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Weird is the new normal: why quirky businesses are on the rise

Written by Ryan McChrystal on Tuesday, 03 March 2015. Posted in Disruption, Analysis

The mere mention of the word ‘hipster’ inspires a primal anger in some people. But, despite the cynicism, there is value to be found in embracing your weird side

Weird is the new normal: why quirky businesses are on the rise

When the New York Times first wrote about the cheeseburger in 1938, the paper referred to the minced meat and bread combo we all know and love today as a Californian eccentricity that would fall into the dustbin of history. But Elizabeth Forman, the scribe in question, couldn’t have been more wrong. Similarly, the bicycle, which the Washington Post dubbed in 1890 a must-have for stylish ladies and no longer just for the ‘bleached-haired, music-hall type’, was derided by the same newspaper in 1902. “The popularity of the wheel is doomed,” it said. Nowadays, most major cities in the world are scribbled with cycle lanes.

Trends are a funny thing, and the things we now couldn’t live without were probably once scoffed at for being weird. Those bleached-haired music-hall types of yesteryear are today people like Northern Irish twins Alan and Gary Keery, who in December opened their Cereal Killer Cafe in Shoreditch, serving up one million combinations of cereal, milk and toppings to the masses. “Because there’s so much choice we’ve been described as the ‘Netflix of cafes’,” says Alan Keery.  

Breakfast of champions

Most of us enjoy a bowl of cereal but the Cereal Killer business model isn’t one that would have survived only a few years ago. In the current climate, however, it makes perfect sense. “Niche cafes are doing very well at the minute. People are looking for something different and untypical,” says Keery. “Instead of drinking at Starbucks every day, it’s nice to go and have a coffee somewhere that has a little bit of entertainment and that gives you an overall better experience.”

Businesses now seem to understand more than ever that aesthetics are paramount to making the world around us special. A major selling point for the Cereal Killer cafe is nostalgia, and as an 80s or 90s kid you will be transported back through the decades, with Thundercats on the TV and all the pop tunes you used to dance about your room to on the radio. There’s even a cereal museum, packed with all the freebies you’d find in your cornflakes box. But it’s not just for millennials. “People bring their young children and we’ve had a couple in their 70s come in looking for a cereal that was discontinued decades ago,” says Keery. “It just shows that a love of cereal isn’t defined by any generation – it spans from kids to pensioners.”

The Cereal Killer Cafe has received mixed responses but queues out the door every Saturday surely show which side is winning the argument. Even Russell Brand was snapped looking in the window but was put off by all the waiting. Cereal, it would seem, is the other great leveller and no matter how famous you are, you will have to wait your turn.

Keery is confident the cafe won’t become a passing fad as, in only a few weeks, it featured on the top 100 restaurants in London on TripAdvisor and the brothers have been approached by people as far away as Uganda and Columbia to talk about franchising. We may soon see a second cafe open up in Camden as well as a Cereal Killer cookbook in time for Christmas – not to mention the line of cereal-inspired jewellery they’ve collaborated on. Cheerio around your neck, anyone?

Of course, as with everyone who stands out, there is the inevitable hostility. “We’re just creative people doing something new here in Shoreditch and people have just tagged us as ‘hipsters’.” Hipster is a predominantly pejorative term and there’s a lot of hate associated with it. “We’ve had death threats and some very nasty things said about us on social media but we just laugh it off,” says Keery. It’s not all bad though, because on the other end of the spectrum they’ve received a lot of high praise for their efforts and even a few marriage proposals. “I’d rather people have a strong opinion than no opinion,” he says.

It’s been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the Cereal Killer Cafe isn’t short on copycats. Keery doesn’t mind though, as long as they do it right. It has also inspired a lot businesses specialising in niche  products to set up shop, including a new Shoreditch pop-up specialising in another breakfast favourite (or not) – porridge. The most interesting salute to the Keerys – and one they are both a fan of – is the world’s first crisp sandwich cafe that opened in their hometown of Belfast in January called Simply Crispy. It had a rather odd beginning but in the current climate of ‘anything goes’ it almost seems normal.

