding.

“We didn’t want to ignore that segment, because Lina is very fashionable,” McDonagh explains.

Post-pandemic, Lina Stores has seen familiar trends in the market, with larger spends on beverage, delivery, and vegetarian and vegan menu options.

“People are in the mood to celebrate post-lockdown…the restaurants are all exceeding expectations, which is a great thing to be able to say,” McDonagh adds.