Husband and wife team James and Nicole set up Lucky Lychee in 2020, leaving behind their respective careers to bring a taste of delicious Malaysian, Chinese and Thai food to the people of Winchester.
The couple have run a street food stand, meal delivery service, dine-in pub and now a Deliveroo takeaway, all in the six months since they started trading. We caught up with James to get the low down on how the past few months have gone.
Hi James, thanks for catching up! What led you to start up your own business?
I was previously a director at a commercial graphics company, but revenues plummeted as COVID hit, and I took redundancy last summer along with about 30% of the workforce. We’d always talked about opening a food outlet in Winchester, and with a bit of redundancy cash and a lot of optimism, we decided if we didn’t do it now, we never would.
We had an amazing reception to our food in the first few months, which reassured us that there was a gap in the market which had frustrated us as Winchester diners: dominated by the usual high street chains, no-one was doing anything novel, authentic and delicious. Nicole has been working full time throughout, giving up her weekends and evenings to tirelessly make the dishes only she can.
I lived in Malaysia when I was in my 20’s and that’s where I met Nicole – food was always her main passion and we actively spent our time seeking out the best culinary experiences we possibly could.
We’d spent a lot of time living and travelling overseas and that’s where a lot of our inspiration comes from. We were very much frustrated with the lack of options in our local area at the time and after experiencing the street food of Penang and Bangkok where the food is so much better there than what you can get in restaurants, we took a trip to London to do some research on what the UK street food scene looked like.
What’s on the menu?
We serve Chinese, Malaysian and Thai dishes, many of them based on Nicole’s family recipes from Penang. Bestsellers include our 8-hour beef cheek rendang; sweet & sour pork with lychees and chinese meat pies. We make everything in-house, including spice pastes and sauces, and our super-popular dumplings are all hand wrapped by Nicole.
We work with local suppliers: cheese from Romsey for our pork, jalapeño and Old Winchester dumplings, and beef from Hampshire farms via our butcher Uptons of Basset, in Southampton. We run a small menu, but change it weekly and seize every opportunity to be creative – on Mothering Sunday we did pink rose-shape dumplings, and on Super Bowl weekend we made cheeseburger spring rolls alongside Thai hot dogs.
What are the pros to setting up in street food in your opinion?
The market was a great way to build an audience quickly and in a low-risk way. We would eventually like our own premises, but we were never under any illusion over just how much time and money that would entail. A market pitch allowed us to talk to people and get to know our customers; developing those relationships was really important and it’s also shown us just how much we would like a sit-down dining option at some point as we really love talking to people about the food they’ve ordered.
We were introduced to NCASS by other traders and we’ve found the Due Diligence system really helpful.
You set up right in the middle of the pandemic. Have people been supportive?
We’ve grown a very loyal customer base now and we’re very grateful we’ve had people follow us on our journey from markets, to delivery and to our current trading location at The Mucky Duck. There is a craving for new, delicious and independent food establishments in Winchester and people really possess a sense of pride in what’s happening in their city. As such, people have been really supportive of us and understanding when on the rare occasion, things might go slightly wrong.
Customer relations are key and it’s really rewarding for us to see people enjoying our food and ordering new dishes on the menu that are new to them.
Where are you based at the moment?
We’re currently in residency at The Mucky Duck, a lovely pub in Winchester. We started here in December 2020 when the substantial meal requirement came in – the pub didn’t have a chef and we were desperate for our own kitchen! Before this, we were trading on the market in Winchester and also operating a meal delivery service from our home kitchen, delivering 60+ dishes a night on my motorbike.
We did dine in while the pub was open and had a great reception from the pub’s regulars, also bringing our customers from the market into the pub – it proved a real win-win. On busy days we were doing 100+ covers, alongside takeaway.
Since January, with the pub closed, we’ve been operating as a takeaway only, taking all orders through Deliveroo. This has also worked really well: since launch we’ve consistently been the top-rated restaurant in Winchester on the app (4.7/5), and have people travelling in from surrounding villages to pick up food. We’re a small team of four in a very small kitchen, and we’re all self-taught – none of us has a background in the industry.
Where did the inspiration for the branding come from?
My partner Nicole worked in branding at a graphics company and so she was well versed to tackle this part of the business. Lucky Lychee is a play on a Chinese takeaway name, i.e. the lucky dragon and the lychee brings together lots of heritage and food types that can be found across China, Thailand and surrounding areas. In Penang you would recognise the bright colours that our branding brings.
Our online community is hugely important and we strive to produce quality photographs that really demonstrate the quality of our food. We shot 35 of our dishes across two days and they act as the cornerstone of our menu boards. Social media has been transformative for our business and we want to ensure we’re delivering a professional brand with strong imagery that entices people to order from us. We didn’t think we’d be taking takeaway orders via DMs on Instagram a month after we opened and that’s a real testament to the impact social media can play in the success of a business.
Have you faced any disasters since launching?
When we were trading from a gazebo, we were promised lots of footfall. In fact, it was October, really wet and cold and we had to pitch up next to lots of food stalls which of course did us no favours. I’d definitely advise other traders to have a good think about whether an event is really worth your time and money.
What would be your advice for those thinking of starting out?
If someone was thinking of starting up a food business now my advice would be to start selling your food as soon as you can because you learn so much as you go along. Set up tasting sessions with friends and family; in the beginning we even took lots of food up to my barber shop and a local brewery and this led to more people knowing about us from the off. Give away your food as soon as possible to people who might be customers in the future as you’ll learn so much from it.
Seek out any opportunities for exposure, whether it’s TV opportunities, writing to local papers or blogger engagement.