Philip Eeles cheerfully admits that he and his Honest Burgers co-founder Tom Barton didn’t really know what they were doing when they started their now private equity-backed burger business. He highlights the time the pair once battled to cook at Lewes bonfire night in rain and gale-force winds. But having hired a van and spent all their money on meat, there was no way they were giving up and going home.
Brighton Food Festival was another challenge. The chips they spent a week pre-frying sold out in one day and they – and their girlfriends – had to stay up all night cooking more. Eeles and Barton launched Honest Burgers initially as a way of avoiding the 9-5 rat race. They had both worked in the restaurant industry before, making money while students.
“After university I had to decide, either I go to London and get a 9-5 job with a tie, or have a go at the only other thing I knew,” says Barton. “So we saved up £3,000, bought a marquee, a griddle and a fryer and started serving burgers. We used to turn up to events with only about £70 in our bank account and know that if it failed that would be the end of everything and we’d move on. But fortunately it didn’t.”
Building the brand
Today, Honest Burgers operates 25 restaurants, predominantly in the capital although it does have sites in Cambridge and Reading. Launched in 2011, the company has made great strides in the seven years since its first festival days.
A key protagonist in the Honest story is Dorian Waite, the company’s co-founder and managing director who invested early in the business. Waite had experience as a senior ops manager at Strada and ops director at Côte and saved the boys from making serious mistakes, they admit.
“Dorian got mistaken as our dad at the start. Phil and I had worked in restaurants but we knew nothing about what it takes to create a business. Dorian gave us the advice, professionalism and expertise to be able to do that. When we met, all we had was a marquee and a semblance of a brand. We thought ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’.
We went to his house and cooked him burgers. I moved to London to show him we were serious.” They opened their first restaurant, in Brixton Village, where Barton had moved to, doing much of the work themselves, including putting in the extraction.
Sites then followed in Soho, Camden, Portobello Road and King’s Cross. By the end of 2014, word was out about what Waite, Barton and Eeles had developed with Honest, which had by then grown to nine sites across the capital, and the company had started attracting the attention of investors looking to make a play in the now-burgeoning better-burger category. At the start of 2015, Active Partners, the backer of Leon and Soho House, invested £7m in the company in return for around a 50% stake, valuing the business at the time at around £16m.
Another brick in the wall: The group's Borough site
The investment proved critical for the brand, looking to stay ahead of the growing number of burger concepts in the capital, including Patty & Bun and MEATliquor as well as hold its own against the likes of a fast-moving Byron. It brought further expansion opportunities and allowed the founders to bring more experience into the business, starting with former Côte joint managing director Harald Samuelsson, who joined as Honest’s commercial director. Samuelsson has more recently been followed by Gary Mann, ex-finance director at Gaucho and CAU, who joined as chief financial officer but has since become joint managing director alongside Waite.
“For Harald to come on board we were really flattered,” says Eeles. “He has been amazing for me; I talk at him, he listens and coaches. He is very good at looking at the bigger picture and putting my feet back on the ground.”
And what about the dynamic between the two founders? “Our dynamic has changed as the company has grown, we are more like brothers than best friends,” says Eeles. “We are moving more to focusing on the culture and the brand.
We are still very hands-on. We have had to put egos to one side and say there are people out there that are more experienced and better qualified to help take the business forward.”
“We are brand ambassadors, we want to be the ones protecting it,” adds Barton. “The staff seeing us working the grill or floor is valuable to us and, we hope, for them, too.”
Last year, the company made its regional debut in Cambridge, which was followed by an opening in Reading at the end of 2017, the group’s biggest site to date. Cambridge exceeded the company’s sales expectations, giving it the confidence for further expansion across the UK. This year is gearing up to be a big one for the business and Barton says he expects to be making some “significant new openings outside the capital”, provided they can find the right sites.
“We have the infrastructure and team in place now where we can look at more opportunities outside London and be confident we can make them work without impacting our existing business.”
The company, which recently opened at the Royal Festival Hall and has an opening in London Bridge already lined up for this year, is currently in advanced talks on its first site in the north-west, in Manchester, with Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool openings also under consideration. It is believed to be looking to open three to four sites outside the capital over the next 12 months.
The pair are also looking at flexing the Honest Burgers brand. Although expansion of its core restaurant concept will remain the main focus, they are exploring the opportunity of launching in pubs with a burger concept that would also feature takes on pub food staples, including roast dinners.
A focus on quality
Things may have moved on since the early days of Honest Burgers – the business operations are significantly slicker at the 25-strong restaurant group – but a couple of things haven’t really changed: namely the philosophy and the menu. Both Eeles and Barton insist that a lot of the original values they built the company on are still true today.
Right from the start, the pair decided to make their own chips after failing to find a frozen brand that matched the quality of those made at Barton’s student house. It continues this practice today, despite predictions from their peers that it would be short-lived.
“Making chips from scratch is a huge undertaking and I can completely understand why no one else does it. It’s really tough,” says Barton. “Early on, Tom Byng (founder of Byron) visited us. He was very kind to us and gave us some pointers, but I remember he said ‘I commend you for making chips in-house, but wait until you’ve opened five or 10 restaurants, you won’t be making them in house then’.
“Today, what we do that other people don’t is make a lot of items in-house. We make our own relish and pickles. We make our vegetarian burger. The only thing we don’t do is bake bread.”
More recently, Barton and Eeles have started making their own patties from scratch, rather than order them in made to spec as is commonplace, a move they believe makes Honest among the first burger groups in Europe to do so.
With the better-burger market under increased pressure due to over saturation and rising costs, the pair believe that survival will come from increasing quality rather than reducing it to retain margins, as some of their larger rivals have done.
Better by design: The pair believe that survival will come from increasing quality rather than reducing it to retain margins
The company invested £600,000 in setting up its own butchery and has now started to roll out patties made from scratch into its restaurants. The meat in the burgers will remain the same, but rather than patties being sent to the company pre-made, it will instead buy the beef in cuts of chuck and rib cap and mince them itself.
The burgers were initially served in five of its London restaurants, in Brixton, Clapham, Tooting, Peckham and Greenwich, but have since been introduced across the estate.
“We are not shy of making stuff ourselves,” says Barton. “We decided we wanted to give it a go.” But it hasn’t been an easy undertaking. Barton says there are currently only a handful of UK suppliers that are approved to supply burgers that are intended to be eaten rare – known as less than thoroughly cooked (LTTC) – and that he had to go through a lot of red tape to gain LTTC accreditation for the Honest Butchery. The butchery has been granted three-month temporary accreditation, which can be extended. When fully up and running, it will produce more than 42,000 patties each week.
This is a bold move in a tough climate, but it is the Honest Burgers way. The better-burger category has come under scrutiny during the past year, due to the well-publicised travails at Handmade Burger Co and Byron, but the company clearly believes there is still room for significant growth among those players at the top end.
Recent research from MCA Insight shows the UK branded burger market is set to grow at a rate of almost 6% a year to reach a value of £4bn by 2020, outperforming the wider restaurant market. Its UK Burger Market Analysis points out that several leading brands, including market leader McDonald’s, are opening further stores in the UK alongside rapidly growing newer market entrants that include Patty & Bun, Bleecker and, indeed, Honest Burgers.
“When the burger craze goes, if it does, those left will be the ones that focused on product,” says Eeles. “Our burgers are a bit cleaner, a bit easier to eat. We seem to attract a larger demographic because of that.”
And at Honest Burgers it has never been just about the burger, as Barton says: “The chips define us more than the burger – they represent our stubbornness over doing them on site and getting them right. We could have taken the easy route but we refused.”
This article that first appeared in the February issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here