The business of burgers
25 April, 2012
The ‘better burger’ market is one of the fastest growing sectors around. Tom Holman interviews the bosses driving three of the hottest brands, each carving out distinctive concepts and spaces of their own.
The alliance of independent thinking and corporate resources is a rare one in the eating out market, but it is a partnership that has got Byron firing on all cylinders as it drives the resurgent interest in good-quality burgers.
The indie take on things comes from the chain’s managing director, Tom Byng, who grew the idea for Byron from time he spent in the US. “I got to know what sort of hamburgers I liked, but when I came back I couldn’t find anywhere that did them,” Byng says. His heavyweight partner is Gondola Holdings, for whom Byng provided consultancy work, which led into the opening of the first Byron, on Kensington High Street in London in 2007. As the brand has grown since then, Byng has enjoyed the freedom to shape Byron as he likes, with the support of Gondola at his elbow. “It’s worked very well for both of us,” he says of the tie-up. “I’ve been a bit like a kid in a sweet shop.”
Byng and Gondola opened their 22nd Byron in early April, and they plan eight or nine more sites this year. As the chain has grown Byron has stepped up its marketing, branding and innovation, but most of what it does has stayed constant. The team and the suppliers are much as they were at the launch, as is the formula for the burgers, made using high-grade beef from Scotland, minced fresh each day and cooked and presented with little fuss but lots of care. “The simple principle has stayed the same, to do one thing and do it well,” Byng says. “One of the criticisms you can often level at chains as they grow is that they try to do too many things and end up doing some of them badly. We’ve never been afraid to think less is more, and to put all our time and resources into mastering what we do.”
Doing something simple is deceptively difficult though, so Byng has kept a tight rein on Byron’s operations. “We’re training our people to do 20 things rather than 120, and that gives you the opportunity to execute really well as you grow,” he says. As well as keeping a grip on the people, Byng has focused on Byron’s spaces, which are individually designed for each new opening, an example, perhaps, of independent thinking trumping corporate mindsets. “Service is too often unengaging, and you can too often sit in a restaurant that looks and feels like it’s come out of a cookie cutter,” he says. “We don’t just go for the easy option, but try to design something that will work in a particular building in a particular area for a particular audience.”
Byron is distinguishing itself with its beer as well as burgers, and Byng sees parallels in the two sectors, in the way that consumers are moving away from big brands in favour of smaller, handcrafted and often local products. “Just as we have done with burgers, we’ve asked ourselves why you would want a run-of-the-mill beer when you can have an amazing one.”
Byron launched a craft beer list last year, and its own pale ale, developed with the Camden Town Brewery of North London, has instantly become the chain’s most popular beer. Byng sees the trend continuing in the wider market as well as at Byron: “I think in ten to 15 years most beer lists will be predominantly made up of small breweries.”
The beer may be homegrown, but Byng thinks the UK has a lot to thank the US for when it comes to the revitalisation of the burger: “Everyone loves a hamburger, but for a long time in the UK the options were fairly limited. The influence of the US finally came to bear in London and there’s been an epiphany. It’s made what is intrinsically comfort food into something much more exciting.”
This is not just a London thing either: “It’s a process of evolution. London is often first with these things, but it’s only a matter of time before we bring these burgers to a wider audience.” Byron will open its first restaurant beyond London in Oxford this year and wants a much broader reach. The managing director has already been on a scouting
trip northwards. But Byng will not compromise Byron’s quality in the pursuit of growth. “We always balance the potential with the day-to-day operations,” he says. “Do I have the confidence we can reach 75 in the UK? Yes. Do I sit here every day and think about conquering the world? No. We’ll see where it takes us, but we’re determined to never lose sight of what we do well: make great hamburgers.”
Hitting the streets
The burger revival ties in neatly with the growing appetite for street food in the UK, and Byron is making sure it gets a share of the market. Its Byron Shack will again tour festivals and other outdoor gatherings this summer, while the latest sibling, the Byron Van, will soon be launched, touring the country to cater for special events. “It’s about getting more hamburgers to more places on more occasions,” Byng says.
THE AMERICAN DINER
As the revival of the hamburger continues in the UK, one chain has taken the idea right back to its roots. To step into a branch of Ed’s Easy Diner is to step back to a time when burgers ruled the eating-out scene, and from the menu of American favourites to the 1950s jukebox rock to the retro décor, chrome fittings and wall slogans, this is a feel-good homage to the United States.
Director Andrew Guy makes no claims to authenticity, but says the diner theme, cheery service and good burgers deliver the essential three Ps: place, people and product. “It’s not America and it’s not the 1950s, but it’s fun,” Guy says. And although half of its customers order one, he is clear that Ed’s offer goes well beyond just the classic American sandwich: “We’re about much more than just the hamburgers. Even our biggest fans are unclear about the main reason they come to Ed’s: they see this brand as a whole package.”
Guy pitches Ed’s between fast food and casual dining. It’s a fuller experience than visiting McDonald’s or Burger King, but less formal and expensive than full-blown sit-in concepts: “We’re on that in-between step.” The average stay-time at Ed’s is about 35 minutes and the average spend around the £10 mark, stats that confirm the impression that Ed’s sits in the middle ground, where its distinctive formula is building a powerful brand.
Guy has helped steer steady but sure growth at the chain, which was founded in Soho in 1987 by Barry Margolis and run by a family trust after his death in 2005. He got involved in 2009, when the company was sold to the property investment firm Rankdale, at which time it ran three sites. Five more have been added since, and Guy says Ed’s will double the tally with eight more additions in this, its 25th birthday year, including several in the north west.
