With 3,000 square feet of floor space, Gavin Sheperd claims his prosaically named Cafe Internet is the largest in the UK. "When we first moved here in 1995, the place was a shell. I brought in an interior designer and asked him to create a relaxed warm atmosphere," says the 30-something-year-old ex-computer salesman.
The result is what Sheperd calls a "colonial-style" cafe with seating for about 100 people, green canvas director chairs, wood polished floorboards and a bar at the far end. The staff get to choose the music, which is modern and eclectic, and the atmosphere really is relaxed
But what strikes you is that there are only six Internet machines in immediate view.
A SLICE OF CUCUMBER IS ALL YOU NEED.
"Sandwiches," says Sheperd. "That's where the real money is." Sheperd has catering contracts around the Victoria area and counts Buckingham Palace, the National Heritage, the DTI, Home Office, HM Treasury and The Kennel Club among his customers.
He has also managed to get a mention in the Time Out Eating and Drinking Guide. He takes me downstairs to the kitchen where a small army of staff are preparing sandwiches for Buckingham Palace. Not the Queen, mind you, but the 200 security guards who are hired for the 10-week period, when the Palace is open to the public.
He spends around a #1,000 a day on food and #100 a month on coffee.
NO NET PROFIT
Internet access is the least lucrative side of the business, according to Sheperd. There are six machines on view and a further four in a back room behind the bar.
"Do the sums," he says. "Ten machines at #5 an hour. We're open from 8:00am to 9:00pm, say, 11 hours. That's #500 a day. Of course they're not used all the time. If we get 40 per cent use, I'm happy."
Although he is sponsored by computer firm Wyse and has six WinTerm thin client machines, none of them work and he's not in hurry to fix them. "The trick," he says, slipping into hard-cord marketing mode, "is to get a good mix of products and services."
According to Sheperd, training is where it's at. He sells courses at #200 a day per person. "We won't run a course with less than four bums," he tells me.
He used to offer training on an ad hoc basis until Steve came along. "Steve wanted to set up an Internet training company and I had the space so we decided to go into partnership." There are two training rooms, both in serious need of redecorating and each takes up to 12 people.
"Market research companies use them. They get people in off the street and pay them to search for fashion and stuff like that for statistics and demographics. All it costs them is #1,000. It's not a lot of money."
WHERE'S THE LOO?
The final piece of the jigsaw is location, location, location. "If you don't have that, you close," he says. Being a stone's throw from the Palace has it's advantages as it brings coach loads of tourists.
"In the summer, Buckingham Palace is full of old ladies with blue rinses. They're all in there going: 'Where can I get a cup of tea? Is there a loo?' Well there aren't any in there so they all get sent down here."
For Sheperd that means good business. Besides tourists, the Internet has also built up a small core of regular users, evidenced by some 300 email account holders.
So does Sheperd think cybercafes will suffer as more people start accessing the Net from home? "People have fridges and kitchens at home, but they still go out, don't they? It's a meeting place. We're a cafe with Internet machines."
He introduces me to Mark, a regular, who is playing Red Alert, a networked game. Mark, who teaches personal development workshops and counselling says coming to the cafe and playing networked games makes a change from the "touchy feely human emotions" he encounters every day at work. By noon, the cafe is full of tourists.
THE RIGHT STAFF
Sheperd, who graduated from Bath University in 1982, employs 17 staff. "I am overstaffed," he admits, though he doesn't seem in any hurry to downsize.
In Steve, Paul and Andrew, his general manager, Internet systems manager and catering manager, respectively, he has enough help to let him sit back and think ahead.
"Turnover last year," he tells me, "was about #300,000. And I know we'll do even better this year. We're aiming for a turnover of about #500,000."
Cafe Internet can be found at 22-24 Buckingham Palace Road, London W1. It's open from 8:00am - 9:00pm, Mon - Sat.
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