 

It started with a joke. When the Cereal Killer Cafe opened, a fake news article appeared on the website Ulster Fry – a Northern Irish equivalent of the American news parody website the Onion – announcing the opening of Belfast’s hippest new eatery. The fictitious noshery was to serve up, “that staple of the Northern Irish dinner table – the humble crisp sandwich”. When existing cafe owner Andrew McMenamin read the Facebook comments below the article and immediately saw the potential, it was a case of life imitating art. It went from parody to physical existence in around a week.

“I approached the guys from Ulster Fry and asked them if they wanted to see what we could get from this and I was actually surprised when they agreed,” says McMenamin. The time is obviously ripe for setting up a quirky business with mass-appeal. Even the cost of starting a company and finding customers has plummeted in recent years. Creating something with national reach once cost millions and took a long time but today it can be done for significantly less money in a week.

“We remained as close to the article as possible and above all we didn’t take ourselves too seriously,” says McMenamin. Simply Crispy now serves, among other things, Tayto cheese and onion crisps inside a local favourite, the Belfast bap – a crusty round bread usually cut in half and filled with whatever you fancy. Even the interior is a bit of a pastiche. “There’s a lot of faux irony including framed Smash Hits posters and a picture of Roy Walker with a fake signature on the wall. It’s very naff but it seems to work.”

Predictably, it doesn’t come without a side order of abuse. “We respond in a typically Northern Irish way: with sarcasm,” he says. “One tweeter predicted we’d last no more then two months, to which we replied: “We’d only give it one month, so thanks for your optimism”.” There is an element of truth in the tweet, as McMenamin understands that with the novelty factor comes the need to adapt. “The plan was for us to kill it off and bring it back in the summer as a mobile version out on the road, although if we closed down tomorrow someone would set up a Facebook campaign to bring us back; it’d be inevitable given all the interest we’ve had.”

Look what the cat dragged in

Cats rule the internet. It’s a fact. Drawing on this trend comes Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, London’s first ever cat cafe, allowing clientele to ‘relax with a cup of tea and spend time in the company of feline friends’. Founder Lauren Pears is confident the business is set for long-term growth, and if you’re in any doubt, just try booking a table there any point during the next three months. 

It was while travelling in Southeast Asia that Pears visited her first cat cafe. Soon after, following a bad day at work at her previous job as a senior project manager, she received a cuddle from a street kitty, which made her feel much better. In 2012 she packed it all in and decided to open her own, right in the middle of – surprise, surprise – Shoreditch. “I found London a much more openminded place than my hometown of Brisbane, Australia, and I felt more comfortable pitching a cat cafe here,” says Pears.

Being able to spot potential in a location and then make it work for you is exactly what young people are doing in cities all around the world. Despite becoming the lone scapegoats for social trends like gentrification, they genuinely are transforming many areas for the better.

 

Take Hackney, London. Or Williamsburg, NYC; Detroit; the Mitte district of Berlin; Johannesburg, South Africa; and even the seaside town of Margate in Kent. Each has been transformed from being blighted with derelict areas with no jobs and no hope, into some of the most interesting cultural hubs in the world. It was achieved mainly through setting up businesses in tech, farming, real estate and dining, usually with a unique twist. Shoreditch is no different. 

Lady Dinah’s is not just a quirky idea: it also has a sustainable business model. In 2013, the start-up raised £109,510 on Indiegogo to support its opening, and its fan base has matched investor interest with over 70,000 fans and followers on social media. Anastasia Emmanuel, director of UK tech and hardware at Indiegogo, says: “What may seem quirky to you or I could well resonate with many people across the world, which is what we have seen time and time again.” Entrepreneurs like Pears have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for “ideas that traditional investors or banks would be hesitant to support, because they’re just too niche or there is seemingly no market.” But ordinary people are more than willing to step in, she adds. “Crowdfunded businesses represent supply and demand in action.” 

