Starting up a new food business in Brixton is no easy feat with rising rents and competition from all corners of the world. The challenge, however, did not put off Spyros Parissis, who opened Parissi on Atlantic Road this autumn. Bobbie Lakhera spoke to Spyros about Bangor, Brixton and setting up his own business.
Coming from a culinary family with an idea to provide lovingly homemade food for the masses, there is only one obvious place to go. Yes, that’s right. Bangor. And naturally if opening your own eatery is a dream of yours, the obvious subject to study is marine biology. Useful, surely, if you’re planning on throwing yourself in at the deep end.
“Food has always been my passion,” Spyros told the Blog. “I come from a family of cooks in a small Greek village called Mythimna. My mother has written a cookbook and been on television and my grandmother was famous locally for her food. I grew up in the kitchen. Some of my best memories are waking up at four, five o’clock in the morning at Easter and baking the breads. Wrapping them in blankets, putting all the heat on in the house to prove them, then running the big trays up to the bakery!”
So, what called Spyros to study life in the ocean? There was family influence in that decision too. “My father was a fisherman, and I have always been near the sea. I saw a programme about marine biology on television and thought that’s what I want to study. There wasn’t an undergraduate course in Greece at the time so I went to Bangor University. It was brilliant, I loved it! I had a plan. First year I was going to have fun, second year a balance between fun and study, and third year live like a monk!”
After his degree, Spyros changed both direction and location completely, moving to the Cotswolds and studying dance movement therapy. He worked in social care settings before finding employment in kitchens. Then the opportunity came up to manage a rehabilitation centre for people with drug and alcohol addictions. He explained, “It was a work-based programme so people grew vegetables and we taught them to cook. We built wood-fired ovens and baked, selling the breads in the local community.”
Feeling restless Spyros retrained as a massage therapist while undertaking another movement therapy course, which led to a job as a sports teacher in a school. Yet, throughout a career that had flipped between working with food and working with people, Spyros’ dream to open his own place remained. On turning 35 he felt that if he didn’t follow his heart now, the moment might pass him by. “One summer I met a guy who had his own food business and I was so inspired. I thought, if I don’t do it now I’m not going to. I moved to London and while looking for work the Job Centre told me about the New Enterprise Allowance. I applied and set about perfecting the products I wanted to sell. I lived off Effra Parade and my housemates were great, letting me use the kitchen constantly and bake cakes all day!”
Spyros put his plan for Parissi into action. “I did a start up course with the scheme and you have a mentor. I created a business plan, looking at aspects like marketing and finances. Through the course you could apply for a loan without the usual requirements such as guarantors. I got £1000 and bought cooking equipment. It was such a small amount I had to spend it wisely!
“I also joined the National Market Traders Federation. I was very lucky as I couldn’t find a space in London to trade, but through their First Pitch programme I was allocated a space in Pimlico Market where I started selling regularly. I got reduced rent for a period and ended up there for a year, seeing which of my products worked, looking at my pricing. It was excellent experience. During this time I also won the 2014 Ixion Enterprise Awards Product Award.
“Then I thought about maybe getting a shop. It was more an exercise in costing, seeing how the rents were, how much would I need to start a business and would a bank even give me a loan? I was thinking maybe two, three years down the line, but the bank was happy with my track record at the market and offered me a small loan. I live in Brixton and wanted to open here. I love it, you come out of the tube and everyone notices Brixton is different.
“I lost out on one property on Atlantic Road before this place became available. When I first saw it, I walked in and straight back out again! It was so much work. But, I thought I don’t have many choices so I just have to go for it. I did it up myself as I didn’t have the money to get someone in and friends helped. I say it is ‘built by friends for friends’!
“It took a couple of months. Walls coming down, the ceiling coming off, two layers of floor and grinding the concrete underneath which was the worst job of my life! I made the shelves, main table, the concrete top for the bar. It is a real labour of love.
“Since opening, people walk past and their eyes light up! It’s exciting to see. When we first opened I sold only coffee. The next day also sandwiches, the day after added a couple of cakes. Now we have a full menu.
“We open at 7am for people on their way to work and currently close at 11pm during the week and midnight Friday and Saturday. We wanted to provide a space where people can relax and share some food. In Greece we put the food on the table and everybody piles in. Maybe we can be a bit of an alternative to the loud places nearby! Everything is handmade by us, the mezzes, croissants, cakes, sandwiches. We hope to work with Edible Lambeth in the future using locally grown fruit and vegetables in our recipes.”
Spyros has a strong belief that his business should provide training and employment for people working to reintegrate into the community. “We have just started working with Bad Boys Bakery, which is supplying us with a wonderful sourdough bread and in the future we want to provide them with recipes. I have worked with so many people who have come from difficult circumstances, off the streets or out of prison and they have had a tough life. When you really see the true person behind the shadow, you can see that everyone has something to offer.”
As we finish chatting, I comment on the handmade table and it seems Spyros may have another business brewing in his mind. “So many people have asked me about the table! There was an actor in here the other day having a coffee while practising his lines, and he asked if I take orders. I could make it a sideline in the future!”