On the Byron name
“I wanted to call it Vincent after Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction [the character played by John Travolta] but we found a guy in Liverpool had started up a hotel and trademarked it. So we trawled through names and Byron sounded British,” he says. “When we looked it up in an etymological dictionary we discovered it meant ‘of the cow shed’, so Lord Byron’s family would have been beef farmers or cow herds back in the day.
“It’s cool to name a burger joint after a bisexual romantic poet, it’s quirky. And although we didn’t actually name it after him there’s no harm in letting people think we did. You can also use it to make loads of jokes, like ‘Byron, get one free’.”
One can only hypothesise how well the company would have performed had it been called Vincent but it’s unlikely to have improved on the current business which, in under three years, operates 10 sites, has hit double-digit turnover and has legions of loyal fans. Since opening its first restaurant in Kensington in December 2007, Byron has raised the bar for the quality of the high-street burger. Its individual approach to restaurant design and menu has been a hit with customers looking for something a bit different.
On Gondola Holdings
Unbeknownst to many a consumer, Byron is owned by Gondola Holdings, master of the successful clone restaurant in the form of Pizza Express, ASK and Zizzi.
The Byron idea actually came from another concept that Gondola was looking to expand and for which they recruited Byng, a former restaurateur turned consultant, to help. “I went to look at the business and told them I could save them a ton of money by not investing in it,” he says. “Bully for them. A lot of big operators make money and, therefore, think they must know what they are doing but Gondola wanted the view of someone much closer to customers.
“I thought, these guys are big investors, if I try and sell them a Mexican idea, or sushi or British tapas – what I think are restaurant concepts of the future – they are probably not going to go for it because they are not interested in something there will only be 10 or 15 of. You can do what the Chilango guys do and there will be a group of investors who will say they want to see something get to 10 restaurants, but others with hundreds of millions of pounds invested in other things think on a larger scale – so I thought hamburgers.”
On developing Byron
Byng set about working up an idea for a burger chain taking inspiration from New York “not in an Americana way, but keeping it clean and simple. I looked at the things I hated about chain restaurants, such as long menus that are poorly executed and the cookie cutter approach to design. In the old days restaurants looking the same made you think ‘great I’m not going to get poisoned’ but now it’s boring. We developed the idea of Byron over nine months. It was from the heart, not using statistics and research because that’s not the way restaurants start off. You’ve got to start with something you feel in your soul.”
The result is a chain that aims to serve ‘proper burgers’ and not much else. The menu is brief to place emphasis on quality rather than quantity: “We’ve got a short menu and teach our staff to do 30 things right not 280 – such as grilling a burger properly, handling it right when it comes from the butcher, being obsessive about shelf life. People are always saying grow the menu, but that isn’t the answer.”
Living with a parent company
So far this tactic has created a chain with the buzz of something new about it, with an emphasis on quality and service rather than discounts and footfall. But as the brand grows, will there be the temptation for its owners to follow in the footsteps of Clapham House’s Gourmet Burger Kitchen (soon to be owned by Nando’s?), as well as its pizza chains, and take Byron more into the mainstream?
Byng, for one, is confident Gondola’s influence will remain a force for good. In fact, he believes that having a parent company instead of building the brand by himself brings benefits with little compromise. He enjoys the financial firepower Gondola provides, the group’s business aptitude and its power in negotiations, but still has freedom.
“In a management sense Gondola treats its businesses as separate teams. It is a support function. I’m like an entrepreneur in a sweet shop with a wonderful, free resource centre. If I need help with getting my teams right in 10 restaurants rather than one there’s people there who know what they’re talking about.
“It also gives us the money. When you’re an entrepreneur this is such a major part of growing a business. I used to look at my balance sheet on a daily basis, but I haven’t looked at one now for three years. What we’re focused on is our profit and loss and that is driven by the top line. I work on the basis that bums on seats gives you the opportunity to make money, but only the opportunity. Too many restaurant chain managers just sit in their offices, worried about their P+L. I want them to fundamentally understand that this business stands or falls on the quality of what the customer gets. You’ve got to be savvy with the numbers, but not be a great bean counter who just puts food in front of people.”
