Village people – how community is defying the odds in Brixton

Brixton Village in south London has defied the pandemic. Hondo Enterprise’s Taylor McWilliams tells Nicol Dynes its survival is based on being local community based.

In these challenging times for retail, the key to success is being local, independent and rooted in the community. This is a belief that Taylor McWilliams, managing partner of Hondo Enterprises, has held for a long time and it has been proven right in this year of pandemic and lockdowns. 

Brixton Village and Market Row, a 100-year-old market with covered arcades in the heart of Brixton in London, owned by Hondo Enterprises, has thrived this year. The 150 small independent businesses in this cultural and community hub never closed and continue to do well because they are local.

“Community is the key to our success,” McWilliams tells Living Retail. “Even though it’s relatively well-known, Brixton Village isn’t like Camden Market or Borough Market, famous places that rely upon tourist footfall. This is a local place served by locals for locals. We take a lot of care to make sure the tenant mix is right that way and at all times we’ve got the local population in mind, which has served us especially well in this pandemic.”

Brixton Village was able to react to and deal with the restrictions because it has a lot of F&B businesses as well as essential retailers like butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers which were able to stay open throughout.

“We were able to learn a lot of lessons about how to operate a business with social distancing and an anti-bacterial product called Bioprotect, making sure we gave customers the confidence to come back into the public arena,” says McWilliams. 

Local and independent

But what made the business model resilient was first and foremost being local and independent, he adds: “We weren’t relying on tourists or office workers and the local community continued to come to the stores, probably even more than before because they were working from home. People are shopping closer to home now and they care more about where the goods come from.”

‘We take a lot of care to support new brands with what they need, from help with their tax return to sourcing fresh ingredients.’ 

Taylor McWilliams, Hondo Enterprises

Successful chains such as Franco Manca and Honest Burgers started in Brixton Village, which was their launch pad.  “We’re always trying to find the next big thing,” says McWilliams. “We take a lot of care to support new brands with what they need, from help with their tax return to sourcing fresh ingredients. We try to create a really nurturing environment to create the next Franco Manca or Honest Burgers.”

McWilliams now has a new project: Hondo Enterprises’ Pope’s Road development in Brixton, which received planning approval from Lambeth Council in November because it will bring jobs and money to the local economy. 

Office need

“Brixton desperately lacks office space,” he explains. “There are less than 100 unused desks in the area, so not enough room even for a small enterprise to set up. We want to meet that need, as well as complement our existing traders, driving footfall. They’ll have a captive audience, from coffee in the morning to lunch breaks to drinks and a meal after work, while office workers will benefit from that vibe and buzz of an amazing amenity on their doorstep.”

There has been considerable opposition to the project, which some locals say will be an eyesore in a low-built area and will exacerbate the gentrification of Brixton. Hondo believes it will deliver 2,000 jobs and £2.8m a year to the local economy. 

“We fully appreciate this has been seen as divisive by some, so we commit to redoubling our efforts to work in partnership with the local community to ensure that our scheme delivers benefits for them,” says McWilliams.

Local heroes

Honest Burgers

Two university friends started Honest Burgers in 2011 in Brixton market in a tiny place with 10 tables. The concept was simple: making top-quality burgers and chips, keeping it simple and being nice to staff and customers. 

The place soon became popular and queues started to form every night. The brand soon expanded, becoming a chain with 43 restaurants, mainly in London, 750 staff and a turnover of over £30m. 

They have stuck to the original concept of simple high-quality British meat and potatoes, but have since added a plant burger with vegan bacon. 

Franco Manca

Franco’s Pizzeria opened in Brixton’s covered market in 1986. When the founder wanted to retire in 2008, he asked his friend Giuseppe Mascoli to take it over. He renamed the restaurant Franco Manca, which in Italian means Franco is missing, in homage to his friend. 

Giuseppe, who is from Naples, put in a new oven, adopted slow-rising sourdough and created a simple menu with a few quality ingredients imported from Italy. 

Word spread rapidly and every day there were queues around the block. Now Franco Manca has around 50 restaurants in London and all over the UK. 

New brands

Hondo’s Brixton Kitchen initiative aims to find the next success story. It is a contest open to local aspiring chefs, with celebrity judges deciding the winners in the professional and amateur category.

The winners get a six-month residency to test out the concept to see if it works: the prize includes their own kitchen and no expenses, rent or rates to pay. 

The first winner was ‘Budgie’ Montoya, whose Filipino restaurant Sarap got brilliant reviews and now he has a real lease on a restaurant. 

The winner in the amateur category was Adejoké Bakare, who after a successful residency has opened Chishuru (menu item pictured), her own West African restaurant in Brixton Village.