From Pop Up to Permanent | The Story of Salon
‘Working on a building site in Brixton that’s slowly becoming a restaurant.’
So reads the Twitter bio of Nicholas Balfe, chef-patron of the critically acclaimed (and perpetually heaving) Salon in Brixton – a, er, ‘building site’ which has just celebrated its fifth year of service.
He’s referring, of course, to the restaurant’s once humble beginnings as a pop up above a deli in a former hair salon. Despite a starry CV (head chef at Brunswick House, a stint at the vaunted Young Turks pop up back in 2011, and a summer residency at Frank’s), Balfe had never run a solo project before. “Both of those projects had a kind of DIY, ‘anything goes’ kind of ethos about them – as did Brunswick House back then, come to think of it,” he explains. “So I guess I was inspired to give it a crack myself.”
So it was excellent timing when London butchers Cannon & Cannon invited Balfe first to guest chef for a supper club, then to take over the crumbling space above their Brixton home to run a pop up restaurant showcasing their produce. Was it different opening a temporary venture back then, before pop ups became (ironically) a perennial part of London food culture?
“I guess you could probably get away with a bit more back then,” he reflects. “Our whole set up at the restaurant in the early days was incredibly rough and ready. I suppose we got away with it because we were always committed to serving really great food, but I think nowadays guests expect a bit more finery, even if it’s a pop up or semi-permanent venture.”
Nevertheless that low-key, food-focused approach seemed to work wonders – by keeping costs down, the walls unplastered and the service personal, Salon went from strength to strength. Within six months its thrice weekly, set-menu pop up had extended to week-long services, and by 2014 it had taken over the downstairs space, too. Did he see it coming? “It was just an evolution really”, he demurs. “[After expanding], it was my name above the door (literally and figuratively), and my name on the lease. I suppose it was then I decided it was for keeps.”
Considering the leap from pop up to permanent, he claims the breadth of responsibility was his biggest challenge. “I started the venture to cook food, but suddenly found myself having to deal with tax, payroll, holiday allowance, licensing and more”, he explains. “I never really had any active partners in the business, which meant my time was incredibly short as I was trying to do a million things, most of which I either wasn’t very good at, or wasn’t interested in, or both.” Hence bringing business partners Matt Bushnell and Mark Gurney on board last year: “If 2014 was the year I decided it was for keeps, then 2017 was the year I realised the business might actually go somewhere!”
The critics, of course, would have told you that in 2012. But Balfe’s adamant that the benefit to reviews isn’t just the public’s attention. “It’s an opportunity to receive feedback from someone who essentially eats out for a living. No matter what’s written – good or bad – we’ve always used reviews as a means of getting better at what we do.” The secret to Salon’s success, he maintains, is, “above all, hard graft… There have definitely been some wobbles along the way, but ultimately, I’ve always been committed to cooking great food, looking after the guests, and doing the best I can for the staff. Pretty important building blocks, really.”
What, then, would be his advice to a budding food entrepreneur? “It depends what you want to get out of it,” he muses. “If you want to create something with longevity, then you’re definitely going to need a good understanding of the industry, strong skills in the kitchen, a talent for people management and motivation, be aware of how the finance side of things work, have a robust business plan, ideally some nifty connections with suppliers, producers, venue operators and press….” Not much, then. “You’ll probably need a fair bit of luck, too,” he adds. But, “if you just want to invite all your mates over, cook some food and have a laugh, then that’s definitely well within most people’s reach. Roll your sleeves up, get stuck in and enjoy!”
Salon’s empire, meanwhile, continues to expand its borders – late last year, they launched an adjoining wine store. We ask if he sees the restaurant moving any time soon. “I’m still committed to making Salon, in its current guise, as good as it can possibly be”, he replies.
“Never say never, however. We’ll see what 2018 has in store…”
Nicholas also told us about his favourite spots in London. You can read about them right here…