Gondola also knows when to give Byng vital breathing space, he adds. "There’s an amazing central buying function for food and drink at Gondola, but none of the suppliers it uses are appropriate for me, therefore I don’t use them. I do stock Peroni, that’s useful, but nobody says ‘oh come on Tom, have this’, otherwise it’s the tail wagging the dog.”
A conservative expansion
Nowhere is having a parent company more useful than when it comes to new sites. With its 10th restaurant opened on London’s Old Brompton Road in July and an 11th taking shape at the One New Change development near St Paul’s, due to open in October, Byron’s expansion has so far been muted compared with other brands in the Gondola stable. But its London locations – it has one site in Kingston – would otherwise be challenging for a lone entrepreneur.
“Gondola doesn’t open a lot of restaurants in London any more and when I say I want stuff in central London it says, ‘why do you want to do that, you’re going to have to pay high rent and premiums’. But when you’re growing a business you’ve got to start at the top.
“Landlords are always after strength of covenants – the ability to pay rent whatever happens – and they put people with strong covenants at the front of the queue. When I was a little standalone guy I was at the back of the queue, I could even bid a load more and the landlord would not be interested because I could be out of business in a year. The beauty is we can go to places and cut a good deal because they see we’re backed by Gondola and know the freehold investment is rock solid.”
An unfinished look
Even though Gondola helps secure the sites, they very much remain under Byng’s control, as the four month old Islington location attests. It’s a former Hamburger Union site (the neon signs were salvaged from the restaurant), but its style can be best described as ‘building site chic’. So much has the restaurant strived to look half finished – render still on the walls, builders’ scrawls on the plasterwork and even an ‘unfinished’ ceiling – I rather sheepishly ask the waitress whether the builders will be coming back to finish the job. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s certainly no indication that the suits in Gondola had a hand in its styling.
“When we were considering the site, pop-up restaurants were popular so we thought we’d do a pop-up style here and if it worked do it up later,” explains Byng. “By the time it got to opening pop-ups were a bit hackneyed, so we thought we’d do a restaurantin a building site instead. It’s clean, so what more do you want?”
Byron the brand
It’s easy to see why Byron, and Byng, are such important assets for Gondola. In its latest Eating Out In The UK 2010 report, Allegra Strategies names Byron as one of six ‘up and coming brands’ and last week the chain sold 30,000 burgers. It doesn’t do much discounting, giving it an enviable average spend for a burger chain, and with some restaurants, such as in Canary Wharf, capable of serving up to 200 covers, it’s a concept that can adapt to its surroundings.
What’s more, Byron is eminently scaleable thanks to the relatively low start-up costs of opening a burger restaurant and staff training, although Byng is adamant that he won’t be rushing the rollout. “We are not fixated with numbers for growth. You learn from each site where you could go and where you couldn’t based on how much they love you. You’ve got to concentrate on that and then do the next one. The moment you say you want 50 restaurants you’re in dangerous territory. I’ll probably do four or five next year and then go from there.”
On One New Change
Byron currently has its eyes on two sites in affluent London areas as well as in the One New Change development, joining the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Wasabi, Bea’s of Bloomsbury, and Jamie Oliver and Adam Perry Lang’s Barbecoa, which he admits was a gamble at the time. “You’ve got to have balls because it’s not yet built. Your neighbours are really important because if you’re not huge people will define you by who your mates are. So you’ve got to believe that they (developer Land Securities) will get the right people in. There’s always a bit of horse trading. You have to make sure that when you come to sign you all do it at the same time so you don’t think you’re getting Jamie Oliver’s new barbecue concept and end up with KFC.”
Byng is in no hurry to branch out of the capital, either. “There’s plenty of potential to do more in London so why not do it? There’s loads of areas we could be where we’re not. Logistically it makes sense, if you’ve got restaurants close to each other you can support them. Why go to Manchester and put pressure on your logistics? The mentality that it works in London so could work anywhere is quite patronizing for people out of town. When I get 25 emails a week from people saying they are down in London every weekend and asking us to come up there then I’ll think about it.”