Outside of his day job as a central government lawyer, Ben Spier had been selling homemade salads at Covent Garden’s Shelton Street market every Thursday since June 2015. Operating out of a trailer that he’d built himself, he was starting to consider ways to grow his business when he came across a ‘To Let’ sign in a prime London location.
It was a red telephone box on Bloomsbury Square. Spier started renting it in May of last year and pays £360 per month – excluding electricity costs. ‘I thought, it’s not like there’s less space in this phone box than in the trailer,’ Spier says of the three-foot-wide cubicle.
The rather unorthodox and cramped central London spot is where he currently trades from. He continues to prepare the salads at home each day but now has a set of MDF shelves to display his food. While there’s no running water, Spier has a mobile sink in the phone box.
Capacity is, unsurprisingly, an issue – the 90cm-high fridge installed in the booth has space for no more than 70 portions of salad per day. And without the seating and shelter that markets or larger retail premises often provide, Spier has found himself more exposed to the weather. ‘Even in the middle of summer [in the UK] you can have a washout,’ he says on the drawbacks of selling £5 salads with minimal amenities.
But on a good day, Spier’s reaches £320 in sales. Even with the odd rainy day accounted for, the low-cost nature of the space has allowed the business to remain a fixture for lunching workers.
The minuscule rent isn’t the only advantage: Spier says he doesn’t pay business rates on the booth. ‘Because people haven’t been using phone boxes [as shops] I guess they thought they’d never need to apply business rates,’ Spier says.
The success of Spier’s phone box has led to a temporary closure while he sets up two more conventional sites: a unit at St James’ Park station and a shipping container in Battersea Studios. But the phone box will reopen its doors from October.