High Streets Initiative · 5 March 2018

Eat 17: An entrepreneurial story that started with living in a van

Eat 17 co-founders Chris O’Connor and James Brundle

Since launching the Eat 17 brand in 2006, stepbrothers Chris O’Connor and James Brundle have been refining the traditional convenience store experience for modern consumers. But the road to business success wasn’t exactly mapped out.

Having left school at 16 years old, Brundle signed up for six years serving in the army, while O’Connor had plans for university and a career in marketing. However, the desire to build their own business had begun to grow.

When a “rundown” local off-licence became available in their home town of Walthamstow, they decided to seize the opportunity. But to turn the unit formerly known as Paul’s Wine’s into a forward-thinking convenience store, the duo knew they’d have their work cut out.

A red transit van was bought, turned into a make-shift home and parked up outside the store while O’Connor and Brundle dedicated themselves around the clock to make their business dream a reality.

The hard work paid off. In the years since, branches have been added in Hackney, Whitstable and Bishop’s Stortford, each under a franchise agreement with SPAR. But, the brand’s “think local” approach has seen O’Connor and Brundle deliver unique concepts and adapt their offering for local consumers.

Customers can enjoy modern dining experiences alongside ailes of food from independent suppliers at each location, and the duo are keen to continue innovating.

With two more London stores set to open this year in Leytonstone and Hammersmith, Business Advice caught up with the co-founders to find out more about the journey so far and how Eat 17 has succeeded through its creative approach. 

  1. What is unique about the Eat 17 model that sets it apart from traditional convenience stores?

Everything – we offer homemade ready meals made by skilled chefs, we also have an artisan bakery and work with lots of quality small food operators who take space within our stores. 

  1. Your Hackney store has a refillable wine station – is the in-store customer experience an important aspect of the Eat 17 brand?

It’s all about innovation and trying new things, and we’re constantly evolving to ensure our customers have the best experience. We also like to look after the environment so we offer refills for wine, laundry liquid and other bits.

Inside Eat 17’s Walthamstow store
  1. How important has the SPAR partnership been in growing the Eat 17 brand?

It’s a great balance – Eat 17 has won lots of awards and has a loyal customer base, and we genuinely like to do things differently and offer an experience. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are a local supermarket. This means key product lines need to be competitively priced. We want everyone to enjoy the Eat 17 experience regardless of budget.

Convenience stores in 2018

• Sales increased £500m in the past year to £38bn
• Owners invested over £858m in 2017 to improve services
• 49,918 convenience stores in mainland UK, three-quarters of which are independent
• 20 per cent of convenience store owners work more than 70 hours a week, while a fifth take no holiday throughout the year

  1. From a product perspective, what characteristics are important to you?

Quality is always king. Pricing of course plays an important factor and we work very closely with local suppliers of the areas we serve to ensure we are offering good value and that they have a sustainable business.

Our own Eat 17 range (over 200 lines) plays an important role in this as we can ensure both by doing things in house. 

  1. What lessons have your learned so far in running the business?

We learn everyday but I would say communication has been a real area of learning, and the more sites you get the more difficult it becomes. This is why it’s so important to have great staff who share the same vision in the business. 

  1. Are convenience stores immune from rise of ecommerce, or do similar challenges exist?

Not immune, but I think it’s so important to offer an experience which makes people want to come to your site. The food and shopping experience needs to be an exciting one.

  1. Can you elaborate on Eat 17’s relationship with the community?

We work within the communities we serve and this includes supporting local suppliers (not just saying we do), supporting local charities and always giving to local food banks.

Eat 17’s Bishop Stortford branch

This has to be done on a location by location basis which is more work but really works for the communities we serve.

  1. Is there anything exciting in the pipeline you can share?

We are opening Hammersmith in May and Leytonstone in June where we will be offering a street food concept within the stores – we chose to do this after seeing the success of the street food concept in the Bishops Stortford store which opened last year. 

  1. What do your long-term ambitions look like?

 We will continue growing the Eat 17 brand – we are always trying to innovate and grow.

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Experiences

How high street retailers are capitalising on the demand for in-store experiences

Retailers tapping into consumer demand for in-store experiences, hosting events and entertainment alongside their product offering, are increasing their annual turnover by an average 14 per cent.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Simon Caldwell is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and has previously worked as a content editor in local government and the ecommerce industry.

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