The founder of one of the world’s largest chains of Mexican restaurants has set up a new venture to take over defunct UK department stores and repurpose them as thriving mixed-use spaces styled as a public version of Soho House.
Tortilla founder Brandon Stephens is leading the new venture and is in advanced discussions with landlords about signing leases on its first sites.
Provisionally called Anthem, the new concept will include elements such as workspace, meeting rooms, food halls, bars and cafés, competitive socialising space, and fitness and wellbeing facilities.
The venture will not be short of potential sites: Operators like Debenhams and House of Fraser have been closing dozens of stores in recent years and even the sector’s most successful operator, John Lewis, is planning to convert some of its retail space to offices and residential.
Stephens founded Tortilla, which has 41 sites in the UK, in 2007 after moving to London from California to study for an MBA. Unimpressed with the quality of the Mexican food so common in California, he wrote his business school thesis about the possibility of setting up a fast-casual Mexican restaurant chain in the UK, then found backing to turn his thesis into a successful reality.
“Anthem is also born out of a personal need,” he told Bisnow. “It will be a department store of experiences. Like so many people today, I spend my time wandering around, having meetings, trying to find places to get set up and work, like coffee shops or hotel lobbies or members clubs. There is a huge increase in mobile workers, and that will only be accelerated by COVID-19. And there is a huge demand for the kind of experiences we will offer.
“If you think about what people want to do in a day, they want to work, they want to eat and drink, and maybe want to take a fitness class or a wellbeing treatment. So we thought, what would it look like if we created something from scratch with everything people need under one roof?”
Stephens said members clubs and coworking operators provide some of the elements that Anthem would look to offer, but the membership-based business model precludes clubs and coworking companies from offering all of them. Anthem will charge membership fees for some parts of the workspace, fitness and wellness elements, but being open to all is a key part of the business model…
Main image: empty department store, Derby. Photo by Malcolm Neal on Geograph.org.uk