It’s nestled in neatly amongst the other shops on South St, but CombiniCo. – the student started and run business – remains a top pick for quick, fresh food and drink amongst students, and an ongoing hit less than a year after the grand opening. After revealing the news about their upcoming expansion in Edinburgh and sealing a seed investment deal, the two businessmen and friends, graduate Alex Longson and soon to be graduate Juno Lee, retrace CombiniCo.’s conception, establishment, and the special roots the business has been able to establish and cultivate in St Andrews.
“I grew up with a single mom for a lot [of] years and she used to run a restaurant group, so I always spent my day with her travelling from restaurant to restaurant,” Mr Lee said. When he was old enough to think, he remembered his mother’s everyday life and told himself to never be involved with a food or restaurant business! He laughed, and admitted that this [CombiniCo.] was the farthest away from that whilst still being involved with the food and beverage he was so passionate about, having been exposed to the industries as a child. Further, he remembers music and business being a crucial element of his years growing up and going to school in progressive, rural Vermont. “At the Putney School, I was milking cows, waking up at 5:30, which taught me very different things from my previous experiences,” he said. This in turn helped him discover his curiosities in the process of forming a business idea, starting it, and ultimately running it. He continued, “I got to explore both business and music in high school. One year, I taught myself how to write a business plan.” His initial ideas of developing a plan were supported and provided for in all possible ways by his high school. Mr Lee said, “They [the school] actually allowed me to integrate this real, private business into my everyday course. They provided me with all the help they could…That’s the most important shaping part of my life, at least in my childhood.” Importantly, such projects and support allowed Mr Lee to understand the importance of partnership.
For Mr Longson, an early exposure to varying flavours and foods, as well as experience in food preparation in his early years at university fused together his interests in food and business. He said, “My parents, my family, my background, they all exposed me to lots of different cuisines and flavours.” He remembers Japanese food being his favourite, and being taught how to make sushi by his parents, “In hindsight, it was a super formative time for me, which I didn’t realise until I came to St Andrews. It was something I could make and take to parties and gatherings.” Mr Longson remembers taking these platters of sushi to Lightbox potluck dinners, and utilising such as opportunities to create culinary delights that were both delicious and aesthetically pleasing to see. He said, “Someone from Lightbox took an Instagram photo of the sushi, and a few of my other friends who didn’t work with Lightbox saw it, and asked me if I wanted to help out with another project.” Such platters of sushi would – unknowingly to Mr Longson – launch him into other student food initiatives, most notably a popup sushi shop out of the Zest formerly on Market St. This would allow Mr Longson to gain the experience in a commercial kitchen and contribute to the start up of CombiniCo. Dealing with orders, preparing food, and working in a kitchen, this provided the foundation for Mr Longson and Mr Lee to know how to do these things for themselves.
Mr Longson and Mr Lee met as a coincidence whilst pursuing their own interests. Indeed, Mr Longson notes the significance of working with Lightbox throughout his years at St Andrews, “Really my four years here were spent developing my creative side. I joined Lightbox when it was just a group of six people, and I was part of the growth of that company until it had 50 people…that was my life in St Andrews.” Through Lightbox, he credits having been exposed to working with clients, as well as having a chance to develop general skills in photography, design, and videography, all the while having a fantastic experience running a business, culture and community that wasn’t ‘just about a society.’ As a videographer then event photographer, and later the general manager his final two years, Mr Longson quickly learnt about what it might take to sustain a business for a set amount of time, whilst simultaneously managing other projects.
Producing one of the music videos for The Other Guys as a member of Lightbox, Mr Longson had a friend in the group, who happened to know a newly joined and parentless fresher Mr Lee. “The day before Raisin one of the other Other Guys reached out to me,” said Mr Longson, “He said, ‘there’s an orphan in the group who I think you would potentially get along with’.
I said yes straight away and then met Juno the next day.” Yet third year Mr Longson had no intentions of adopting, nor did he have anything planned for the actual weekend. His favourite thing about that year’s Raisin experience? Having Juno over at his house that afternoon and meeting him.
“We talked like two friends meeting up. We drank tea and talked about our past projects and things we’d been working on, said Mr Longson. Yet from early on, it was clear to both that they shared similar interests and passions, and after meeting Mr Longson, Mr Lee remembers how quickly he realised he was ‘a very rare kind of partner.’
In February 2018 at the end of Mr Lee’s second year and during Mr Longson’s final semester of fourth year, the two opened CombiniCo., hoping to address something the town lacked, or as Mr Longson said, helping to ‘solve a problem for the town’. The brand was an idea to execute something they were excited about, as well as share what the two loved and knew best: Japanese and Korean food that was sleek in service, delicious, and fresh.
They anticipated the target audience, a student body and town community, would be open to such a service and space.
