The Sixteen Twelve is the brainchild of Rhys, Andre, and Gareth. The three friends complement each other perfectly, just like the cafe’s poached eggs Benedict with miso-apple cider hollandaise. We sat down with Gareth, one of the co-founders, to chat about what it takes to launch a new concept, how customer service is evolving, and everything else in between.
Where are you from?
I was born in England, but my dad is Welsh, so basically I'm half English, half Welsh. Rhys, the mad scientist kitchen guy, is as Welsh as it gets. Andre is from Melbourne, and he has probably eaten at more restaurants around the world than I can count.
How did you three meet each other?
We all moved to Copenhagen around the same time. We met at a language school, about two blocks away from the Superb office. After a couple of months, we all dropped out but kept in contact with each other. Then we started talking about opening a bar together, and that conversation kind of never went away. It became more and more real until I was like “oh, we're going to do this now!”.
The three of us all worked in bars and restaurants before. The conversation would always end up about opening our own business. Eventually, we talked so much about opening a place that it developed into a really solid concept, and everything kind of lined up. It seemed like an opportunity that was too good to pass. In general, I think a lot of these kinds of conversations between friends eventually just fizzle out. But for us, we just decided to pull the trigger on it. After we found the premises, we knew we were all-in. I still can't believe that we found that place. The rest is history. So it's still very kind of like a small, humble business and a family business between three friends kind of thing at the moment.
How did you come up with the idea behind The Sixteen Twelve?
When I started working in the fine-dining scene in Copenhagen, I noticed the different kind of service you receive at fine restaurants. Andre and I were like, why isn't anyone doing this at any other time of day? That was our initial idea: why don’t we design a restaurant that does a great brunch? A restaurant we think is genuinely great and competes with dining establishments, even though we offer a different kind of meal. We design the dish that we think you're going to enjoy the most. You pay a flat fee, which gets you a large portion. It's like eating two meals because we serve brunch. So we do large dishes, and it served to your table, with beautiful decor, cosy music, and nice cutlery. Andre likes to name it “elevated brunch”, and I think that's actually pretty accurate.
The concept of brunch has gone through three waves now. The first wave is the scramble eggs you scoop out of a trough, the second wave is the where you tick boxes and get a sliced avocado with some seeds on it and maybe a scrambled egg and perhaps even some rye bread. The third wave is the kinds of places where you’re treated like you’re at “a grown-up restaurant”. That's really what we're aiming for. I think that's what sets us apart, we take it seriously and act as if we’re competing with fine dining restaurants. That’s everything: atmosphere, service, quality of food, to the quality of the coffee that we serve. If we see anything and we ask ourselves ‘if this was a restaurant, would it be legit?’ and the answer is no, then we upgrade it.
It's a big commitment to open up a place. What made you guys go for it?
We’re in that place where all of us were kind of happy, but not excited. I was working at Hotel Nimb as head bartender. It's a great place with lovely people, but the work wasn't particularly challenging for me. I wasn't learning too much. Rhys felt the same, he was managing a few places with the Bird and The Churchkey. All of us kinda twiddling our thumbs at that point. The Sixteen Twelve was ready to go. Every time I’d meet one of the guys, I'd be like, why aren’t we doing this? And in the end, I think it was Rhys, who just went: “Should we just do it?”
So we started looking for premises and as soon as we came across this space at Jægersborggade, we’re all like, “this is going to work here”. We renovated the entire building ourselves. We got the keys on the 16th of December. We were renovating for almost six months every day doing, like 70 hour weeks to build everything back up. Apart from a few friends coming to help out a little bit now and then, it was just the three of us most of the time. We didn't hire anyone to do anything. I think that pays off because it adds that little bit extra personal value to everything that comes after.
How did you come up with the name?
We're all musicians, and one of our favourite bands of all time is Vulfpeck. I highly recommend you check them out. One of their hit songs is called 1612. And we were throwing around so many names for a cafe, so many names. I don't know if you have ever been in a band, but that's always the hardest thing, not to write songs, but coming up with the name. Eventually, we decided to call it The Sixteen Twelve. This song was haunting us at the time. So we came out of a meeting and were walking up from the central station, and took a selfie as we've just started a company. In the background of the clock at the Central Station is said 16.12. And we're like, okay so that's set in stone. Then we got the keys on the 16th of December!
Can you describe your approach to the guest experience?
I was working in a busy pub in London. In London, you have to be personal with people. Otherwise, they won't listen to you. At Nimb, the managers were very strong on this. They let you spend the time to be human with other humans. I learned how to do that in a five-star hotel around all sorts of people - learning how to incorporate your personality. Once you can do that, you can't go back because it's just so much better. You know, when people seem to find it so much more rewarding to interact with a human being rather than a glorified vending machine.
At Sixteen Twelve we got a great barista called Flor - she is all about being authentic, she treats everyone as a human being, and she can’t do it any other way. I know that anyone who walks in is going to get treated like a human being. Then your guests start treating you like a human, they ask you where you're from, and vice versa. It gives you energy back. So on 70 hour weeks, it helps you to keep smiling. Otherwise, you can't do it. So, I mean, it's a two-way thing. It's better for the guests for sure, and better for those working as well.
What excites you about the guest experience?
I think that customer service, good customer service has always been about making people feel special. Fifty years ago, that meant something very different. It was about making people feel privileged, making them feel like they're above ordinary people. I think that doesn't work anymore and people see through it. So now making people feel special is coming to take an order and if there's a space at that table, just sit down and say: alright guys, what are we having? Are we hungry? You know, with your elbows on the table. Super informal. That makes them feel like, wow, this guy just sat down at the table. It takes them out of their day just enough that it makes them feel special. Honestly, it's just plain customer service after all. That's it. It's just adding value to people's experience at our place so that they think it's better. I'm not trying to change the world or change people's lives, it's just customer service. But I think it's the best way to do it. I think this is going to be the new standard.
How did you manage to build up a buzz and audience for your new place?
I took on the responsibility, because I’m the only one of us who uses social media. I try to keep it honest and straightforward. You know, no-nonsense, no bullshit, no corporate language or anything, just great photos of what we actually serve and what you can expect here. But honestly, I think 80% of the work is done by word of mouth, and I think it’s always like that. The Danish newspaper Politiken did a review after around four weeks, which was really good for us.
What do you believe is essential to build and run a successful restaurant today?
Hard work, you really can't cut corners nowadays because the big companies have all the money to spend. They're getting so much smarter, and you are somehow competing with them. You need to be in a place in life where you can drop everything and do it. Then again, you still need to be a little, little bit lucky. We were lucky we found this place. Luck has a lot to do with it. But I almost guarantee that nothing exciting will happen if you don't put in a crazy amount of work, like literally an insane amount. If no one's worrying about your health, then you haven’t worked hard enough.
You need to have real confidence, and you need to pay your dues. It’s the same as being a musician. It used to be a job I had for a while, and something I struggled with when I was quite young was that I wanted the big gigs and to play the fun jazz stuff. I didn't want to go to a bar mitzvah and play Kylie Minogue covers. I didn't want to do that. But the truth is, you have to do that in order to understand how not to suck at doing the advanced stuff. I've been dreaming about opening a little bar since I was like 21 or something. Now I'm 30 and, in those nine years, I've been working all sorts of places and in all sorts of roles. Although they didn't reflect who I was at the time necessarily, I learned something every day. Eventually, you earn enough confidence that you can be like: I can do better than this.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give someone wanting to open up a restaurant?
Pay attention to what's going on around you and learn about what you like and don’t like.