Are Posh Burgers Still Posh?
‘People want to be seen to be aware of what it is they’re putting in their body,’ said the co-founder of Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK), Adam Wills.
At the turn of the century, the Gourmet Burger Kitchen was among brands which helped the British high street chart a course towards fresher, more premium food. It introduced the “posh burger” to the UK – the elevation of the burger beyond ‘90s burger mediocrity into something truly restaurant-worthy. Wills, who founded the chain, has since founded Crosstown Doughnuts – a kind of posh doughnut – as well. And next year, the GBK will celebrate its 20th birthday.
Is a good patty good enough in 2019? Modern urbanites want options which not only taste good, but can make them feel good about themselves. We’re living in a world where every billboard is shouting about health and morality and the environment. No longer can we harmlessly enjoy a McDonald’s without the knowledge of its rocket-high salt content and planetary guilt.
Meanwhile, technology is transforming the way that we eat food. That’s not just Instagram – but Wills himself had recently launched Slerp, a whitelabelled delivery platform. If “software is eating the world” then maybe software has an appetite for posh burgers, too.
I had come to meet Wills to understand the new demands on burgers two decades on.
In the Beginning: Filling a Hole
When Wills migrated to the UK from New Zealand 20 years ago, he noticed a gap.
‘I used to find the quality of food on offer wasn’t particularly great.’
Back then, it was hard to ‘get something fresh’ from a casual eatery, Wills said. ‘In New Zealand we have a much more casual approach to dining.’ In the London of the early 2000s, ‘if…you didn’t want to commit yourself to sitting in a restaurant, London didn’t do that very well. It was either a kebab shop or a restaurant.’
‘Back then, if you wanted a burger, you’d only have McDonald’s or Tootsies’ (an American chain which has since gone bust). ‘[There was] nobody who specialised in just burgers’.
‘I thought, “Hey, my idea of Gourmet Burger Kitchen in a big city like London might work.”’
So, Wills set up the first GBK – on Northcote Road, a gentrified avenue in Battersea. ‘It was a strip of shops in an affluent area and lots of people used it. Northcote Road is a central hub, there were bars, shops.’
‘We wanted to go and stick ourselves right amongst the middle of where everybody else was was congregating, socialising, eating,’ said Wills.
The audience was ‘sophisticated, cosmopolitan – [but] people not looking to spend huge amounts of money,’ said Wills. ‘I thought that burgers in particular are something that could do well here.’
The original idea, then, had been to market a more casual setting and cheaper price point to people used to eating gourmet food – not the other way around.
But perhaps the other way around is the more important thread. GBK has been part of a trend of ‘premiumisation’ – the average quality of food on the high street has improved hugely in twenty years. For example, the remarkable transformation of Domino’s which moved its share price from $8.76 to $160 with a strategy which included putting up its prices and advertisements saying that it’s food to date had been bad. Premium on quality; but also, a premium on price – GBK boasted a much healthier margin than the restaurants he was hoping to replace.
‘Hey look, you’re going to spend £12.00 and you’re going to pay £7.00 for a burger,’ said Wills. ‘You’re going to get chips for £3.00.’ ‘We build up that ticket to a £10.00 to £12.00 spend. Then, we also sold them a good glass of wine or a nice beer, something a bit different.’
‘We were able to get a £15.00-to-£16.00 spend out of these people for a burger, which was very unusual back then… For us, it made a very profitable business model.’
Soon enough, there were GBKs across Britain (there are presently 60 branches). But such success inspires imitators. Burger joints have arrived everywhere in the UK – on our beaches, our towns, our shopping centres: Byron, Patty & Bun, Honest Burgers, Beer & Burger, Five Guys, Shake Shack, In-n-Out Burger…
And that’s just burgers. GBK helped to popularise the entire genre of “casual dining” in the UK. The average quality of the food on the high street has gone up – and the expectations have risen with them. And, in a crowded field, branding has become more shouty.
Take BrewDog, the premium pub chain whose tortured copy famously invites its middle-class patrons to buy ‘equity for punks.’ ‘A decade ago,’ BrewDog’s website reads, ‘there was a revolution. A beer revolution…’ One decade – that’s long-term exposure to a brand that is clearly working so hard to appear edgy.
I asked Wills whether posh burgers have become passé.
‘Where we are today’ said Wills, ‘is that there’s so many people in the market and a lot of people are competing now on price.’
‘The different thing back [in 2000] with us was that people weren’t used to paying a lot of money for a burger. They were used to going in and it might be £4 in the pub and it was a pretty bad eating experience.’
Today, ‘we are dealing with a product which the public has a high level of recognition with. It’s a product which people are familiar with and, when presented with the opportunity, like to engage with it.’
‘In New York,’ said Wills, ‘we were in a restaurant where you were spending a hundred US dollars there a head…’ and there was a burger on the menu. ‘So I’m sitting there going “hey, if it’s good enough for them and I’m in this restaurant charging $100 a head, then I’m pretty confident that the chefs are standing behind that product.”’
But with the collapse of “casual dining” – isn’t it all passé? Jamie’s Italian. Zizzi’s. Las Iguanas. Perhaps Wills felt – like I did – that brands like these were rooted in time, and as such, had a natural – and inescapable – shelf life. A brand for 2019 is something like Bao, whose merchandise people buy in-store.
Wills thought for a second.
‘I think that one of the big issues that I see here in the UK is so often you see some of these mainstream brands… and the places that you see them, it might be a 200 seat restaurant in Westfield.’
‘How can you have a special relationship with a restaurant and its food when that is the environment it’s presented in?’
‘I think when it becomes a point of almost convenience – “Okay, well I’m just going to eat something. It’s not going to be that great” – then it’s hard for me to have respect for that brand. And when I don’t have respect for that brand then I find it very easy to cut it out of my life.’
Perhaps that was the nub of the question which casual restaurants have to answer, including GBK. In the marriage of convenience and taste, which comes first?
Wills has now founded a burger and a doughnut company. (Read about Crosstown Doughnuts in our interview with JP Then, Wills’ cofounder.) That’s two items perfect for delivery – GBK was Deliveroo’s first branded partner.
That’s why Crosstown founders created Slerp. This is a white-label delivery service that gives small operators more control over their customer journey. It’s a Deliveroo which doesn’t disguise the true cost of last mile delivery. Slerp’s clients know that shipping food around London in an hour comes at a cost.
Slerp, said Wills, ‘gives you chances to upsell, gives you chances to obviously utilise the data that those people give you…it allows you to build and promote your business, which they came to your website to interact with your brand.’
It’s particularly useful for shops and restaurants in expensive rent areas, explained WIlls, for owners looking to ‘sweat the space commitments that they have made with their shops… rents aren’t going down.’
Wills reminds us that longevity in a restaurant brand goes hand in hand with honest love – and a pinch of resistance. To survive, you must change with the times. This means adapting to suit people’s higher expectations for on-demand service.