Words Kirk Truman
Photography Adedotun Adesanya
Some years ago, I remember making the walk along Foley Street and peering through the gate of a gentlemen’s toilet where rusty cans, old leaves and cigarette butts lay undisturbed. Only a year ago, an unnoticed, disused men’s public convenience on the corner of Foley Street and Great Titchfield Street opened its lavatories once again to the public, though something had changed entirely. From the street above, the scent of the Caravan Market Blend coffee wanders about the front of the Crown & Sceptre pub and up the street. Lights shine above the metalwork of the entrance – a coffee shop lies beneath the paving stones, the toilet has gone. I speak to the new owners of a rare example of an espresso bar on the eve of the one year anniversary of Fitzrovia’s The Attendant; the coffee shop in the setting of a men’s public toilet, which ironically is without a lavatory.
Originally built around 1890, this Victorian lavatory had been closed for more than 50 years until 2013, when it found itself the home of a new speakeasy espresso & food bar. The Attendant opened a year ago, founded by Pete Tomlinson and Ben Russel. Early this year, the founders chose to let go of the keys and allow new owners, Ryan De Oliveira and Roshan McKeown, to take the throne. Ryan describes the transition between owners as very good indeed: he and Roshan both explain that nothing about the current coffee shop will change. Only they feel there is a need for more seating: “It is small though it doesn’t mean we can’t use the space to our advantage. We’re looking to increase the seating capacity, sometimes we do have people come in and leave, or get take out because of how busy it can get down here sometimes. We’re looking to take the fridge out and put seats in its place with a new fridge underneath the bar. We want people to come here feeling totally relaxed and refreshed. We don’t want them to come and experience something that’s worse than their office, that’s why they came here in the first place,” says Ryan.
Ryan speaks of the origins of this collaboration: “Roshan and I know each other from university. We’d both hit a crossroads in our life where we were trying to figure out what we really wanted to do. I’ve always been a massive coffee fan. Roshan came to London for lunch; we went to a coffee shop in Shoreditch and talked about coffee, and the industry. We started looking at the independent coffee industry because that’s what we liked – we didn’t want to start a high street chain like Starbucks. We wanted something that was unique and quirky, something that had a really awesome interior and feel, something that made people feel revitalised and refreshed from their day to day routine. That was the kind of atmosphere we wanted.” They were looking at and researching many coffee shops in London with the intention of discovering a brand which they would grow. The two were captivated in the same way that many people are when visiting The Attendant, it is cause for experience and escapism, not just for its truly excellent coffee. Instantly the two saw the opportunity to apply their vision of speciality coffee, excellent service and quality experience – a place to break up the norms of day to day life. “We came across a lot of difficulties because we were new in the coffee industry, although we both had a lot of experience; my Mum had a coffee shop in South Africa. The Attendant came across our path, we knew about this place from all of our extensive research about speciality coffee shops. It was one of the places that stuck out to us the most. When we both saw it we immediately got on the phone to each other and said ‘this is amazing’. It was clear in our heads that if we were going to take over this place we weren’t going to change anything because of the value we really saw in it, nothing needed to be changed, we didn’t feel that any adjustments needed to be made,” says Ryan.
After just a few weeks Roshan and Ryan have started to build good relationships with regular and local customers. “We’re listening to what everybody is saying and trying to ensure that we’re always providing the highest level of quality coffee and service,” says Ryan. “It is important that we start to open on Sundays – I’ve seen people waiting by the entrance before, we don’t want to turn people away,” says Roshan, although the pair express that this won’t be for some time yet. As minor changes go on inside, the pair are looking to soon extend the bar capacity and to install another coffee grinder to enable them to offer both filter and single options of coffee. When the transition between owners was made, the two found that “they wanted two new owners to come along and carry on their baby, as it were. It’s quite a labour intensive job, we’re here every day. There’s still a lot to do with this place. I don’t think there’s another site out there that’d suit the same name if we’re to grow the concept,” says Roshan. The two are looking to expand the concept of ‘coffee shops in unexpected places’ but protest that this won’t be for some time, and that also the concept behind The Attendant isn’t something that they will look to replicate. “If we were to find another site like this we feel The Attendant would lose its value, it would feel like we’re trying to expand. That’s not what we’re about. I don’t think in London you can find another urinal in such fantastic condition, this is the last,” says Ryan.
The Attendant is 1 year old now, and the site still continues to grow in popularity by the day. It is perhaps the only coffee shop in Central London where the interior environment itself is as much a caffeine-high as the coffee itself. Where cubicles once stood, a table is laid; where the urinals are lined along the wall, a bar and chairs are sat. As Ryan would say, “the great thing about this place is that you don’t feel like you’re in a toilet, when you actually are.” I would describe The Attendant as the speakeasy coffee bar for the escapists amongst us all. People come here first and foremost because the coffee and food is incredible, though also to escape from the London world above. The partnership between Roshan & Ryan is strong, a friendship they extend to their customers. There’s even talk between the pair of turning The Attendant into a two-sided business – a speakeasy coffee shop by day and a cocktail bar in the evening, from this summer. Happy birthday and watch this space.