Tom Saunders is a self-confessed geek.
As a former chef he became a collector of Japanese knives and, when he met his partner Helen Symonds, they decided to turn her business acumen and his passion into a career.
Now the couple run Kitchen Provisions, with two stores here in Stoke Newington, another in Kings Cross and one in Borough Market. Three of the shops sell Japanese knives, cooking equipment, antiques and oddities, while the original 136 Church St store is a mini-mart selling food.
Tom said: “When we first started in business together, we were selling make-your-own gin kits. In two-years we packed over 5,000 gin kits and sold via Not on the High Street and Yumbles. We quickly outgrew the space and moved the office to Helen’s mum’s home in Cambridge.”
But their hearts weren’t in it – after a holiday in Japan, they passed the business on to Helen’s mum and opened a stall selling knives and Japanese equipment on Druid Street Market in Bermondsey and later in School Yard Market and Netil Market in East London.
Tom added: “As I started to earn more money, I bought more kitchen equipment, including Japanese knives and I realised the people selling them in London just didn’t have the knowledge or the expertise. I am a total geek with this sort of stuff.
“Helen is a wildly capable human being. She saw my passion for Japanese knives and realised she had the ability to turn it into a business.
“Being on the market was a springboard for everything. We were customer-facing but it was just at the weekends – we needed to have a shop.
“In Japan you don’t go to university to learn to make knives like this – you learn from the age of 16 from your father and grandfather. You learn from the masters. Our knives cost from £100 but they’ll last you at least 40 years.”
Kitchen Provisions also offers a knife-sharpening service.
Tom added: “As well as making commercial sense, our business is a lifestyle choice – it’s about not working in an office.”
After university, Helen lived in Matsuyama on the Japanese island of Shikoku for a year and a half teaching English. She went on to establish a company in the UK offering a corporate due-diligence service to those buying businesses (information about a business’s reputation and every-day-running patterns).
When the couple met on Tinder, Tom was working as an estate agent for Savills in Islington and then in Shoreditch.
Helen was also the proud owner of the Beta III, a clapped-out 70ft 1930s former Thames fire boat (one of just two surviving in the UK). She found it online and had a surreal moment meeting the seller and closing the deal at an ostrich farm! In between running their businesses, Tom and Helen have been working to restore it.
Tom carried out much of the work himself – rewiring, re-plumbing, fitting a kitchen and making her water-tight. The 26-tonne boat is moored in Suffolk and offers around 1,000 square ft of living space (though it still needs a little work).
Tom said: “There are only two boats like this surviving in the UK. They were among the boats which went to Dunkirk. Other people have government grants to restore a boat like this - we did it all ourselves. Our dream is to take her to France and then all the way to eastern Europe.”
The couple, who have three young sons and another on the way, employ a staff of 14. Each week a tutor comes to the store to teach the team Japanese.