Hi, my name is Shona Chambers and I am Director and Founder of Space at 61 – an event space in South East London. Think of us as a kind of “Airbnb for business use”, where a typical week might include the venue being used by Artists working on their creations, supper club hosts trying out new menus (we have a commercial kitchen with food hygiene rating, & seating for 40 covers), work-shoppers holding interesting craft projects, families hosting gatherings, and pop up retail events. In short, no two weeks are the same.
But, Space at 61 was never my intended business and by sharing my story with fellow Genderbuzzers, I hope I can show you that being brave and pivoting my business model when things got tough, paid off for me. I started out in 2011 with a year of painstaking scrutiny, projected income, break even points, banks, selling our family home to fund the renovations of a derelict unit, & finally in May 2012 I opened the Cafe/Deli of my dreams – ‘The Dish and Spoon’
The whole concept of ‘The Dish and the Spoon’ was to open a community cafe with a strong focus on family, in an area, which had nothing at all to offer the average family. When we opened, the Cafe did well, the locals loved it, and we were full of happy families with children enjoying the toy corner, and Mum & Dad trying out different meats & cheese for lunch from our deli offering. In our first year of opening we won ‘London’s Top Toddler Friendly Cafe’ & I was so proud – both of my team & of the fact I’d brought my dream to life off the page so to speak.
Not so Good Times
Sadly, in the same way for many independent shops and cafes, we struggled like crazy to keep afloat. There were quiet periods where all our customers seemed to be on holiday at once and unhelpful parking schemes from the local council and little by little, it became harder to keep going. In 2014, towards the end of the summer, we started to notice water appearing in strange places around the premises and we had to close the café for 6 whole months! In March 2015, we reopened, and I limped on for another year or so before accepting that our trade had moved on, the magic had gone, & my only real choice was to close the cafe for good. Heartbreaking.
Pivot that business!
At this point, having pumped an obscene amount of my family’s money into the business, I tried to look at selling the business & its lease but, the amount I would have received was so low, it was almost to the point of walking away with nothing, whilst at the same time handing back a beautifully renovated property to my landlord. (Who is lovely by the way, no offence to him intended!) Shortly before we closed the cafe, I remember having a conversation with one of my amazing regulars Hannah Read-Baldrey, who is a local author and stylist. She took one look at the place and said ‘Shona, you could do anything with this place, anyone would love to use it for photo shoots, pop ups, anything like that’! I was very sceptical, but I really appreciated her suggestion and gave it a lot of thought.
Then, very uncharacteristically for me, I decided, ‘sod it! I will have a go at keeping the place and I will try and find enough people to rent it out for their own projects, to make the rent each month – at least whilst I think what to do next’. So,we took down the sign for the ‘Dish and the Spoon’, turned it around & my arty husband made us a new sign on the other side with Space at 61 on it. We put up the sign, and that was that – a new brand and a new business model was born. The fact is, that we didn’t ever really close, we simply stepped from Cafe to ‘Space’ in a matter of days.
A new dawn and a new time to thrive
My first real customers were a fantastic Mexican themed Supperclub who were just getting started in East Dulwich and wanted a bit more space than their flat would allow. And then shortly after that, a lovely Tapas pop-up followed, and they became regulars serving up amazing food to the local community several days per month. I discovered several online platforms to list the business on, and enquiries started to increase that way as more people heard of it. I treated it really at that point as a rental, finding clients & leaving them to it. The tipping point only really came well into 2017 when I realised that ‘I’ wanted to choose who came into the place, ‘I’ wanted to make it an amazing place too.
At that point I really started to push my way out into local networking groups and events, with the view that by telling lots of people what I was trying to do, they would at the very least spread the word for me, and maybe even use it themselves. I was hearing more and more that we had an unusual offering, in that we allowed people to rent the space from 1 hour upwards. We don’t charge the earth, as the idea for me has always been to help people to get going, to take an idea they are passionate about and just have a go. With rents going through the roof, and gentrification pushing the creative types further and further out of the area, I felt that I could at least help people to begin in their business. And that is pretty much what has happened. We have been booked out ever since and we our thriving and so is our community.
If you’d asked me 6 years ago if I’d be doing this, I’d have laughed, but like many business women, I am still running my own company and it’s brilliant! I hope I’ve inspired you to keep going when the going gets tough and of course, if you live in South London, or have any friends that do, we’d love to welcome you at Space at 61
Contact us: Spaceat61@gmail.com
Address: 61 Cheltenham Road, Nunhead,London, SE15 3AF