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Focus on what makes you truly unique as a business

London Shell Co. renovated a dilapidated canal boat and turned it into a restaurant

When brother and sister team Harry and Leah Lobek decided they couldn’t put off starting a business any longer, the two knew the concept needed to stand out in a crowded market. The end result, London Shell Co., definitely hits the mark there.

Now over three years-old, London Shell Co. has definitely made a splash on the London hospitality scene (advanced warning, a fish restaurant housed on a boat is too pun-friendly to not take advantage of). Its combination of good food and drink, a unique experience and a relatively small number of covers has driven interest and created an opportunity for the duo behind it to begin expanding already.

Leah Lobek is one half of the founding team and joined an expert panel session hosted at the Hospitality Hacks Cornwall Awards 2019. Speaking alongside Dukes Collection MD Debrah Dhugga and Western Morning News editor-at-large Martin Hesp, Lobek gave her thoughts on what separates the best from the rest to a room full of captive hospitality leaders.

From a standing start – neither of the siblings had any experience of running a restaurant – London Shell Co. has grown steadily by providing both a compelling customer experience and attracting a fair amount of press attention. A quick trip to the company website reveals reviews from acclaimed food writers such as The Guardian’s Jay Rayner and former Time Out editor Sonya Barber. What’s their secret? It all comes down to a personalised approach and keeping it simple.

Leah Lobek, pictured with her brother, used to work in the financial sector but changed it up for hospitality in 2015

“It was hard to start from nowhere, with no reputation,” she explained. “We began on a smaller boat, selling tickets to friends and family as a pop-up. Then it became about using social media and inviting the kind of people we appreciated. We got in touch directly, telling them about what we were up to and the ambitions we had. When people like Sonya Barber are dealing with you, the founder, rather than a PR company they appreciate it.”

Winning hearts

London Shell Co. offers a static lunch from Tuesday to Friday. Dinner cruises, taking advantage of the Regents Canal that runs from Canary Wharf in the east to Wembley in the west, operate from Tuesday to Saturday with a five-course set menu for £50. They then have weekend lunch cruises on Saturday and Sunday.

This set up means that the business can have a much better handle on how many covers it will have in any given week, allowing it to secure fresh fish from Cornwall and nail down a unique selling point. “I think people today are really interested in something that is unique,” Lobek explained. “You need to identify what it is you are doing, and how it differs from the rest of the market. Things like signature dishes are a great way of standing out.”

Cornwall, she told the audience at the Be the Business awards night, have lots of opportunities to capitalise on a unique selling point – whether they want to attract local customers or bring in new ones from further afield.

Despite being located in London, seasonality has always been an issue for London Shell Co. “We do our best to get through October, November, February and March, but they will always be more quiet. In October and November we reduce our capacity, putting everyone around one big table, and bring the cover count from 32 down to 20.”

While there are lots of floating restaurants on the River Thames, there are not many on Regents Canal

This big, banquet-style offering made it feel more intimate, she explained, and was bolstered by bringing in set designer to deck it out like a Cornish undersea water cave. While the approach of reducing covers might seem counterintuitive, it makes more sense to optimise the spend for the number of customers a business can realistically secure. “We went autumnal with the menu, featuring lots of rich food and cider. It’s a draw – you add live music and create a different experience. Our menu is always changing with the seasons, but it really worked for those quieter months.”

Thinking creatively and coming up with something like a St Patrick’s day offering generates press, she added. “This then gets you listed on different websites like The Nudge or Time Out. When people go online and search for things to do on specific days, you might just get found.”

Getting your head up

Having a strong set of values, to both structure internal processes and influence the way a brand connects with customers, has also been something she and her brother have worked hard on from day one.

“We definitely admire a lot of other restaurants, such as St John [run by restauranteur Fergus Henderson and with three sites in London]. Their set of values, and everything they stand for, we really admire,” she commented.

“It’s important to get out there and stay fresh, seeing in person how others go that extra mile. As a business owner or operator, especially in hospitality, you need to be challenged and keep changing little things all of the time to stay ahead of the competition. You can’t rest on your laurels in the hospitality, service or experience spaces.”

When people dine out in today’s market, she believes, they are looking for something far more than good food – they want that unique and compelling experience. Whether that is staff being knowledgeable about products, able to articulate how a dish was made, or comfortable in recommending wine pairings, that is what she believes separates the best from the rest.

Lobek is open in her belief you don’t have to get it right the first time. Change is about being open to a bit of risk, and learning from what is trialled but doesn’t work. Collaboration with others, whether that is through partnerships or simply sharing experiences, is key to this.

For someone who didn’t know how to operate a canal boat – in fact the engine room flooded three times in the first few months – Lobek and her brother have been on a constant learning journey. However, being open to how others operate and thinking carefully about what might make them stand out from the noise, their story is one others in the industry should pay close attention to. These two are far from floundering.

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