Tom Barton, co-founder of Honest Burgers, chats to Casual Dining Magazine about the roots of the business, a frenzied expansion and not having to queue in the cold.
Honest Burgers has come a long way since founders Tom Barton and Phil Eeles started frying patties underneath a pop-up tent in Brighton. From the first site in Brixton Village Market to talk of venturing into other UK cities, Barton’s business has the potential for sizeable growth. But is that really what they want?
CD: Tell us a bit about Honest Burgers’ background…
TB: We bought a griddle, a fryer and a tent and started cooking burgers out of that. We were down in Brighton and we didn’t even look at the London food scene – we just did burgers. I was a passionate amateur, but when we looked into it properly, we found out just how much there was to get right with food. Don’t get me started on chips. They were the bane of my life for the first two years – trying to perfect those chips was so difficult.
CD: You’re on five sites now. Do you have a favourite?
TB: We’ve always been amazed with Brixton, because it’s so small and cramped. But people have no qualms and really get behind it. We have a strong place in our hearts for it, as we built it with our bare hands. When we came into the market, we got the second to last unit. It has come a long way since then.
CD: So, ideally, you look to recreate Brixton through every site? Is rapid expansion something you have to be wary of?
TB: We’re taking each site as it comes at the moment. We’ve got a great site coming up at Market Place on Great Titchfield Street, which we’re thrilled to have achieved. It’s opening this month, maybe towards the end.
It has all been very quick in terms of expansion – the last thing we want to do is alienate any customers who have been coming to us for the past three years. We want to make sure that what we do in site six, Market Place, is exactly the same as what you’ll get in Brixton. So far, we’ve done that. Every time I go into a restaurant, I can usually recognise someone, as they’re so loyal. We’re going to stick true to what we do.
CD: And how’s the BrewBurger, which saw you collaborate with Scottish brewer, BrewDog?
TB: That’s been amazing. The press has been fantastic. I created the burger – and settled on rolling out maybe version eight or nine. We worked with their beer after James [Watt, BrewDog co-founder] and I had a few beers to chat about the burger and what we wanted to go into it, and then I was left with a box of BrewDog beer to do some experiments. He got in touch with me, which was cool, as I’ve heard he’s a bit of a ghost. We had a couple of meetings and he was really helpful. You can tell there’s an awful lot going on in his mind.
CD: Sounds like an interesting guy to do business with. What about the wheat-intolerant consumers? Can they still enjoy your gluten-free buns with the new creations?
TB: Of course. We get huge amounts of comments on our gluten-free option from blogs and Twitter users. One out of six people might be gluten-intolerant, but the whole group will come to us so that person can have a proper meal.
Some people can’t offer it, as gluten products are so important to their business. For the burger sector it’s different and for us it was an easy decision. My girlfriend suggested it, as her sister has a wheat intolerance, so she was just saying, “You should do it!” I thought it was ridiculous – why would we do it?
Then when we thought about it and realised that 99% of our food is gluten-free anyway, it’s just the bun that contains it. We decided we could offer it, so WAGfree provided a bun for us and we started stocking it. It’s hard, as it goes off very quickly and we had to get a different toaster to toast it, etc., but it has definitely been worth it.
CD: So much so that they’re queuing out the door at all five sites. Or are they? Has adopting a queuing/call back app led to a smoother operation?
TB: It might not be as efficient and it’s more expensive than just queuing, but we made the decision a long time ago that we don’t want our customers queuing in the cold – we don’t want them pissed off by the time they get to us. Some operators do and good luck to them. For me, this is the best situation for us and our customers. The worst is making them queue outside for their table. Our restaurants are so small and some people will spend 10 minutes at a table, others will be an hour. We can’t judge that, so phone bookings just can’t happen.
Our app system is best for us. If you want a special meal, you book months in advance. For us, you need to change from that perception. Instead of going out for a drink before dinner, come to us to get on the list, then go out for a drink – we’ll call you when your table is ready.
CD: So, what does the future hold?
TB: We’ve always liked the idea of having a site in Brighton. Me and Phil were at university there. The Honest Burgers seed was hatched there through a hazardous business idea. It’s where it started, so we’d love to do Brighton one day. It’s obvious that it’ll be difficult if we expand out elsewhere, but it could be on the cards.