Alex Hely-Hutchinson is responsible for kickstarting London’s love affair with porridge. Nowadays, a sachet of oats no longer cuts it. Especially when at 26 Grains, Alex’s porridge cafe, creamy bowls of grains are piled high with topping such as quince, pecan and orange yogurt; hazelnuts and salted butter; or coconut flakes, kale and toasted chickpeas.
From starting out on one of our market stalls in Old Street station to opening a permanent store in Covent Garden, Alex’s business has grown phenomenally over the past two years. With her first cookbook now out, Alex took a moment to revisit where it all started and what it takes to turn an idea into a successful business.
Hi Alex. Can tell us where your love of porridge began?
I guess it really began back when I was a child, sitting on my mum's bed with my five siblings eating bowls of porridge. I didn't realise how nostalgic and happy such an event made me until I studied for a year in Copenhagen, and I starting eating porridge regularly again. They have this word there called ‘hygge,’ which means togetherness, comfort and sharing. That’s what I felt porridge meant to me. When I came back to London, I wanted to bring it back.
What were the first steps you took for making it happen?
Moving from my ‘To Do’ list to actually doing it. I first booked my stall at Old Street station, and it hasn't really stopped from there.
How did your friends and family first react when you told them you wanted to set up a porridge cafe?
They thought I was crazy, but they took me a little more seriously when I opened my first pop-up. It was the perfect opportunity to test out my idea. The audience in Old Street is so open to new ideas and supporting new businesses. What I learned from that pop-up is that our three core values are quality, simplicity and seasonality – I hadn’t know that going in.
What happened next?
I tested out a series of pop-ups in different locations and after that I felt ready to take on a lease in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden. Our landlord only had a shed to offer for one year only. It was dark and damp but the rent was good for the area. We tested our concept for a further year, and then the landlord offered us a longer lease in a bigger space next door.
What’s the best bit about being based in Covent Garden?
Neal’s Yard has got the most amazing collections of traders. Previously it was a tourist hotspot, but now there are some amazing restaurants and retailers, as well as a great collection of local offices. I love that it’s got a history of performance and theatre and the surrounding architecture is beautiful.
What has surprised you most about setting up your own business?
Gosh, I’ve learnt a lot. I think realising how important people are: people who you work with, people who support you, your customers. It all comes down to that relationship between people and your product. I have been so surprised by the support of the community we’ve built while popping up around London.
Favourite part of your job?
The people I work with, the people I serve, and developing recipes.
What advice would you give to others looking to set up their own business?
Do it because you love what you do, not because you strive for world domination.
What’s the secret to an exceptional bowl of porridge?
Soaked oats (rolled yourself ideally!), flaked sea salt, good quality spices and the best of the season's foods – rhubarb in winter, berries in summer, plums in autumn.
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