Located beneath The Urbanest Building of student halls, about a 10-minute walk from King’s Cross Station, is Cut + Grind. The single-site restaurant is a prime example of a better burger business that deserves some attention.
Beef is aged on-site in full display of customers, fries come with every burger and its signature, The Juicy Classic, is the current holder of the National Burger of the Year, awarded by the National Burger Awards. Not bad going for a business just over a year old.
While Cut + Grind is barely out of diapers, founder Paschalis ‘Pas’ Loucaides is no stranger to hospitality. The Cypriot has worked on the marketing and management of high street brands such as PizzaExpress and Carluccio’s, but it’s his background in engineering and finance that led him to burgers, specifically, last year.
“I love the idea of making something which is simple, perfect – to take something really basic and work out all the details so that the end product is really, really good,” says Loucaides. “Also, appealing to the finance guy in me, burgers are somewhat recession proof. People always go back to things that have an element of nostalgia. It’s a very high frequency product and it’s an area in the market that is growing at significant pace.”
Burgers are, indeed, big business in the UK. It’s the most popular item on menus, appearing in all styles of outlets from American diners to pubs and Michelin-starred restaurants. It has evolved to become gourmet, with premium buns, the best cuts of meat and homemade sauces, leading to a surge in burger brands across the UK.
However, as the market becomes somewhat saturated and competition increases, there have been casualties. Byron, arguably the original better burger brand, closed 19 sites at the beginning of 2018 and has expressed difficult trading conditions. Gourmet Burger Kitchen owner Famous Brands reportedly considered a Company Voluntary Arrangement after like-for-like sales fell 10.6% in the 22 weeks to the end of July.
“It’s a huge challenge, because this is not pizza,” explains Loucaides. “It doesn’t have the margins of pizza and it’s quite a tough product to make a lot of money from. You have to sell a lot of burgers to pay your light bill. The real difference is that you will win in the burger game if you get your frequency up.”
How can a one-site operator sell more burgers than another that runs 50+? It may be unfair to compare, but Loucaides argues that he has the recipe to make it work.
A better burger
“I can say pretty confidently that my burger patties are the best you will get anywhere in Britain.”
This could be considered a bold statement from Loucaides, for when you look at the burgers that are currently being served across the country, there are many operators that are doing it extremely well. Our interviewee defends this claim with the effort that he and his chefs go to for their patties.
“Unless you butcher and age your beef correctly in-house, I don’t think you can get the consistency,” he says. “It has cost involved and complexity, and we have to manage those to make the business flourish. My focus is very much on pure flavours, rather than stacking a burger with loads of ingredients.”
He explains that all of this effort is for the customer. Due to previous negative press around what goes into a burger, customers are untrusting of the product, despite their love of it. The aim of demystifying the burger not only led to the display of the meat ageing and the grind station, but also the introduction of masterclasses and, for future sites Loucaides tells me, a butchery.
Besides the effort Cut + Grind goes to for better burgers, Loucaides’ earlier statement is further warranted following his team’s win at the National Burger Awards back in February. Head chef Sammy Aykac, who was busy running the restaurant’s residency at The Three Compasses in Dalston during my visit, won the National Burger of the Year Award with The Juicy Classic, which Loucaides believes is even better now. Winning such an accolade is further proof to him that he does sell the best burger in the UK, but it also has the ability to speak to staff, customers and the industry.
“It was confirmation to us that we are a bit special,” says Loucaides. “It has a halo effect on the way that the whole team feels. Everyone wants to work with the people that are winning, so that was really helpful for us in terms of recruitment and retention. We had an uplift in sales and repeat visits. It helped with the conversation with customers – people are suddenly talking about our award-winning burger. It’s also allowed me to knock on some doors – people will take you a little bit more seriously when you say, “We won the National Burger Awards”. It helps to have that accreditation. The National Burger Awards was a huge thing for us and it should be a huge thing for anyone.”
Looking to the future
Nine months on from the big win at the National Burger Awards, Loucaides is looking towards the next phase for Cut + Grind. The business recently announced it will be joining the trader line-up at Boxpark Wembley and, before our meeting, Loucaides reveals he has a meeting with National Rail, suggesting the direction he’s planning to take the brand.
“I’m looking to open a brand ‘flagship’ where we can really express ourselves and bring the butchery forward,” he reveals. “We’re also looking at other opportunities where we can be modern in the way we serve our burgers, where we can be an anchor tenant, and where burgers are a desired item. At the moment, I’m sticking to London. In an ideal world, we will have a second site in the next six months.”
I can’t help but think that Cut + Grind’s debut site has created the need for its product to be as good as it is in order to get people to walk through the door. It is not located among the bulk of restaurants around King’s Cross Station, requiring people to find their way through the building development, just beyond Lewis Cubitt Square. With the pressure of rising rents and rates on operators, it is hardly surprising that the first site for this operator had to be a little out of the way. In this way, Loucaides may be best placed to speak about finding a site, however unusual, and making it work.
“If you’re really proud of your product then you can find locations, if you search long enough, that have good rents and rates,” he says. “At the moment, I don’t see any let up in the rent or rate levels of really premium locations. I’ve looked at a number of locations I’d love to be in, but I can’t make the business model work with my product. You look at some great operators who are smaller, maybe don’t have as many seats, but have a queue going outside because the product is that good and the marketing is that good. Those are opportunities. Don’t be afraid to wait, look for sites that may seem a little tricky, and negotiate hard. Brands can be built around that.”
At a time when restaurants are closing – with costs being a considerable factor – and competition rising simultaneously, this is not poor advice. Why wouldn’t customers make a little extra effort to ensure a quality experience? If the mountain can’t come to Mohammed, then you need to convince Mohammed to go to the mountain.
The National Burger Awards are back!
Enter the 2019 National Burger Awards to be in with a chance of following in the footsteps of Cut + Grind.
The live final takes place on Wednesday 20 February at the Islington Metal Works in London, with a cash prize of £1,000 for the National Burger of the Year.
Enter online at nationalburgerawards.co.uk