TI: What is your professional background?
DB: I started out in business quite young when I began DJing at 13. I’ve always enjoyed coming up with new business ideas and investment opportunities and always had a side hustle going throughout my school days.
I’m a big petrol head too, and after writing off my VW Golf when I was 17 – just two weeks after I passed my test – I realised I was unlikely to get insured again, so I applied for a job in car sales. My plan was that I’d hopefully be able to get a company car with the job on their trade insurance, and sure enough it worked and I was back in the driving seat within a week of taking the job. I worked seven days a week and became manager within a few years. It was fun taking a different car home every day, meeting new people and learning how a family business was run. I was still DJing at the time, so burning the candle at both ends. I then decided to go my own way and sell cars from home, but soon realised living in the country was far too quiet for me so I ended up spending most of my time in London DJing and socialising and knew I wanted to base myself in central London.
Although I had gained some good business experience, I was aware that I had no real education to show on my CV, having left school at 16, so after jumping around in a few other jobs I decided to take a year out and do an MBA. This gave me a good insight into business and career possibilities. Before I knew it, I was swept up in the world of coffee and haven’t had time to look back. I’m always on the look out for new investment and business opportunities, however, The Espresso Room & The Lockdown Room will remain my main focus for now.
What attracted you to the Island and what do you like about it?
I moved to London City Island in July 2019 as we were approached to open a shop within the English National Ballet. It transpires that Tamara Rojo (artistic director) and Isaac Hernández (lead principal) were regulars at our central London shops and appreciated the need for good coffee at their new home in East London. I did my final MBA dissertation on The Espresso Room and ended up taking over the business to turn it around. I admit I was no coffee expert when I took over and am still learning today but it’s the business side of things that interests me.
The island has a great feel to it being surrounded by water and mainly pedestrianised, which makes it a natural place for a community to form. With the gyms, pools, open spaces and various events that take place, it really is hard not to live there without getting to know your neighbours.
Dan Bull, managing director of The Lockdown Room
Following the success of The Espresso Room, you launched The Lockdown Room in March 2020. What you have learned from this experience?
I admit that 2020 was the most challenging year of my life. I think the uncertainty was a nightmare, just when we thought we were out of the woods, we would be hit with another blow. However, the crisis made me realise that we have some amazing, resilient team members – Valentina, Laura and the whole team have been a huge support and have gone along with all of my (sometimes crazy) ideas. I could not have got through the last 18 months without them on a personal and professional level. Therefore, I decided to create the ‘Family Fund’, where 50% of all profits go back to the team. Essentially, I see it like they are all my business partners and want everyone to share in the success of the company. The idea that we are all on this journey together and people should be rewarded for hard work is key for our company. Our customers have also been amazing, so many of them are friends and we try to involve them where possible.
On a personal level, I have learned to take a step back. The stress and pressure trying to save the business was quite overwhelming at times, it’s so important to keep a healthy balance and remember your health takes priority.
Last year saw a lot of change for our company and, regrettably, we had to close a few of our sites as we battled our way through the pandemic. On the plus side, it has made us up our game and diversify the business, and we have now secured two new sites including The Lockdown Room, which would never have happened otherwise.
What was the initial concept of The Lockdown Room and what can people expect from the upcoming permanent site?
Born during the pandemic, the design concept focused on life after lockdown by bringing a natural haven to City Island for people to meet and enjoy the things most of us took for granted pre-lockdown – dancing, hugging, live music and enjoying food and drinks with friends.
We came up with the slogan ‘Bringing people together for fun times’ – it’s quite simple but it sums it up. It’s what we did in lockdown and we want to continue to do this by creating events.
Sustainability is also key – we’ll have refillable wine on tap so residents can come back to refill their favourite wines while reducing their carbon footprint. All packaging will be compostable and we’ve used as many recycled and sustainable materials during the fit out process. Our aim is to become B Corp certified in the near future. Covid delayed this project but we are keen to get back on track as we return to normality again. We were even asked by our regulars not to change too much about the space as they really enjoyed the ‘casual non-stuffy’ vibe we created last year, so we actually decided to keep the exposed concrete floor and just seal it. We wanted to bring the outdoors in, and have the place feel like an extension of the square and feel part of the landscaping that runs throughout the island.
