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  • Nick Lander
Written by
  • Nick Lander
10 Sep 2011

This article was also published in the Financial Times.

Daniel Land and Jeremy Sanders have been each other's closest friends for 25 of their 28 years. They were separated only by stints at different universities and briefly afterwards when Land went into investment banking at Merrill Lynch while Sanders attended INSEAD Business School, Paris, before working as a consultant for Bain & Co.

At 5am every weekday now, however, they meet near Baker Street for a bus which 15 minutes later drops them outside their first branch of Coco di Mama on Fleet Street.

Once they have opened up, they go their separate ways for the next 12 hours. Sanders nips downstairs to a desk barely wide enough for two laptops and is otherwise surrounded by kitchen equipment, while Land bakes croissants, fills shelves and marshals his team for the rush of caffeine-hungry customers at 7am.

They invariably walk back across London together - the best way of seeing what their competitors are up to, Sanders explained - except on Fridays when, after analyzing the previous week's business and their team's performance, they take their 10 staff off to the nearby Cheshire Cheese pub for a drink or two.

While it was a combined love of food that induced them to leave their much better paid jobs, what they have created and the location they have chosen is the result of considerable rigour and a lot of time on Boris bikes touring the capital for the right site.

They focused on quick-service restaurants because that is where they had eaten as employees. They realised, as many others have done, the extraordinary appeal of Italian food but began to question the absence of anywhere serving good quality, freshly made and swiftly served pasta to order - a conclusion that led to several selfless research trips around Italy which ultimately brought them to the Al Bronzo pasta factory in Sicily.

Coco di Mama translates as 'Mummy's boy' although, as both founders joked, this should be preceded by the adjective Jewish in their case rather than Italian. It is a name that anyone can pronounce and easily recall. Around the name designer Afroditi Krassa has created a brand identity that is witty, strong and colourful and makes the most of a room that once was a newsagents.

Youth and naivety then combined to provide a simple solution to the delivery of the pasta. While they concoct the seven different sauces together, these are prepared for them off-site and delivered each day; the pasta is pre-cooked in the morning ready for the three cooks on the pasta range to refresh it in boiling water for 20 seconds as it is ordered; and then it is combined with the requisite sauce, Parmesan and olive oil.

The key is not to add the sauce on top of the cooked pasta but to do so in stages, continually blending it into the strong cardboard pots from which their customers either eat in at one of the tables or have bagged to take away. But, as they have learnt very quickly, appreciating the difference in the consistency of the sauces is equally important. "The tomato sauce we make blends in really, really easily to any shape of pasta," Land explained, "but we have to be much more careful with the pesto sauce because it is much denser."

Coco di Mama opened in April and although Sanders was less forthcoming with his financial figures than he himself would have demanded of a client were he still a consultant, it has obviously got off to a flying start. They are serving 800 customers a day at an average spend of £5 per head (a sum that probably would not have excited Land, the investment banker) and are currently more than 20% ahead of budget.

Novelty and value for money have both played their parts but so too has the appreciation of one other ingredient that has surprised them both.

'I'm mad about coffee,' Land explained, 'and I was very keen to introduce one of the new, independent coffee roasters in London into the high street that would give us a point of difference. So while I think that our coffee, which is roasted for us by Climpson & Sons in Hackney, is the best, I had no idea that introducing something so distinctive at what is obviously such an impressionable time of the day would have be so critical to our overall sales. Customers who come in early for a coffee now inevitably buy something to eat to go with it and ask either what the sauces will be at lunch or about the specials of the day. Getting the coffee right, almost the least expensive item on our menu, has had a huge and unexpected impact on the business."

While both acknowledge the advice they have received from their two far more worldly shareholders (Sir Stuart Rose, ex-chairman of M&S and Arjun Waney, the backer behind Zuma and Roka restaurants), it has been the confidence of youth that prompted them to open on what is probably London's most competitive street. The lure for every major café brand, independent sandwich bar and supermarket is the density of the local working population, with 25,000 working in Goldman Sachs, Freshfields, KPMG and Deloitte's offices nearby as well as many in the barristers' chambers almost as close - one reason, perhaps, why the queues when I was there were so well behaved.

Both acknowledge that their opening menu was too complex but now, in edited form, it is broad enough to inspire them and to excite their customers. They also admit that they could not have pulled this off without each other. 'It's a very emotional business,' Land confessed, 'and fortunately our own highs and lows never seem to coincide. I've no idea how anyone manages to open a restaurant on their own.' 

Coco di Mama,