The strategy of targeting areas of high footfall, such as shopping centres and stations, will continue: “Without exception we locate where people are doing other things.” That helps Ed’s capture the market for people dropping in for coffee or a snack as well as those looking for a full meal, and Guy thinks the instantly recognisable diner concept fuels that easy accessibility and brand awareness. “People know straight away what they’re going to get with Ed’s, and that puts us in the same market as coffee shops, Pret and so on.”
As an industry veteran of a host of brands who has ridden out four recessions, Guy thinks the latest, prolonged economic downturn has worked in Ed’s favour. “In a recession people always drift towards comfort food,” he says. “We offer an escape and a place to get a break from the hurly-burly for a little while, a step into another environment.” He is also making sure that Ed’s is joining the trend for responsible sourcing, using good-quality, never-frozen meat. “Customers don’t necessarily want to know all the details [on ingredients and traceability], but they do want to know we’re being careful.”
Having spent six years working in the US, where chains such as Five Guys, In-N-Out and Smashburger are leading a similar revival of the “proper” hamburger, Guy speaks with more authority than most about the movement’s popularity, and thinks the time is right for an upgraded experience. “People have woken up to how good burgers can be,” he says. “In London and the South East, at least, they are prepared to pay a little more for quality now, and they don’t want to wait in line to eat any more.”
Points of difference on the burger formula among chains and independents like Ed’s American theme are creating plenty of room for everyone in the fast-growing sector, Guy thinks. Like many trends in food, the revival of the burger has been about changing people’s perceptions by going back to basics and doing them well: “The hamburger never really went away. The focus has just come back.”
Shake it up
Ed’s is building a reputation for its ice cream-based milkshakes, and recently opened a bar dedicated to the idea near its branch in Selfridge’s in Birmingham. More could follow. Shakes give the chain another hook on which to hang its brand, and Guy also flags up the “quasi-addictive” taste combination of savoury burger and sweet shake, “a lethal combination, in the best possible way.”
While chains like Byron are leading the charge, London has plenty of ambitious independent burger joints to keep them on their toes.
Among the young guns is Honest Burgers, a concept born in Brighton, where Tom Barton and Phil Eeles studied, ran an outdoor catering business, and pondered a move into restaurants. The pair then met Dorian Waite, a friend of a friend, who got on board in late 2010 to bring his experience at chains including Giraffe, Cote and Strada to bear.
The team had looked around for a site to take on for a while before stumbling across Brixton Village Market in South London. It is a place that a few years might have been euphemistically described as edgy but which is now a hotbed of independent operators (the acclaimed pizza concept Franco Manca is nearby) and with a waiting list of operators wanting to get in. Getting their unit ready was a big undertaking: “A proper DIY job – we were on our hands and knees refurbishing for three months,” Waite says. But they opened last June to almost instant acclaim from locals, reviewers and bloggers.
Twitter helped to spread word of mouth, and Honest has now gathered more than 2,000 followers in less than a year, a remarkable tally for a new independent. Its tiny unit was over capacity within weeks, with queues of an hour and a half not uncommon. That sort of interest can flatter a new business, and several indies these days wear their queues as a badge of honour. But waiting in line became less fun as winter drew on, so Honest launched a callback system instead. “As an operator you love having queues and it helped to create quite a buzz, but we decided it was too much to ask of people,” Eeles says.
That is typical of the trio’s sincere approach. “Honest is a buzzword for us as well as our name, and a bit of a firewall to everything we do,” Eeles says. It extends to the pricing of the small menu of burgers, which, unlike at many specialists, includes chips in the upfront cost. “People get frustrated by add-ons, and we don’t want them to have a nasty surprise when the bill comes.”
Honesty also informs the sourcing of ingredients, about which the trio are passionate and transparent. Meat comes from the renowned Ginger Pig butchers in Yorkshire, buns are from the WAGfree bakers in the same Brixton market, and chips are handmade in a spillover site nearby. Everything is dished up from an open kitchen feet away from the handful of tables. “As far as we possibly can we use British produce, and we’ve never compromised on suppliers,” says Barton, who looks after the cooking. “We let the ingredients do the talking.”
Eeles thinks quality is driving the current craze for burgers. “They used to be something to fill a hole, but it’s amazing how good a burger can be.” He credits the street food movement with fuelling the interest, and thinks the informality and simplicity of the Honest Burgers concept meets a need. “We all love the idea of discovering a gem, and I think that’s the way the food sector is going. People want to feel that attention to detail.” In this respect, Honest is comparable to the likes of Byron. “In some ways, choice is over-rated,” Waite says. “Places shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. Specialise in something. Do one thing well.”
Whether or not Honest now grows as Byron has grown remains to be seen, but Waite’s experience in scaling out brands should hold the concept in good stead. A second, and central, London location is next up, hopefully before the summer is out. “The big thing now is to take it somewhere else,” he says. “But we’re not in any rush, and we’ll only grow as fast as we can without losing any quality.”
Five more hot burger joints to check out
1 Meat Liquor The grown-up sibling of London’s acclaimed Meat Wagon truck, with queues to match
2 Lucky Chip Another mobile operator to have settled down, this time at the Sebright Arms in Bethnal Green, East London
3 The Admiral Codrington Chelsea pub with a passion and growing reputation for its burgers
4 Burger and Lobster New Goodman spin-off with a flat rate £20 for either—so the first must be good to compete with the second
5 Haché Self-proclaimed burger connoisseurs, now in Camden, Chelsea and Clapham