“There is very little in the world that brings people together like food,” says mixologist-turned-entrepreneur Missy Flynn. That’s exactly why she’s centered her career, studies, and personal life around food and building community.
In her early 20s, the lifelong Londonite noticed a gap in the food and drink scene: There wasn’t anywhere that offered the sense of community she craved. “There weren’t many restaurants that I, as someone in my early 20s, would be truly excited about going to hang out at,” she recalls. So, she started her own. “We wanted to find new ways of socializing that felt familiar but added something to the usual routine of just going out to clubs or bars and partying,” Flynn says.
Above a nightclub in East London, Flynn and her business partner (now also romantic partner) Gabe Pryce opened Rita’s, a comfort-food restaurant slinging fried chicken, where people of all backgrounds could come together, share a delicious meal, and just unwind. Living in London, like any major city, is stressful enough, and Flynn wanted to help foster community among her peers and neighbors. “This is one of the things I simultaneously love and am most proud of about our business, the diverse appeal and an emphasis on connectivity with both us, the food and drink, and each other.”
Four years after Rita’s debuted in 2012, rising rents and operational costs forced Flynn to close it, despite its popularity and beloved neighborhood status. But she wasn’t ready to walk away from her passion project nor the community she’d worked so hard to create. After a year of grieving her first business, she refreshed the project with a series of cocktail-focused pop-ups in the U.K., Paris, New York, and beyond, showcasing Rita’s penchant for fun flavors and ability to bring together diverse groups of people in a singular space.
The experience, and her general interest in the way that ingredients and flavors overlap and connect people who seemingly have nothing in common, led Flynn to enroll in London’s School of Oriental and African Studies to pursue a master’s in the Anthropology of Food program. On top of that, she decided to re-open Rita’s as a permanent venture, now in the form of a bodega.
Bodega Rita’s, which opened this past November, is an internationally influenced lunch spot and after-work meeting place, where workers at major tech HQs can grab a bite alongside neighbors, students, and visitors just craving a fantastically executed banh mi or a glass of Spanish wine.
To find out more about how Flynn’s remained steadfast in pursuing her dreams, we partnered with VisitBritain to speak with her about what it’s like being an entrepreneur and student at the same time, why she wanted to bring the classic bodega across the pond, and how a casual corner store can be a community hub.
How do you describe Bodega Rita’s?
“Bodega Rita’s is a natural evolution of the [now closed] Rita’s: It’s a North American-influenced restaurant and food business, where people can stop in or stay with us for lunch, hang out, grab a coffee, or enjoy a glass of wine in the evening. It’s a place where you can explore different ingredients, products, and flavors and delve into different cuisines, curated by my partner Gabe and me. It’s also a community space for people to gather; a bodega centralizes all different people, culinarily and culturally.”
What kind of food do you serve?
“It’s a real cross-section of flavor. Our references span all over the place — Asia, Central and South America, Europe, and of course ubiquitous North American comfort food. We want to keep the prominence of those flavors, just distill them into a tiny space. The menu centers around daytime lunches, sandwiches, and salads, like an American deli. To me, a deli or bodega sandwich is big and full-on and has a lot of flavor. It keeps you going from lunch until late afternoon. We’re doing five different sandwiches, like an Italian mortadella on focaccia and an Asian-inspired egg-salad sandwich with hot beans. That’s the traditional Rita’s take — we take something familiar and generate something spicy.
“We’re selling good, hearty, somewhat healthy food, but the fun of the bodega is that it’s like an edible journey without leaving London. Right now on the shelves we have chapulines (grasshoppers from Mexico) and just fun stuff like a jar of Tootsie Rolls.”
What made you want to run an American-inspired business in London?
“I’m not from North America and have never owned a bodega, but visually, I love bodegas. I love the mash of cultures and people who come together in those spaces and the different products from different parts of the world that fulfill the needs of the people who live in specific neighborhoods.
“When we started out in 2012 [with the original Rita’s], people [in London] were very into burger joints and hot dogs, and we wanted to show that the culinary landscape of North America is more than that. Even a diner is built from foods from all over the world. We want to emulate that feeling of collectivity. It’s also interesting to see where ingredients crossover, where they can exist in one cuisine and then pop up in another country across the world. We want to bring that vibrancy and expand people’s understanding of what the food of America is.”
As a small business, how do you foster community?
“This can be as simple as engaging local shops for suppliers, getting to know families who live in the area, meeting with local community organizations, and just generally leaving our bubble. Now, with each project we do, it’s in our work process to take a snapshot of the environment and sense check ourselves — the main thing we will ask is whether we’re contributing a shared experience here or taking one away. That’s usually a good starting point.”
What have you learned since the original Rita’s closed?
“I really learned how to be less emotional about business. It was inevitable to be very attached to the first version of what we did, the restaurant. I still feel emotional about my work and care deeply about it, but I’ve found the ability to look more objectively at it and not beat myself up about things not going quite to plan and not taking things too personally. Goodwill goes a long way.
“[After the original restaurant closed,] I felt like it wasn’t done; I knew we had more to give, and it’s super rewarding to know that trusting your instincts can be a positive thing. But that was definitely a hard time. The temptation was just to close and slink off and disappear and not work in food anymore, but I didn’t really want to do that. We’re so lucky to be in a position where people care what we’re doing. That isn’t accidental. We genuinely make time for people and that goes a long way.”
Will you continue doing pop-ups?
“We will host events at the bodega and offer tastings, collaborations, and one-off experiences. We also have a partnership coming up with Riposte Magazine. It’ll be at the kiosk space in Coal Drops Yard and will be a series of events and a dinner where all profits will go to Amnesty International.”
How do you balance opening and running your business and being a student?
“It’s a fun challenge. I have to be very strict with myself and people around me — saying yes and no when I’m available or not. I’m not very good at that. I always feel like I should be available to people all the time. But there’s a lot at stake. The bodega has to be amazing and I need to do my studies really well. The thing about hospitality is that people think you have time to just sit around and chat all day, but I have to schedule and delegate.”
Where do you look for inspiration?
“South London is very interesting — a lot of cool food concepts and collectives come out of there. I also think we have some of the most amazing libraries in London. The Barbican Library is a great place to sit and work and research a new project. Open spaces in London are also underrated. There’s a misconception that people are stuck to each other in this rat race, but we have so many parks and canal walks and places to just think. When you’re in a big city, trying to work on an idea or develop stuff, being around a lot of extra stuff can be quite distracting. When you’re working on a restaurant and you’re surrounded by restaurants, it can be hard to make your own decisions. Going to Victoria Park or Regent’s Park is a nice break.”
What are some of your favorite places to eat in London?
“We always go to Brawn, an amazing restaurant on Columbia Road in East London. It specializes in great cooking and natural wine, and Gabe worked in the kitchen for a while, so he became friendly with them. Kiln in Soho for Northern Thai. Brat in Shoreditch is a really amazing Basque-inspired bistro. And there are loads of cheap eats in London. I just like going to the caf, I guess that’s a diner, but if you live here you have your favorite caf. To drink, Bright in London Fields is a good wine bar.”
London hasn’t always been known as a food town, but that’s started to change. Why do you think that is?
“The whole starting point of our business was that London was changing and it was finally a place where you could find a nightclub and start cooking food and sell it there, like the original Rita’s. It was a cool low-key exercise. That [pop-up model] happened because of the States, and London took a lot of influence from there and our European neighbors. Once a few people start the leap and start a cool pop-up thing, other people feel like it’s possible to do the same. We’ve had a great wave of food entrepreneurs in London in the last five years. We’re getting a more diverse dining landscape.”
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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