A taste of the East

EP examines the growing success of Arabica

This is an almost old-fashioned tale of the transformation of a Borough Market stall to a growing business with real potential.

Established in 1999, Arabica has grown from a market stall operation to an established, multi-dimensional business that operates in a number of fields 16 years later. It’s an old-fashioned tale of entrepreneurship, but the food style and cuisine is now very of the moment and Arabica has the structure, capability and a platform for growth.

The man behind this journey is James Walters (pictured) who has a true love for food. He would not classify himself a chef, not as a foodie. It is slightly deeper than that. Food is passion and he has a genuine hunger and desire to learn about hospitality and to grow the business he has built. He is self taught but has worked hard to be a master of this cuisine and he has been able to bring the flavour of the East and adapt it effectively for the London palate and customer. It may sound so simple but is not. It takes empathy and many hours of preparation and tasting. Levantine cuisine is one of the fastest emerging food styles in London and across Europe. The food is bursting with big, vibrant flavours, textures and naturally colourful on the plate. It’s healthy, grazing food that has seen a surge of interest as consumers broaden their culinary horizons in search of new flavours.

Arabica’s business can be split into a number of key areas that include:

  • The Arabica Bar and Kitchen which is an 80-cover restaurant in Borough Market  and has proven to be a popular destination.
  • Wholesale – the business serves a number of major retail operations that include Selfridges, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason and Marks & Spencer, smaller deli operations nationwide with growing interest  internationally. It also serves a number of key leading hotel operations including the Shangri La at the Shard and The Savoy.
  • Retail – Arabica established a concession in Selfridges food hall over six years ago and still operates at a few food markets across London.
  • A catering division designed for pop-ups and events

Arabica brings a genuine understanding of Levantine food coupled with an innovative style that has allowed the business to prosper.

But where did the story first begin? James first met his original business partner, the Jordanian Jad, back at the turn of the new century. They shared a passion and love for the food from the Eastern Mediterranean. Together they extensively travelled the region as well as building the business from humble beginnings.

Over time, James became the driver and inspiration for the business and has really built a strong platform. Jad took a step back from the business in 2008 and since that time, James has continued to build on its popularity. In 2014, James opened the Arabica Bar and Kitchen and there is little doubt that it has been a success. It may sound like a straightforward tale but the truth is that it requires a steely determination to build a business of such depth and breadth from starting as a market stall. Very few in life have achieved similar levels and it is almost old fashioned if the formula of hard work and a desire to succeed can be classified as old fashioned.

Maybe one of James’s greatest attributes is that belief he can succeed and never accepting a backward step. Any rejection and he would simply redouble his efforts to move forward.

It is one of life’s ironies that the region’s foods are fast emerging in popularity at the same time as the region has been become a zone of real conflict and danger. However, Mediterranean cuisine has long been very popular Ð whether Greek, Italian or Spanish. The foods from the Eastern region have risen as they do offer greater variety, taste and colour as well as being healthy and naturally excellent products for leisure time Ð whether at home or in a restaurant.

Maybe one of the sea changes came with the rise of Yotam Ottelenghi who is British but grew up in Jerusalem. Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi set up the first Ottolenghi deli in Notting Hill in 2002. Many will argue that Ottolenghi’s success was not the driver in the rise in the popularity of the cuisine and there are others who deserve greater praise than they sometimes receive. It is true. Morro certainly did much to educate the market. It opened in 1997. However, the truth is that there been a long heritage of Eastern Mediterranean influenced cuisine in London’s restaurants. Yes some will always point towards the restaurants close to Marble Arch but there has long been a deeper relationship between the British the foods from the East Ð and most especially since the Two World Wars. There were many that were stationed and fought in the region that simply fell in love with the cuisine.

The Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre was a major region of operations during the Second World War. The vast size of the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre saw interconnected naval, land and air campaigns fought for control of the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe. The fighting in this theatre lasted from 10 June 1940, when Italy entered the war on the side of Germany, until 2 May 1945 when all Axis forces in Italy surrendered. However, fighting would continue in Greece – where British troops had been dispatched to aid the Greek government Ð during the early stages of the Greek Civil War.

So it is not so much a new development but it is certainly having resurgence in popularity and for understandable reasons. It is colourful, healthy, good for you and very tasty. It is also ideal for grazing. It provides perfect foods for bar snacks or for lazy lunches or dinners.

James is the new champion for the foods of the East. He has worked tirelessly to build strong foundations and now he would like to see the business grow further and the potential certainly exists. Maybe James is the ideal champion to build such a business. He has a thirst to learn and to innovate. He understands the foods of the West and the East and his enthusiasm is infectious. His passion to clear to see.

Arabica will grow and it will find more and more customers who will fall in love with the foods. There may be a history and heritage that has been largely unknown but the truth is todayÕs generation is a new audience. Today is simply about today and this cuisine will become part of our lives.