Doing things the Hemingway 

For Wayne Hemingway, of Red or Dead fame and co-founder of Hemingway Design, people should be less critical of these young trendies because one day businesses might just be following in their footsteps. Hemingway, a fashion designer, set up Hemingway Design with his wife in 1981 to breathe “new life into old concepts”.

He is something of an authority figure when it comes to style and offers some insight why we’re seeing such an influx of interesting ideas. “With the economic downturn people began to understand the value of individuality and shopping local instead of giving all their money to corporate fat cats like Tesco,” he says. “There’s a definite movement happening and not only is it good but it’s been a long time coming.”

 

When the economy tanked, it forced a lot of 20-to-30-somethings to be more innovative and start businesses. “It’s not been as easy for them to get jobs recently, and that can have a really positive impact on creativity,” Hemingway says. “The last time it was this difficult it was the early 1970s and that created punk and all the creativity that came with it.”

He also believes that boredom and the death of the high street have a part to place in the current trends. “Town centres are places where people should get together so we should be thinking about that and not be worried about Woolworths and Blockbuster [going bust], because they’re just proliferation businesses that aren’t needed anymore.”

As for the criticism levelled at some of the aforementioned companies, he explains: “People can be very cynical and sneering in the UK and if something is trendy and people don’t understand it then they immediately attack it; there is a culture of people who just don’t get cool and will attack anybody who is a bit different but what we should be doing is embracing their difference.”

As for the Keery brothers and their Cereal Killer Cafe, Hemingway doesn’t see it lasting but can’t wait to see what they do next. “Those guys will go on to do something really fantastic. They have a great sense of humour and it’s all about trying something new. Often you’ll fail after a year or two, and there’s no problem with that. Failure is great. You learn so much more from it than from something that succeeds massively.”

In 2013, Mike Lazerow, a serial entrepreneur who has founded several successful media companies in the US, published an article on LinkedIn called, ‘Why weirdos outperform normals’, which racked up 300k+ views. ‘I like weirdos. They are interesting. They have crazy ideas. They have passion,’ he wrote. We at EB are inclined to agree. ‘Weirdos change the world.’

Will cereal cafes become the next burger joint? Will outlets serving coffee and the company of cute, furry animals grow at the same rate that bicycle lanes have done? We’ll be honest – we don’t know. Trends work in such a way that predictations are essentially pointless. But let’s keep embracing the weird, and remember: haters gonna hate.

 

Cheeky girls

Volupté

If cabaret singing, burlesque, comedy, drag queens, cocktails and afternoon tea all at once sounds like your kind of thing (and it really should be) then
Volupté, the fun and sexy hangout for all the cool kids, is for you. If you’re open to it, you’ll enjoy, regardless of age. 

Burlesque is a good example of a style going from niche to becoming – while not quite mainstream – much more accepted over time, having undergone something of a revival over the last decade. Combining its rising popularity with afternoon tea – something, which itself has come back in fashion after about, oh, 60 years – is a stroke of genius by founder Denise Farrell. 

Co-owner Louise Woollard says the company is aimed at people who want that little bit of glamour in their lives. There is also something of an escapism behind it. “When times are a little bit financially difficult, people get a little nostalgic about times past,” says Woollard. “The 1920s and the 1950s are considered a time of of class, refinement and beauty and that’s the style we are going for.”

As with Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium’s Lauren Pears, Woollard held a corporate job which before moving deciding to move into something much more interesting. “I am used to doing long-term projects where you don’t see the results for years; with Volupté I see it all come to life immediately.” 

About the Author

Ryan McChrystal

Ryan McChrystal

In a previous life McChrystal wrote about asset management in the Middle East. A history and politics graduate from the north of Ireland, he now focuses his efforts a little closer to home. 

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