Putting in a better kitchen
12 December, 2012
Gourmet Burger Kitchen has been behind the game in a booming burger sector for the last few years, but a revamp is aiming to put it back on track for growth. Tom Holman reports
What does a brand do when the niche it had once made its own is flooded with new arrivals? That is the challenge facing Gourmet Burger Kitchen, which, after launching in 2001, had the “better burger” market virtually to itself for years. But with Byron now snapping at its heels and a host of edgy independents such as Honest Burgers and Meat Wagon eyeing expansions, GBK is alone no more.
A combination of the new arrivals, distractions for its former parent Clapham House, and the growing pains common to many brands
of its age all made, by GBK’s own admission, for a difficult few years, with growth stalling and the chain finding itself slightly off the pace in casual dining.
Now, though, GBK is firmly back on the front foot. It launched its first new restaurant for a year at the Brent Cross shopping centre in North London in early November, and will open four more by February (see box). Up to ten more are expected in 2013, to push its UK total past 60.
Flipping the formula
Whether triggered by the new wave of competition or a change of ownership, to Nando’s parent, Capricorn Ventures, two years ago, GBK has a new-found energy. The final touches were being put to the Brent Cross site when Peach Report met the chain’s commercial and development directors, Keith Bird and Stephen Evans, and the sense of the start of a new era for GBK, under a much overhauled senior team led by chief executive Alasdair Murdoch, is palpable.
It starts with the food, where exhaustive research with the help of Tim Molema, the head of food, has fine-tuned items such as burger buns and milkshakes. Bird is obsessed with the operational details (“I think I must be a bit OCD,” he jokes) but they all add up to improved quality as GBK strives to win the ultra-competitivebattleforbest burger.
Bird sees this rivalry as an opportunity rather than a threat, since it raises general awareness of just how good burgers can be, and forces everyone to raise their game. “Competition is a great thing: it just makes you do what you do even better,” he says. Bird does not see burger rivals taking and giving market share, but instead stretching what is proving to be a very elastic sector. “If you look at the States you can see how the category grows. There are a lot of new kids on the block [in the UK] but that’s great: it just builds more interest in burgers, and it’s up to us to set the bar higher and higher,” he says.
One way GBK increasingly distinguishes itself is on range, with a rotating choice of more than 20 different burgers to keep people coming back. “Where the competition is trying to scale everything down and go niche, we’ve stuck true to where we started,” Evans says. “Range is important to us. There’ll always be something on the menu for everyone.”
Revamping inside out
GBK is applying the same attention todetailtoitsinteriors.TheBrent Cross launch signals the environment it wants to inhabit, with the previously sharp, canteen-style edges softened, seating overhauled into a mix of booth, stool and table spots, and expanses of reclaimed wood in evidence. New features include a condiments counter at which people can help themselves to free sauces, water and monkey nuts, small touches that add value to a visit, Evans says, even if customers do not consciously realise it at the time: “They’re little tweaks, but they’ve gone a long way.”
All this, along with the Nando’s-style till ordering, makes for a more accessible experience for customers, GBK thinks. Newly opened-out kitchens add a touch of performance and emphasise the freshness of GBK’s offer. “You can work on fixtures and lighting all day long, but just taking down a wall [into the kitchen] makes the restaurant feel bigger and more theatrical,” Evans says. It shows GBK’s transparency, Bird adds, “and it’s nice for the people in the kitchen to be able to showcase what they’re cooking.”
As well as the new openings, ten existing restaurants will get GBK’s new look by the end of 2012, including the restaurant at Westfield Stratford, where the Olympics brought stellar sales this year, and the restaurant in Northcote Road, Battersea, South-West London where the chain was born. At least 15 more refurbishments will follow next year. “We’re investing a lot in our refurbs. It’s not just a lick of paint and a new sign,” Evans says. He also wants to use the opportunity to shake off a cookie-cutter image, with greater differentiation between branches. “If you’re asking people to pay ten to 15 quid, they expect something a bit more [than a one-size- fits-all approach],” he says.
Other moves to boost the brand include a new app, designed to encourage loyalty by offering rewards rather than blunt money-off vouchers; and a GBK “Burger Bus”, which will tour outdoor events over the summer. GBK does not have to look far for inspiration on branding; if anyone knows how to hone an image in the digital age, it is Nando’s. But Bird says everything always comes back to what is on the plate: “It’s all about that perfect execution of food. That’s easier said than done, but that food obsession runs deep in the company. We have ‘Gourmet’ over the door, so we have to deliver.”
GBK is not out of the woods yet. Peach BrandTrack figures show that it remains a well-known and well-liked brand among casual diners, though the new wave of burger joints, especially in the capital, may test their loyalty. It means there is plenty riding on the revamp.
But it is clear that the backing of a supportive parent with a long-range view for the business has given GBK the motivation and resources to sharpen up. “It’s come out of having just one brand to concentrate on,” Evans says. “Clapham House did a good job but it had lots of businesses. It’s fair to say that because they were spinning a lot of plates, it fell slightly behind the curve.”
Bird will not be drawn on GBK’s long-term targets, saying only that “it’s one store at a time”, but the trajectory is now firmly upwards. He says: “It feels like all the work we’ve put in is giving us some momentum now.”
Centres of attention
It is striking that most of GBK’s coming openings are in shopping centres, to which many brands have turned their focus lately. After the Brent Cross revamp, openings will follow by February at Southgate
in Bath, the Metro in Gateshead, the N1 centre in Islington, North London and Brindley Place in Birmingham.
GBK says it is far from confining itself to malls, but its swift service, inclusive food and relaxed atmosphere makes the chain a good fit for them. GBK is also attracting customers who like to trade up a little; as Bird points out, a simple but top-notch burger can be had at GBK for only a pound or two more than at the fast food sites close by at Brent Cross.
The transition of many brands to shopping centres might be helping to push some high streets a little nearer extinction, but operators can hardly be blamed for following their customers. And as the startling variety of food and drink businesses at places such as Westfield Stratford proves, a visit to a mall is increasingly seen as a day-long excursion, with eating out an integral element. It suggests restaurants have at least as much to offer shopping centres as the other way around.