The first 100 days involved the two doing everything themselves in store, from training employees to making the food, receiving orders and supply deliveries. Further, the first challenge they faced was not getting customers in the door, but figuring out how to get food to them in time when they did. Because they were always in their shop for the first few months, the two were incredibly excited to see glimpses of their brand around town. Mr Lee said, “We were sending photos to one another of people we saw interacting with our products outside of the shop, and that was very exciting.” Because they were so heavily based in the store at the start, it was incredibly fulfilling to hear about this and see their business thriving when they did step out. Since then, they have noticed their impact in the town. “Even seeing how much livelier St Mary’s Quad is, now that students have the ability to buy food and bring it across to eat. We’ve noticed a huge difference,” Mr Longson said. He even remembers hearing the library staff once complaining about the fact that there were too many bowls taking up space in the bins. But don’t worry too much about the waste, as I’ve been told the bowls are compostable!
About forty minutes into this story, we took an unexpected break as Juno and Alex took a break to receive a delivery of food supplies. Deconstructing the palettes and, equipped with gloves and a box cutter each (coats off for this one!), the two took in, as I was informed later, about 1000 kg worth of supplies and goods for their shop in St Andrews.
“It’s either food shipments or staff,” Mr Longson later joked. Whilst the two are focusing much of their time and energy on the upcoming Edinburgh expansion, and despite two full-time staff members here, they still do the finalisation of all things in their St Andrews store, including checking staff rota and taking in deliveries when their staff have the day off. Much of the work the two dealt with during their opening still applies, though they happily admit to running more efficiently and thereby focusing on building the culture more.
Indeed, the culture and community that developed within their staff body was all the two could hope for. “Initially, our first 10-15 staff were all people that we knew but didn’t know each other. It didn’t create a clique but trust was extended throughout that created a really nice culture you don’t often see in other food and beverage businesses,” Mr Lee said. As former customers of the brand they now represent, these ‘loving, passionate’ staff cultivated a one-of-a-kind culture that authentically emulated the brand. Though Mr Lee and Mr Longson feared hiring full-time staff would shift this dynamic, they found that it helped to evolve that culture further. “The two full-time staff add a profession aspect with better training, responsibilities, and their staff greatly appreciate what they contribute.”
With a network of staff that proved to also be a fan of the brand, it is worth noting the emphasis on design the two have placed, heavily derived from their fascination with the Japanese convenience store. Mr Lee said, “We both have an excitement for beautiful things.” Design wise, the two try and do everything themselves, ‘at least at this stage’ Mr Longson admitted. In fact, the first outsourcing they have done for the design portion of their business has been working with an interior design firm in Edinburgh, though as they admitted, interior design is ‘a whole separate beast’ with unbreakable rules they would ‘very easily break.’
On the shop’s name, Mr Lee attributed this idea to the ordinary convenience stores dispersed throughout Japan. He said, “The name derives from not wanting to be a copy of a Japanese convenience store, but because of the relevance these stores have to everyday lives.” The convenience function and experience one might have at such a store in Japan fascinated the two and their business model. Mr Lee said, “At such stores, you’re most likely to get what you want and also be surprised to find things out of your imagination. There’s joy in finding a surprise, and the unexpected, and the experience is always, always sleek.” This experience and design, coupled with the culture of friendship and community developed in St Andrews is what the two hope to continue in Edinburgh. “I think we’re running off the wave of success from May,” Mr Longson said. Utilising this confidence as well as the momentum provided by such success, the two were able to push for something bigger, looking forward to a new, larger store set to open in Edinburgh. Mr Longson and Mr Lee have been transitioning their staff and management in St Andrews to accommodate for the expansion. “One of the two full time staff will be our new manager in Edinburgh, and we’ll hire more full time staff here when we go,” said Mr Lee. Another unique aspect about their employees, as Mr Longson said, is that the initial cohort of staff involved were on-board even six months before their shop opened. Transferring some of their same staff from St Andrews to Edinburgh will effectively transfer that culture and community developed in this town. The two also intend to continue their ongoing partnerships with their current suppliers. “We’re really happy with the way our relationships with those suppliers have gone,” Mr Longson admitted. They anticipate that one of their current full-time staff members will be the new production leader in Edinburgh, and they continue to communicate with him on how to maintain their store in St Andrews. As Mr Lee said, “He’s an expert, and we’re listening to him.” CombiniCo. has not only made its move in people’s hearts and stomachs, but also made its mark with the University. Mr Longson said, “We are often a stopping point on guided tours as an example of student enterprise. The story told here is all about a student driven initiative, product, business, and project.” Apart from their upcoming expansion in Edinburgh and continual improvements being made in their home store (absorbed in his stream of thought, Mr Lee mentioned the recurring ‘sauce problem’, as they often find a lack of sauce in their shop), there are several other components to the CombiniCo. project that are already in development. The sales process and buying experience, new products to serve, as well projects such as the ‘bottle tea project’ and ‘Combini stop’, are all brimming at the surface of a long list of ideas and plans built upon their initial influences, and experiences in their store here in St Andrews. A flurry of meticulous detail and genuine interest, Mr Longson and Mr Lee are only just getting started. CombiniCo. fans and lovers have much to be excited about and look out for in the future