Every Friday, City A.M. Deputy Editor Andy Silvester interviews somebody making waves in the finer things in life: food and drink. This week he sits down with Chris D’Sylva amidst the stacked shelves of the “Supermarket of Dreams,” which opened amidst lockdown in the first week of June
Nestled amongst the somewhat staid independent shops of Holland Park, all serious-minded fascias and established-in dates, lies a sudden burst of distinctly modern energy.
Across the glass frontage, a hot-pink font declares you have arrived at the “Supermarket of Dreams.” Outside, the A-board welcomes impeccably dressed-down punters in for Allpress coffee, Ottolenghi cookbooks and Happy Endings’ ice cream sandwiches.
Inside, founder Chris D’Sylva flies in eight different directions, the visionary at the heart of a quite extraordinary new store. It is badged appropriately: as Chris sits down to chat on a step at the back of the shop, a delivery from renowned butcher HG Walter arrives, with vacuum-packed wagyu steaks joining the supermarkets’ shelves. The store’s inventory is a who’s who of London’s foodie favourites.
Chris has owned the Notting Hill Fish Shop, a brisk ten-minute walk from here, for many years. At the start of lockdown he decided it was time to add a site – and pivot both stores into high-end, high-quality supermarket style stores.
The idea for the ‘Supermarket of Dreams’ was, he says, “genuinely conceived in an instant.” Faced with a lockdown, and the closure of so many of London’s finest restaurants, Chris wanted to create a place in which he could sell their wares – and help support them, too.
“It’s zigging when everybody else zags,” he says, with a mischievous grin.
His partners – who include the likes of Kricket, Patty & Bun and Sky Gengell’s Spring, all of whom provide ready-to-cook kits – saw the opportunity to join in from the off. Yotam Ottolenghi just this week told his million-plus instagram followers that ‘Dreams’ does “exactly what it says on the tin.”
“There’s no barriers: I’m not insisting I need 100 per cent mark-up or 50 per cent margin,” he tells me, in a west-London-lilted Aussie accent. “It’s more like, ‘what can I do for your business, how does it help, how can we both win?’
“It’s very much the win together, lose together mentality and culture. It’s not about profit. It’s about whether the concept works, do we make customers happy.” Do that, he says, and he and the hospitality businesses across the board have a “fighting chance.”
He certainly seems to be making customers happy.
Some regulars from the Notting Hill Fish Shop come across from time to time – Chris is such a part of the community he even knows which of his customers have got lockdown tennis injuries, and he stands aside many of his customers waiting outside the local school gates – but he’s also discovered a whole new user base in Holland Park with the Supermarket of Dreams.
At one point he offhandedly describes Dreams and the Fish Shop as “the hottest thing in lockdown.” Other than toilet roll providers and mask-makers, it’s hard to disagree. It’s been a hub for innovation, too: one of his team, ruminating in their garden, pressed some figs from their tree. A few weeks later, a beautifully-presented fig leaf cordial is out on the shelves.
His motivations, it seems, are more about providing a genuinely enjoyable experience rather than setting out purely in pursuit of cold hard cash.
He’s also driven by a desire to do his bit for London’s embattled hospitality businesses, battered by the Covid-19 lockdown.
“In terms of the vibrancy of London, the energy of London, hospitality is crucial to that, it’s fundamental. And it’s fundamental to the livelihoods of a lot of people that prop up the city,” he says, motioning to the busy staff rushing about the supermarket.
The Fish Shop, too, is full of people doing what they do best: making and preparing incredible ingredients. Now focussed on butchery and vegetables, alongside the fish operation, customers arrive to a scene more reminiscent of the organised chaos of a restaurant kitchen than a shop.
Four chefs prepare today’s sushi to the left – a butcher trims some chuck steak to the right. At the back of the store, fishmongers gut a gargantuan tuna soon to become ready-to-slice sashimi on sale in ‘Dreams’; in the middle, a disarmingly cheery staff member co-ordinates online deliveries off a laptop. It’s a remarkably energetic place.
“Even thinking about our own backyard, it’s people with a passion for this industry and they need an outlet and they need to make money to survive. It’s crucial to the ecosystem.”
Judging from the flow of people in and out of Dreams and the Fish Shop, Chris’ bit of the ecosystem is very healthy indeed.