It’s a decade since the first Byron branch opened in west London and flipped the meat sandwich from junk food to high-quality restaurant dish. Now, with premium outlets all over the country, how much posher can the burger get?
It was while he was reading classics at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, that Tom Byng first began a serious study of the American hamburger. After a long night of college carousing, the Old Etonian would often end up at the Silver Top, an elderly diner in the heart of Providence, which had been serving the same greasy, roadside staples since the 1930s.
In December 2007, a decade and a half after his US sojourn, Byng took everything he had learned about beef patties, buns and the restaurant business and opened the first branch of his burger empire, Byron, in west London. The British hamburger has never been quite the same. To date, Byron has served more than 24m burgers at 70 locations across Britain. Originally backed by Gondola Group, the owners of Pizza Express and Ask, in 2013 the business was acquired by Hutton Collins Partners for £100m.
Byng stood down as CEO earlier this year, but he left the meat sandwich market transformed, from the Big Macs and gastropub grub of the late 20th century into a burger universe that incorporates fast-food; so-called “better” burgers, flipped by the likes of Five Guys and Shake Shack; and premium burgers such as the Byron, the Honest Burger or the Bleecker Black. The UK burger business is now worth a super-sized £3.3bn, according to market research firm Mintel.
The rise of the burger from a scapegoat for the obesity crisis to the symbol of a dining revolution was fuelled by a combination of social media and recession-era economics, and it established a whole new class of restaurant: inspired by simple street food, led by untrained chefs and advertised via Twitter. The gourmet burger has certainly dented the dominance of the old fast-food giants. But it has also disrupted the entire restaurant food chain.
Before Byron, Britain’s leading purveyor of premium burgers was Gourmet Burger Kitchen, launched in London in 2001 by a trio of New Zealanders. But while GBK’s menu was replete with elaborate, bastardised burger recipes (among the ingredients of its signature “Kiwiburger” are beetroot and pineapple), Byron went back to basics.
“GBK messed about with ‘global influences’; that’s not what I want from a burger,” says food writer and burger connoisseur Helen Graves. “I think a burger has specific parameters. Byron were groundbreaking because they made a fresh-tasting burger and didn’t mess about with it: it’s just a standard patty, lettuce, pickles and sauce, American-style.”
Ten years ago, the hamburger was an object of suspicion, thanks to Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation (2001) and the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, which had vividly portrayed the health and environmental damage wreaked by the fast-food industry. Byron sidestepped that controversy by focusing on quality ingredients, by offering healthier-sounding sides such as courgette fries, and by serving its burgers alone (the fries cost extra) on a white plate, thus elevating the burger’s status from junk food to restaurant dish.
If Byng was the modern burger’s Lonnie Donegan – the first person to popularise an American style in the UK – then Yianni Papoutsis was its Lennon and McCartney. Papoutsis was a technician for the English National Ballet, who had experience of burger-flipping at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, and who had travelled America eating old-school diner food and educating himself about how best to mince one’s beef, toast one’s buns and grill one’s onions.
“The best burger I ever ate in the US was at a tiny little diner opposite an amusement park somewhere in New England,” Papoutsis says. “I can’t even remember its name. I’d gone there for breakfast and chatted to the owners over the counter for so long that it got to lunchtime. The burger was a game-changer: really, really simple, but made with such care.”
In summer 2009, he bought a burger van, opened a Twitter account and started cooking on an industrial estate in south London. Graves was the first to review the Meat Wagon. A reader of her influential blog, Food Stories, had spotted the #MEATwagon hashtag, “discovered this little burger van in a carpark in Peckham and emailed me about it,” she recalls. “I went down there, ate one of Yianni’s big, juicy, filthy, drippy burgers, wrote about it on my blog and it blew up from there. It couldn’t have happened without Twitter.”
The online buzz had also attracted pub owner Scott Collins, and when the meat wagon was stolen in late 2010, he and Papoutsis teamed up to open a punky, pop-up diner, MEATeasy, above the Goldsmith’s Tavern in New Cross. Londoners dutifully made the journey to the then-barely-fashionable corner of the city to sample Papoutsis’s signature “Dead Hippie” burger, made with a special sauce whose recipe remains a closely guarded secret.
If MEATeasy’s remote location and authentically scuzzy decor made it more attractive to questing millennial foodies, then that was just luck, says Papoutsis. “We set up in the only places we could afford or arrange. All our sites have been abandoned and unloved for some time and we’ve gone in and salvaged them. We had to decorate MEATeasy with pages from my old books because we didn’t have enough money for paint. I think it worked because it was true to itself. It wasn’t a piece of scenery; it was what it was.”
Their first permanent venue, the cavernous MEATliquor, opened less than a year later beneath a multistorey carpark near Oxford Street. It didn’t take reservations, nor run a waiting list, yet punters queued in the winter cold for over an hour to eat a Dead Hippie. Six years on, Collins and Papoutsis have 13 London sites and expect to hit £17m in sales in 2017.
When MEATliquor opened, Gavin Lucas, then a staff writer for Creative Review, had just launched Burgerac, his website devoted to London’s burgeoning burger scene. “Yianni’s success was to do with several factors coming together,” he says. “People lost their jobs in the recession and started to wonder if they could make a living without working for the man. Meanwhile, social media took hold; suddenly, you could turn your passion into a stall without having a bricks-and-mortar premises, without hiring a brand agency to get the word out.”
