When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, as the popular expression goes. And it is doubtful that anyone has ever taken this advice more literally than Bristol-based chef Alex Hayes, who reacted to an unforeseen and unexpected setback in his cheffing career to set up the Bristol-based street food business Squeezed – with the name coming from the handmade lemonades that are served up alongside the now award-winning burgers.
“It all started by default and was ultimately a very positive thing to come out of a negative time in my career,” Hayes reflects. “I’d set up a business with a friend of mine and a couple of investors. Sadly, I just didn’t see eye-to-eye with one of them in particular and when they tried to expand the business without me, while still using my ideas, I resigned. The opportunity at Wapping Wharf came up and I seized it. I was taking on a new business without even securing the funds first – it was a real leap of faith!”
BIG ON AMBITION
The ‘Wapping Wharf’ he refers to is the base for Cargo, a street food complex made from shipping containers that sits on Bristol’s famous waterfront near the city centre. Despite the somewhat limited space available, Squeezed’s menu is big on ambition, with everything on sale, bar the brioche buns, being made fresh on-site.
Rather than focus on the limitations of setting up in street food, Hayes says running his own ship has been a liberating experience. “It means that I cook the food I want to cook. And if I’m doing that then I’m passionate about what I’m serving and this can be conveyed in the food. At Squeezed we can do what we want, try new ideas and constantly evolve. If something doesn’t work out, we can change it.
“I also encourage my sous chef to put her ideas out there. Currently she comes up with all the desserts that we have on offer, from glorious sweet pies to some amazing melted marshmallow and chocolate cookies.”
This all came to fruition in February this year when Squeezed prevailed at the National Burger Awards. Hayes won in the technical round, where the 15 finalists were tasked with making a burger from the sponsors’ ingredients. “It was fantastic,” he enthuses. “I loved the entire day and it was great to chat to chefs and business owners who are doing the same thing up and down the country. To scoop the prize was overwhelming and I was so pleased to bring it home for my staff at Squeezed and for Bristol.”
The effect has also been good for sales as well as staff, as Hayes has had to start closing the outlet mid-afternoon to prepare more burgers due to the increased interest that has been generated. “It’s definitely raised the profile for us,” he says. “We are, after all, a tiny shipping container restaurant, but post-award our customer base has really risen.”
It should be no surprise that Hayes rose to the top in a high-level national competition like the National Burger Awards, as he has been cheffing since he left school at the age of 17. After a fleeting attempt at A-levels, he landed a job in a local restaurant in his hometown of Winchester. “After a while I realised that I was quite enjoying learning the trade,” he recalls. “Kitchens are just a great environment and they’re full of characters.”
Like many small, out-of-home operations, the positivity and passion that emanates from the owner fuels the business – though Hayes will admit, when pushed, that the pressure of having gone it alone is one of the few negatives. “The hardest part is that, at the end of the day, the buck stops with me and me always,” he says. “It’s hard at times to take your mind off of it and you truly live and breathe it. Everything from the financial aspects to the food and delivery of it is in my hands, so that is certainly a challenge at times.”
This is also reflected when I ask him what advice he would offer anyone that would like to emulate his success – with the bad news being that there is no simple magic formula. “You have to be prepared to work hard, very hard, in the initial weeks and months. If you want to build something special then it has to come from the right place – the heart – and you have to expect to put the work in. Also, don’t be afraid to go for it. It’s okay if things don’t work out – you’ll only fail if you don’t try.”
Luckily for Hayes, he hit on quite a few successes very early on, as most of his best-sellers have been on the menu from day one. “The St Werburger, named after my neighbourhood [St Werburghs in Bristol], is a double beef patty with Monterey Jack cheese, smoked bacon, caper aioli, chipotle ketchup and shallots cooked in beef fat… it’s a great burger!” he says. “We also have a peanut chipolte BBQ sauce, which has been described as ‘crack sauce’.
“Our classic Yard Sale lemonade deserves a shout out too. It’s slightly more sour than sweet and a real thirst-slayer.”
Looking to the future, Hayes says that above all else he hopes to maintain the integrity and authenticity that has made Squeezed such an impressive success so far. “At the moment I’m in a great place – enjoying what I do at work everyday and balancing that with time with my wife and two young children,” he says. “I get asked a lot about expansion, and that may come in time, but right now I’m just focussing on maintaining our excellent standards and having fun in the process.”
ENTRIES FOR THE 2020 NATIONAL BURGER AWARDS ARE NOW OPEN. CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT YOUR RECIPE.