It was this time five years ago that I started discussing a potential new restaurant-focused magazine with my colleagues.
In Pub & Bar magazine, this title’s older sister, we had a great product to document the fast-paced world of the UK on-trade, but I was often left frustrated that we were missing out on all of the activity from the casual dining crusaders who were building a market on the brink of booming.
By late 2013, we had the first pages of Casual Dining Magazine designed and our content strategy decided, and in April 2014 we published our very first issue. It was an exciting time. Not only did we have an electric industry to keep up with, but also we suddenly had a brand new readership to get to know and learn about. For edition number one, I decided to have a chat with a young Tom Barton (right), co-founder of Honest Burgers. Yes, I was interested in their story, but more to the point I loved what they were doing – proper medium rare burgers and trademark rosemary-salted chips. At the time, Honest had five restaurants, with Barton telling me: “It’s obvious that it’ll be difficult if we expand out elsewhere, but it could be on the cards.”
One year after that conversation took place, Active Partners invested £7m in the company for a reported 50% stake. Three and a bit years on from that, and Honest Burgers has 26 restaurants, a recently agreed refinancing deal and the plans to be at 35 sites by this time next year. The group announced its out-of-London presence in 2017 with its Cambridge site, and has since opened in Reading and Bristol. Oxford, Cardiff, Manchester and Liverpool are the cities it now has its sights on. The private equity has clearly helped Barton and his co-founders Philip Eeles and Dorian Waite realise their ambition of running a quality chain restaurant business, but they still experience the difficulty Barton told me about back in 2014.
“We’re still growing, which in this climate is tricky,” he says, as we talk in their King’s Cross restaurant. “Four years ago, we were having a very different conversation in terms of where this industry was – Deliveroo was in its infancy, Brexit wasn’t even being dreamt of. It’s different now for sure, but we’re focusing harder on quality, training and supply chain, and working a damn site harder to get people through the door. But we’re still getting them through. We’re doing about 50,000 burgers a week and employ about 500 people.”
The rise of deliveries in the casual dining industry took many by surprise. It really shouldn’t have done, but it did. With the accessibility and convenience of most modern day life essentials being enhanced through technology and development, why wouldn’t high street takeaways get the same treatment? Perhaps what nobody anticipated was a food delivery business harnessing the power of a brand to such unprecedented success levels. Just Eat had been doing a reasonable job of this since 2001, but consumers never really associated that business with their favourite eat-in restaurants. Not only has Deliveroo enabled UK’s diners to eat their favourite brand-led food on their own sofa, reinforcing brand loyalty, but it has also created an unquestionable brand loyalty of its own. The question is, are UK consumers now more loyal to Deliveroo than to the restaurant that’s cooking the food being delivered? What’s clear is that many restaurateurs aren’t necessarily happy about the now compulsory option of being listed on the delivery site.
“It’s a behemoth and you can’t get away from it,” says Barton. “No one saw the momentum they’d gather. I met with William [Shu, Deliveroo founder] years ago and thought, like the Luddite that I am: ‘Oh, that will never take off.’ We didn’t think much of it, but fair play.
“The thing I will always struggle with is that our food doesn’t travel very well – no food travels that well. I have so much pride in our food. We spend countless hours trying to get it perfect. You don’t then put that in someone else’s hands, who then drives around London, potentially gets lost, and it’s minus two out there. I don’t want someone’s first experience of Honest Burgers to be a delivered experience. It is what it is, and we can’t turn it down, as it’s how many people eat out. People are busy and tired – they rely on it.”
The pride in the food that Barton speaks of is no exaggeration. You can meet with some restaurant owners who will rattle off a similar spiel, but in reality have no part in the sourcing, developing and cooking of the dishes that appear in a UK-wide restaurant estate. Not Barton. At the beginning of the year, Honest Burgers opened its own butchers as part of its prep kitchen in Sutton, Surrey, and the co-founder put his hand up to lead the project – a project that quickly became a far bigger undertaking than first thought. He explains:
“One of the things that always amazes me about the chain restaurant mentality is that when you get bigger, your quality drops. But we’re bigger now, so we have more resource. We’ve got departments and disposable income to invest in things like this. Surely we should be getting better?
“The butchers is the single biggest thing we’ve ever done. We’ve always done everything from scratch, but why not the burger? It’s the thing we’ve always been proud of, but someone else has been making it for us. It was a shit load to learn – it’s fascinating what you have to do to make a burger safe – one of our biggest USPs is that we do a proper medium rare.”
Barton tells me how, thanks to the butchery, they’re now able to produce their burgers through a chopping method, as opposed to the more widely adopted approach of mincing.
“Mincing is effectively squashing something very big through a very small hole – you can imagine what that does to the texture and molecular level of the meat,” he says. “It destroys it. So we went through a chopping route and we do that on a big scale now. The machinery we’ve put in there could do 10 times what we’re doing now without breaking a sweat.”
The special ones
During our conversation, I mention to Barton that I have a friend who only visits Honest Burgers to try the latest special – he will never just pop in for a burger, but instead only eats there when a new special is put on the menu. My friend is not alone – there are thousands who use the business in this way, eagerly awaiting the next collaboration between the burger brand and another operator or company. If you’re not familiar with the offer, essentially Honest and its chosen partner work together on creating a burger that has all the credentials of an Honest Burgers’ burger, but the finesse and finishing touches of the partner in question. For example, this month they have partnered with Maker’s Mark bourbon and put together beef, candied bacon, cheese, an onion ring, bourbon BBQ sauce, Kentucky mayo, lettuce and pickles, alongside the rosemary-salted chips.
“I didn’t think specials would become so big for us,” admits Barton. “But it has become really big and we’re now trying to do one per calendar month. I’ve always said that if someone says ‘no’ when we approach them for a collaboration, if that day ever comes, it means we’ve lost our spark. At the moment, we still have young businesses approaching us. I love that we are the size that we are, but these businesses still want to work with us. We have a platform for the smaller guys to show 50,000 people a week who they are. If we can do anything to help those businesses, which are at the stage Phil and I were at a few years back, we’ll jump at the chance. But they have to be good.”
It’s a bit of a throwaway comment, but there is an implicit point being made when Barton says their partners “have to be good”. As a restaurateur operating in the burger market, quality and value are the two biggest factors that demand excellence and consistency. Too many have allowed those elements to fall away, which has rocked the burger industry as a whole.
“There isn’t room for mediocrity in the restaurant market,” declares Barton. “I think that’s why so many places are struggling now – they’re just not good enough. When I heard about the struggles of other burger places, I wondered whether this bubble would burst. But then you look into some of the decisions that some places made, which are bad decisions in my eyes. It started to make sense. We’ve done the opposite to those decisions.
“We’re not going to blanket Honest Burgers all over London, but there are quite a few areas we have no presence in at all. We’ve got a site secured on Brewer Street, which will most likely be the next opening. We’re looking at primer areas now, but the big focus is outside of London. We’re at 26 now, and I think at this time next year we’ll be at 35. We think that’s doable.”
Catch Barton speaking about building his burger brand at BITES Live on Wednesday 10 October in London.