The cavernous MEATliquor didn’t take reservations yet punters queued in the cold for over an hour to eat a Dead Hippie
The era also created a generation of 20- and 30-somethings keen to eat restaurant food that was both affordable and worthy of Instagram. Polpo founder Russell Norman, who launched the first of his unpretentious Italian restaurants in Soho in 2009, joined the London burger boom by opening a Brooklyn-style diner, Spuntino, two years later.
“People still wanted to eat out,” he says, “but it was more acceptable to spend money in scruffy places like ours, where the average bill was low, than in more formal places. The value-added, fun element meant you were still getting an experience that helped lift the recession blues in an appropriate, unflashy way … A meal at MEATLiquor is as much about the story, the design, the tongue-in-cheek attitude and the service-with-swagger as the excellent grub.”
In the months and years after MEATliquor’s launch, a string of premium burger joints opened across London and the UK. Some, like Patty & Bun and Honest Burger, have grown into thriving chains. Others, like Lucky Chip and Bleecker Burger, have maintained just a handful of beloved sites. Soho House founder Nick Jones launched Dirty Burger. Burger & Lobster, whose first branch was in Mayfair, decided to sell burgers for £20 each, with remarkable success.
Northern England’s answer to MEATliquor, Almost Famous, made the national news in 2013, when a woman dislocated her jaw at its Liverpool branch while trying to eat the triple-patty “Kids in America” burger with pretzels and candied bacon. By the time the US “better burger” chains Shake Shack and Five Guys finally arrived on these shores in 2013 – to a loud fanfare – the British were already making burgers every bit as tasty as the Americans. (There are now seven Shake Shacks and 80 branches of Five Guys in the UK.)
MEATliquor provided the paradigm for a new business model: a food truck and social media operation that acts as both rehearsal and advertisement for a future bricks-and-mortar location. And Papoutsis’s burgers were emblematic of a new class of street food restaurants, which devoted their efforts to making one dish extremely well.
“The burger brigade and beyond – chicken wings, hot dogs, ribs – take what was once thought of as junk food but give it the same high-quality attention to detail that is the domain of so-called fine-dining chefs,” says Norman. That’s a lot harder than it sounds, especially in a crowded market, adds Papoutsis: “A burger is a very simple thing, but the simplest things are the ones you have to do the best, because everyone can see and taste it on its merits.”
Over an undoubtedly successful decade, Byron has nonetheless faced challenges. In 2015, the chain was forced to add a warning to its menus about the health dangers of undercooked meat, after the Food Standards Authority expressed concern that pink-middled gourmet burgers were putting people at greater risk of food poisoning.
Byron faced another controversy in July 2016, when its management reportedly collaborated in an immigration sting on its own staff that saw 35 people detained by immigration officers. Activists later released hundreds of cockroaches at two London branches in protest. The company also suffered a dip in profits last year, which it attributed to the “increasing intensity of competition.”
While most of these restaurants are spreading slowly around the country, London already seems saturated with burger businesses. Within 10 minutes’ walk of the King’s Cross headquarters of the Guardian, for example, there are branches of Five Guys, Honest Burger, MEATliquor and Burger King – and two McDonald’s. The nearest Byron is just 20 minutes’ walk away.
Yet Simon Cope, who joined Byron in July as its new managing director, says there is still space in the market. All told, Cope estimates there are fewer than 400 premium burger restaurants in Britain. (Nando’s alone has 340 UK locations.) And while the burger boom has “forced the likes of McDonald’s to look at what they offer and ask how they can change their quality,” he says, what it has really disrupted is home dining: “The sheer level of people who eat out now is so much higher than it was 20 years ago. We’ve simply given people the option, rather than having an average quality hamburger from a supermarket, of having a better-quality hamburger from a restaurant.”
The emergence of large-scale home food delivery businesses such as Deliveroo and UberEats has added yet another option: having your premium burger brought to your door. Deliveroo faces potential action from several local authorities in London for bypassing planning rules by setting up temporary kitchens in carparks and on industrial estates, where food is made exclusively for delivery by chefs from restaurants reportedly including MEATliquor and GBK.
Maybe the pertinent question, then, is not how much the market can grow, but how much better the burgers can be. Once you have mastered the art of putting a piece of meat between two pieces of bread, what next? For Cope, who runs a £100m business, the focus is on consumer demand. At a time when vegetarian food is becoming almost as popular as burgers, that could mean developing “the very best premium vegetarian burger in the country,” he says.
Hawksmoor, the award-winning London steak restaurants, have looked to the classics for inspiration. The group recently added a burger to its menu called the Big Matt: a gourmet tribute to the Big Mac, created by Hawksmoor executive chef Matt Brown. According to Helen Graves, it is a “masterpiece”. (At £12 to the Big Mac’s £2.99, it had better be.)
Gavin Lucas, who spent two years running his own burger pop-up at a Marylebone pub, says the perfect burger is an elusive dream, and a burger chain is not the place to go looking for it: “As soon as you have more than about 10 branches, you can’t work with a butcher, you have to work with wholesalers. And as soon as you start imagining the tonnage of cow that’s going into those businesses, it’s harder to remain in love with their burger,” he says.
“The best burger in terms of absolute quality won’t be from a burger chain. It’s probably in a restaurant or a pub, conjured up by a chef who wants to do something special. To make a great burger, you have to have really good suppliers – and you have to have love in your heart.”
Source: The Guardian