Go large? The expansion plans of the indie burger brands

The upmarket burger has symbolised the mass casual dining revolution, jumping from the confines of farmers markets to provincial shopping centres in the blink of an eye.

The evolution of the burger over the last few years is an instructive case study of how a food category can be redefined, with the amount of money people willing to spend being spectacularly upturned.

The operators within this lively new sector appear to be as passionate about their plans, tactics and ambitions as they are about what makes a killer burger. We look at the strategies of five leading pack.

Patty and Bun

Laying the foundations

Founder: Joe Grossman

Founded: 2012, Hatch at Street Kitchen in Battersea

First outlet: Nov 2012, Marylebone

Second outlet: April 2014, Liverpool Street

Number of outlets: Three (and a truck)

Burgers sold per week: 8,500 (including events)

Investment/funding: £0

Grossman has resisted investment, opting for natural growth from two shrewdly chosen sites. On a per store basis, Patty and Bun sells up to double many of its rivals. Grossman recently laid the grounding for a bigger push with a dedicated prep kitchen allied to a third restaurant under a railway arch in London Fields.

‘I’ve always wanted to do it myself as much as possible and keep hold of equity and do things how I want. I never wanted to grow rapidly, create a massive chain, then exit.

I’m aiming for a handful of bangers that I control. I’m never going to do a carbon copy roll out. I know Honest are aiming to be a better Byron, but that’s not me.

Each one we’ve opened has a different concept, but with the same principle: speed and quality. That will continue as we look to grow faster over the next year. I’d love to have around 10 sites all killing it.

James Street is a sit down space, Liverpool Street is more like a New York style hatch, providing lunchtime takeaways to city workers fast. London Fields has more of neighbourhood restaurant and brunch spot feel to it. The next one will be different again.’

Honest

Joining the chain gang

Founders: Tom Barton, Phil Eeles and Dorian Waite

Founded: 2010, Brighton market scene

First outlet: 2011, Brixton Village

Second outlet: 2012, Soho

Number of outlets: Nine

Burgers sold per week: 17,000

Investment/funding: £1m from Santander in 2013, 50% stake sold January 2015 for £7m.

What started as one of the first spots to open as part of the Brixton Market rejuvenation, Honest has begun filling out across London and now has Byron in its sights. It’s looking for locations across the capital, and has a war chest of private equity cash.

‘Chain is considered a bit of a dirty word but we won’t apologise for wanting to grow our business. We opened at just the right time in Brixton market and soon had two hour queues. There’s always been high turnover which funded the initial growth. After we opened Brixton, Soho, Camden and Portobello Road, we took a grant and a loan from Santander, preferring debt to giving away equity. It enabled us to open our next five locations quickly, and get our name out to more people, before our competitors.

To keep doing that we later took on private equity, careful to go with backers that want us to build the business rather than just grow and flip it.

We’ve got a lot of respect for Byron, how it’s run and how they raised the levels to help trigger the burger boom. I think we can be better though.’

Lucky Chip

The cautious collaborator

Founder: Ben Denner

Founded: 2011, truck in church car park in Kensal Rise

First outlet: Residency in Sebright Arms since 2011

Second outlet: Dedicated space in Dalston October 2015

Number of outlets: One (plus one ongoing pub residency)

Burgers sold per week: 2,000 (in Sebright Arms)

Investment: None

Spiralling costs of leases have left many observers describing Lucky Chip’s left field residency model as ‘genius’. Until the upcoming opening of his first outlet in Dalston, Denner paid no rent, instead taking over kitchens in pubs, who delighted in welcoming burger traffic. Corporate catering and Deliveroo provide handy supplements.

‘I’ve always been quite risk averse. We’ve only just opened our first permanent venue, despite launching around the same time as all the other guys, because I wanted to wait until I could comfortably fund it myself without any backing or loans. If all goes well we’ll be in a position to expand fast and I’m looking to open a second within six months.

Until now, taking over the kitchens at the Sebright Arms and more recently Birthdays and the Queen’s Head has worked really well. Corporate events have also been key for us. I’ve never done a festival in the van and the only market we ever did was Netil in London Fields. We do catering for the likes of Facebook, AOL and Adidas. They pay up front, you know exactly how many burgers you need and there’s no chance that you’ll sell nothing because it’s raining.’

Meat Liquor

Creating a cult following

Founders: Yianni Papoutsis and Scott Collins

Founded: 2009, food truck in Peckham

First outlet: 2011, Marylebone

Second opened: 2012, Hoxton

Number of outlets: Six (+ truck) two more opening this year

Burgers sold per week: 14,000

Investment: Undisclosed

They’re the ones who made this wave of burgers cool by riffing on edgy Americana with a truck in south east London. Grungy waitresses, dripping burgers, paint splattered walls and their own radio station have prompted yearly sales of £9m. It is now aiming at the burger starved hinterlands beyond London such as Brighton, Leeds and Singapore.

‘The brand evolved organically from the original Meat Wagon in a car park in Peckham through Meat Easy onto Meat Liquor and beyond. It’s been a series of happy accidents. We found the Marylebone site through contacts of our chairman, David Page (former Pizza Express chief exec). It was funded by us, our friends and some contacts of David. All the subsequent sites have been funded by cash flow, we’ve never taken on any bank debt.

We only open up if we find a space that really excite us, wherever that may be. We tailor the design and offering to each new site. We stumbled across the Brighton space and thought it would be a perfect fit. We were approached by a landlord in Leeds with a great deal on a great site. We also opened one in Singapore in June as a partnership, which was a lot of fun and is doing brilliantly.’

Burger Bear

Finding partners abroad

Founders: Tom Reaney

Founded: 2012, Haringey market

First physical space: Stoke Newington, 2014

Second opened: Summer 2015, Old Street roundabout

Number of outlets: Two (plus pub residency twice a week)

Number of cities: One

Investment: Crowdfunded £35,000 for Old Street site

Burgers sold per week: 4,400

Looking at opportunities across the world seems ambitious for a man that was only recently selling burgers from a stall in Haringey. A Kickstarter campaign allowed Reaney to open a shipping container kitchen in the middle of Old Street roundabout. Stoke Newington came before, Bristol and Peckham are next, but after that Reaney is fixed on overseas growth.

‘The burger market is completely saturated in London, it doesn’t excite me much anymore. I know most of my peers in London are eager to open 10 or 30 across the city, but my growth plan is international rather than domestic. Having too many in the same city dilutes the experience.

I’ve had no outside funding or loans to build the business other than the money from Kickstarter, and that’s going to stay the same for Bristol and Berlin.

San Fransisco and Melbourne is going to be launched in partnership with friends and contacts in the cities. Like a lot of the others, I’ve been approached by people to open all over the place. Someone came with an opportunity to open in Pakistan. That’s probably a bit down the line, but luckily, I’m already working on a vegetarian bacon jam.’