The Tab St. Andrews meets the students who founded Combini Co
We met St Andrews graduates Juno and Alex to hear more about CombiniCo, CombiniCafé, and their ongoing crowdfunding round with CrowdCube.
Alex Longson and Juno Lee, the brains behind the St Andrews phenomenon CombiniCo, met as academic father and son. Neither of them were particularly heavy drinkers so they spent their Raisin day over tea, getting to know one another. It would be a stretch to suggest that a fully-fledged business idea was born then, but both Juno and Alex recognised that it could be the start of something. Three years later, the two have earned almost local-celebrity status within St Andrews, heading up one of the town's most popular food establishments.
Despite being students until recently — Alex graduated in 2017 (Geography) and Juno in 2018 (General) — they are no strangers to running a company. Prior to founding Combini, Alex managed Lightbox and previously ran a pop-up sushi takeaway. Juno started his first business at 18, manufacturing and distributing packaged ice cream products in USA, and also worked in the music entertainment industry, releasing a self- produced album in Tokyo at 17.
While it is not uncommon for students to be entrepreneurial, particularly in St Andrews, very few students achieve the level of success that Juno and Alex have enjoyed.
Experiencing record sales each month, CombiniCo is expanding both its physical and brand presence. In February, they partnered with FS, drawing attention to young Korean fashion designers and have also led several collaborations with JazzWorks, stemming from Juno's passion for music. Following a successful angel investment last year, CombiniCo is now focussing on its latest initiative, working with CrowdCube to raise their third round of expansion funding. CrowdCube, the world’s largest crowd-equity platform, allows members of the public to become shareholders of CombiniCo while helping fuel the company’s future growth and development projects.
The pair were very quick to recognise the significance of having CombiniCo on such a well-established platform at this early stage. “We were always drawn to the idea of opening Combini to public investment, because it allows our passionate customers to be a part of the journey with us,” says Juno.
“CrowdCube is a highly selective platform with only a handful of F&B companies featured at one time, so we were pleasantly surprised when they invited us to work with them”.
Coinciding with the launch of their CrowdCube campaign, CombiniCo is also due to open CombiniCafé on Market St. How exactly did CombiniCo become mainstay of the St. Andrews food scene so quickly? Juno and Alex’s answer is focussing on a strong aesthetic and style that is heavily cemented in the St Andrews way of life.
“We never had a genuinely solid idea, but there was an underlying understanding between the both of us that we wanted to create something beautiful,” says Juno, “as two people who were interested in entrepreneurship, music and design, as well having a passion for food and Korean culture, all we had to do was connect the dots.”
The store's success was almost instantaneous. Did they know CombiniCo was going to take off in the way that it did?
“We knew that if we focussed on the right things — the experience, the food, and the presentation — people were going to be interested,” Alex explains. He’s right of course; the Instagram worthy aesthetics, lovingly prepared food, and attention to detail are all a recipe for success. “But we definitely didn't think that it would be as successful to the extent it was on day one,” Alex laughs.
"Our biggest problem quickly became how we were supposed to serve all the people coming through the doors. We were both in the shop the whole time, so we felt the pace of people coming and going, and at the time it was a bit overwhelming. Looking back now though, there are definitely worse problems to have!”
The conversation then turned towards CombiniCafé and their hopes for its future. “Serving specialty tea, coffees and breakfasts was something we always wanted to do inside our current store, but the small space and the fact that our lunch preparation team arrives at 5.30am meant it just wasn’t possible.” Juno adds, “We’re really excited that we’ll be able to deliver this now in a brand new space.”
“Designing a minimalist café from scratch was a really satisfying experience,” says Alex. “We definitely learnt a lot about interior design from our first location and hopefully both locals and students will really enjoy having an extra space in St Andrews to meet up”.
The pair also mentioned that their approach to tea and coffee will be unlike most people have ever seen, and also hinted at some unique vegan pastry and food options that are currently in development. “We can’t give too much away yet, but we want to push our minimalist and environmentally conscious values as much as possible with this project,” Alex smiles.
Both Alex and Juno speak quite broadly about their plans for the future of CombiniCo, but are fairly coy when I ask them directly where they see the company in the future.
“Ideally, we want to serve like-minded people – largely students. We want to share our vision and our values, and overall elevate the experience of convenience food in general,” Juno clarifies. I mention the rumours that had been whirring about town a while ago that they are going to be opening a store in Edinburgh and Alex, who lives in the city, responds, “We want to cater to students Europe and the USA, which makes Edinburgh that fantastic place to start from. There's no concrete plan yet though!”
This whole experience cannot have been stress-free for Alex, Juno and the rest of their team. Both hesitate when I ask what they have enjoyed most about the experience. Juno makes it clear, “The whole business is an extension of our personalities and they're an integral part of the brand itself. So really the most enjoyable part is seeing people come in and love the food and the brand.”
Alex is very much of the same opinion: "There's a sense of satisfaction you get as a designer when you feel like you’ve made something good, it's made even better when you see people around town carrying those things, like the bags and the bowls. It's often the little things that are the most satisfying.”
It's clear that Alex and Juno have a real passion for the company they have created together. The integrity that is behind CombiniCo stems from their love of minimalist design, their shared Korean heritage and a genuine sense of excitement about the food and aesthetic they cultivate. More information about their CrowdCube campaign can be found at their website.
[Image Credit: Alex Longson of CombiniCo]