Founder Focus: Phil Honer, co-founder of atis
Phil Honer began his career in the corporate world, starting out at KPMG before joining the leadership of the finance team at onefinestay, a provider of upscale home rental services. He went on to do an MBA at Harvard Business School, and it was during that time that the idea for a health-focussed fast-casual concept developed. After a year of working through the finer details, Phil together with his business partner and wife Eleanor, returned to London and brought the idea to life. atis is based in Old Street, and opened its door in October 2019.
What was your eureka moment?
I wish there was more of a eureka moment but the reality was that atis was the convergence of what I thought I could do well and a concept that I knew I could draw purpose from. I had long wanted to work in food and when my wife, Eleanor, wanted to be involved I knew it was right. Of course we’ve been lucky with timing too – as we launched the plant-powered movement had really taken hold.
What is your elevator pitch?
Delicious, natural, freshly cooked food served in a space that energises. atis gives people the ability to reclaim their lunch break with real food served at reasonable prices.
How did you test your idea?
With many supportive friends and latterly with investors and industry professionals. The challenge of a salad bar with hot ingredients and a lot of skus means that it’s hard to do a pop-up. So to some extent we took our menu forward to our site on a wing and a prayer. I’d advise others to test, test, test – every bit of feedback gives you an idea of what you can do better. Starting a restaurant is unforgiving – you need to be as good as you can be from the beginning, otherwise customers won’t come back. In order to compete with the established players you need to try to offer something more than they do across all the consumer touchpoints; experience, store design, food quality etc. It’s not good enough to only be good at just one of those elements.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a business on their own?
Have conviction in yourself. There will always be a thousand people who say it can’t be done or that your idea doesn’t work for whatever reason. Linking back to question one above: the questions I’d ask myself are: a) Will I enjoy this and be good at it? b) is there a real (and widespread) need for whatever good or service it is?
Do you have a mentor or are you one?
I am lucky to have had a lot of support from others who have done similar things. None are formal mentors, but I reach out to a bunch of people quite frequently if I am stuck (which is often). On top of this I lean on my friends who are business owners, accountants, lawyers etc – they are very tolerant!
What’s your plan B?
Currently, I don’t have one – I think you have to be all in when you start a business. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, so if atis doesn’t work we will be forced to iterate on the same idea or do something else, and for good reason. We have learnt a huge amount just from starting a business – I’m sure that if we have to move on to something else it will be time well spent.
What is the most worthwhile investment that you have made?
Having the right people on your team: surround yourself with people you want to work with and who are good. We pay our staff above average and we went to great lengths to make sure there was cohesion in the team. It has paid dividends. It sounds cheesy but I smile when I walk into the store because people are (largely) having a good time.
What one failure are you glad you experienced?
There have been so many failures! There was a notable week where our investment funding, our first site and our head of operation’s visa all fell through. All of which hinged on each other in some way. It felt like the entire platform of our business came crashing down. I believe progress comes in large part from resilience and perseverance – good things usually come out of failure. Not least because your understanding of your business increases.
What is coming up for atis?
1. A lot of refining what we are doing: food waste reductions, spring and summer menus, office catering, optimising our click and collect technology. The list is endless!
2. Starting to think about site two
What book would you recommend that everyone reads and why?
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard. It’s a fantastic book – for me it was particularly useful in helping me think about building culture and successful teams.
How do you find balance in your daily life?
I am naturally not a moderate person, but I try to be and seeking a balanced, moderate lifestyle is the ultimate goal – especially as a business owner. The first step is nutrition. Healthy, balanced food and avoiding excess of all the usual suspects (for me: caffeine & sugar!). Exercising regularly but not excessively. We have recently got a puppy and I find taking him out for a walk hugely therapeutic.
To see what atis have to offer, head over to their website.