On Great Titchfield Street, just around the corner from the shopping mecca of Oxford Circus, lies a little piece of Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
At the Scandinavian Kitchen you can lunch on Swedish meatballs on rye bread or have a cinnamon bun with your coffee in the Nordic-style, streamlined café, or you can fill up your shopping basket with Danish liver pate, Dumle caramels and salty liquorice in the adjacent, Scandinavian grocery shop, which stocks over 600 different Danish, Swedish and Norwegian products.
The popular, little Nordic place was launched by Swedish Jonas Aurell and his Danish wife, Bronte, in 2007.
“Exactly a month and two weeks before the recession began… Precisely a day before we had our first child,” says Aurell with an expression as if the interview is his first chance to sit down since the day of the opening. “I still haven’t slept. I am tired, but not half as tired as Bronte is – that’s where I take my comfort,” he laughs.
Liquorice with a laugh
The café with the colourful open sandwiches lined up along the counter is buzzing with life on a rainy Saturday. The till is manned by smiling, young people of Nordic stature. Even when they turn their back to make coffee, they ooze a sense of hospitality with the amusing slogans on the back of their staff t-shirts. May the Norse be with you and Speak up, I’m hard of herring. The toilets are adorned with old LP covers of ABBA and Vikingarna.
“It’s probably quite Scandinavian, our informality,” says Aurell, and adds: “We might not take ourselves very seriously, but we are very serious about what we do.” IKEA is another example of that kind of Scandinavian business, according to Aurell. “They do some rather fun, tongue-in-cheek things, but still, the main thing is cheap furniture. And the message seems to hit home.”
Triangles are so last season
The idea for the Scandinavian Kitchen arose when the Aurells realised that London’s many eager sandwich munchers only really had three types of sandwiches to choose between for their lunch-on-the-go. Wraps, triangle-shaped sandwiches and Italian ciabatta. “Nobody was offering anything different. Our idea was something along the lines of ‘less is more, as in less mayonnaise and big chinks of bread, more quality ingredients. Bread that fills you up, not mayonnaise that fills you up,” says Aurell.
It paid off to do something different. People who work in the neighbourhood have learned to eat rye bread for lunch, and Aurell is proud that only 10 percent of the café punters are Scandinavian. The Scandinavians make their pilgrimage to the café during the weekend, to satisfy their craving for pickled fish and dark bread, but generally, Aurell is proud to say that it’s a very mixed crowd who have opened their eyes to the Nordic way of lunching.
The black stuff
There is one thing that is difficult to sell to the non-Scandies: the strong, salty liquorice. “It’s like whisky, it’s something you have to have grown up with to appreciate,” says Aurell. “But at least you gain something from learning to drink whisky – I don’t think people see any reason to get used to liquorice,” he laughs.
Contrary to the café, which has converted people of many nationalities to Nordic fare, the grocery shop is more targeted towards Scandinavians in London, who know what they want. But they are difficult to advertise to. “It takes time to reach a scattered group like the Scandinavian immigrants in London – especially if you don’t have the marketing resources. There is no easy way in. For a long time we were thinking ‘now we’ve got it’, ‘now we’ve got it’… but now I think we’ve actually cracked it,” says Aurell.
The shop has been harder work than the café, though. Importing products from Scandinavia is expensive, and it has so far been impossible for the Scandinavian Kitchen to find an affordable source of imports from Finland. But increasingly, Scandinavians are finding out about the shop. Aurell thinks it is mainly to do with the sweets. “We have a terribly good selection of sweets,” he smiles, “The Scandinavian expats, and actually also the Dutch, come here to buy their liquorice – it seems like a cure against homesickness.”
The different approach of a foreigner
It seems fair to assume that the hard work of starting a business London is even harder for someone who is not from here. But Aurell disagrees. “You will have some benefits if you’re local and know how everything works. However, I suppose the one advantage you have if you are not local is that you will approach things in a different way. The learning curve can be quite steep, but once you get to a certain point, your way of doing things slightly differently might be your competitive advantage. So my only advice for people setting something up is a general one – stick with it, and keep the main thing the main thing.”