‘Born during the pandemic, the concept [of The Lockdown Room] focused on life after lockdown by bringing a natural haven to City Island for people to meet and enjoy the things we took for granted pre-lockdown’
Daniel Bull, managing director at The Lockdown Room
What are the most memorable moments over the past 18 months?
There have been some really great times and it’s amazing the amount of fun and positivity that we’ve experienced along the way. We actually hosted a wedding in The Lockdown Room last summer for two of our residents. They were let down last-minute by their original venue so we were happy to host our first wedding. A lot of people were very emotional when they witnessed their first dance on the square from their balconies!
Another highlight was when we were also asked to run a pop-up coffee cart for Great Ormond Street Hospital, who are our charity partner. We donate 5p per coffee across all sites. The cart gave out free coffee to all staff within the hospital throughout lockdown. We got to know so many of the hospital team. It was great to know we were a little bit of respite each day for them and we had some coming back just for a chat when they’d had too much coffee for the day. We’re in talks with the GOSH events team about holding a big fundraiser evening in December at London City Island, so watch this space.
The Lockdown Room hosted a wedding for two local residents in summer 2020
How do you stay positive and motivated as a small business?
I always think it’s best to focus on what we’re doing rather than what our competition is doing. Comparing yourself or your business to others isn’t healthy and can become a bit obsessive and you end up going in the wrong direction. We’re quite lucky that as a small company, one thing we’re not short of is new ideas – creativity has been key in order to diversify ourselves. So we just look ahead, believe in what we’re doing, and are unafraid to try out new things and see where they will lead. The Lockdown Room is a perfect example of this. The grocery delivery service started a week before lockdown and resulted in an all-day food/drink/live music venue and a symbol of hope, positivity and fun times.
‘One thing we’re not short of is new ideas – creativity has been key in order to diversify ourselves. So we just look ahead, believe in what we’re doing, and are unafraid to try out new things and see where they will lead’
Daniel Bull, managing director at The Lockdown Room
Did you take up any activities or hobbies during lockdown?
I was always a big gym goer and I didn’t realise how much I relied on it as a cut-off from work and a destress mechanism. I panicked when lockdown hit and ordered a half rack gym for my spare room. But I ended up changing my fitness routine and loved joining some of the outdoor HIIT and yoga classes on the island and running with some of the residents. I also bought a bike, ditched the Tube and started cycling everywhere. Running was also a bit of a saviour, whenever I was getting stressed or overwhelmed I would put on my trainers and run out the door.
Having lived in the centre of London for years, I was surprised that the area around City Island and Canary Wharf is actually one of the best places to live in London for sports enthusiasts – we are surrounded by water and, although I didn’t get the chance to go away last summer, I enjoyed kayaking and wakeboarding. If I’m not in the gym in my spare time, I prefer to be socialising with friends, seeing family, reading a good book, exploring new places in London or planning my next adventure.
What are your hopes for the future of The Lockdown Room?
To strengthen our reputation as the true hub of the community at London City Island and surrounding areas; a melting pot where new residents and visitors to the island get to meet each other and integrate into this amazing community. We also want to keep up with the latest street food trends, ensuring we provide an interesting mix and cater to everyone with the best natural wines, London craft beers and no/low ABV alternatives. I want The Lockdown Room to be a place to visit and remember the positives that have come out of the last 18 months; the friendships, the laughter, the acts of kindness, the joy on people’s faces at our events when hugs and dancing returned. Let’s not forget this and long may The Lockdown Room be a place for people to experience this for years to come.
The Lockdown Room hosted the closing ceremony of The Islander Festival on Friday 10 September, with an exclusive performance from Dalton Harris, before its grand reopening on 4 December. See more from what happened at this exclusive event here.
Words by Gemma Billington
Photography by Tami Aftab and Marcus Maschwitz