Like many chefs, Flank founder Tom Griffiths has a complex relationship with burgers. He says it’s a universal truth that his peers love eating them but hate cooking them, and this dilemma has been a constant in his career.
Keen to avoid being typecast as a garden-variety patty slinger, when he first launched at Market Halls with partner Ben Rowland, Flank was positioned with a more restaurant-style offering.
For Market Halls, the wisdom at the time was that with Bleecker Burger and Shake Shack nearby, there was no need for another burger concept in such close proximity, and that Flank should concentrate on its nose to tail premium output.
Just over a year later, there’s been a definite repositioning towards faster, more accessible food at Flank and the wider Market Halls offering. The divisive burger is conspicuous by its presence, albeit one made with short rib, heart and plenty of fat minced through, making for an unusually rich example.
“I hated burgers for a very long time. As a chef, they’re not very creative, and you do thousands of them a day,” Griffiths says. “For a while I didn’t want to do it, but we’ve spent a good couple of months developing a new burger, and it’s great.”
The resolution to do a burger – albeit a Flank style one with a nose-to-tail composition – is indicative of the more commercial-mindedness of the business that has come with maturity and experience. Ultimately, the pair believe this will allow them to be more creative in the long run, by giving them the commercial strength to create their own restaurant.
“Your customers dictate what they want, and we very very quickly realised that the bistro offering wasn’t going to work at Market Halls,” Rowland says. “We weren’t going to do the numbers that we needed to do, and that’s why we had to rethink and accept these sorts of environments needed a faster and more accessible option.”
This spirit of compromise has allowed Flank to serve a big selling burger, alongside the more rootsy dumpling, which though not a best seller, has been a social media sensation from day one, and does much of the heavy lifting on the marketing front.
While Flank has successfully flexed its offering, other foodie-targeting concepts such as Bun Shop and Koya were early departures from the Victoria scheme after being unable to convert their Instagram kudos into lunchtime sales.
Griffiths says it is all about balancing commercial viability with the original Flank philosophy, around big hearty flavours, nose to tail, and open fire cookery.
“The biggest thing for chefs is to start thinking commercially as a business, how to survive in this market, but also to stick to your ethos,” he says. "That doesn’t mean necessarily writing a menu full of jargon, just for your ego. You’ve got to give customers what they want.”
The turnaround at Market Halls has led to an opportunity for a new concept, Good Birds, at the Market Halls’ latest West End opening. A singularity concept, based around brined birds, cooked over fire on a custom-made rotisserie, Good Birds came about almost in collaboration with Market Halls, with the food hall requiring something alternative from Flank’s more red-meat based Victoria offering.
“There is a conflict of interest at times with traders and what they do. So we were given the option of doing some that involves chicken,” Griffiths explains.
“I’ve always been a sucker for a Nando’s, but I’d say eight times out of ten it’s terrible. It’s gutting because I know it can be so good. We weren’t going to do fried chicken, that’s been done. We thought if we’re going to do chicken, lets go fully hard. Lets’ look at brines, salt levels, the whole cooking process.”
The menu features quarter, half or whole birds, cooked low and slow and glazed over the fire. They come with own-made Asian inspired sauces, such as smoked chilli sambal and peanut and cashew, while sides include ‘war fries’ - topped with a Dutch style peanut cashew sauce, and a buttered naan.
While a slight shift from core Flank, Griffiths maintains it’s in keeping with its founding philosophy.
“It doesn’t mean you need to go away from what you believe in. People might think because it’s chicken it’s factory farmed and slapped on the grill. No, we spent time researching every single bit of salt that goes into the brine, making every single sauce on site.”
The open fire adds to a sense of theatre in what is no doubt a competitive trading environment.
“The drama’s there,” Rowland adds. “The bird’s dripping. The fire’s going. The spindle is turning. People eat with their eyes first and that’s what’s going to pull them in.”
Rowland explains that the genesis for Good Birds, and the evolution at Flank, can be traced back to Spitalfields Kitchens, their London debut.
While Flank originally made a name for itself with elaborate tasting menus majoring on offal, and collaborations with the likes of Douglas McMaster of Silo (also previously Brighton-based, now with an acclaimed London presence), they had to adapt quickly to a market where busy customers wanted to be fed quickly.
"Most customers are happy to queue for 20 minutes, but they want their food within six minutes, and they do not want to spend more than £10," he says.
“You can either throw your toys out the pram and go, ‘well, screw you, you either love me or you don’t’, or you can try and adapt. It’s not about selling out or watering down the product, it’s about learning your market. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s evolution. It’s been a big learning curve in making it commercial as well as sticking to what we love doing.”
Having launched Good Birds in November, the next focus will be for Flank to open its own restaurant, which will enable them to go back to their more restaurant-y roots, and flex their “more refined cheffy muscles,” Rowland says.
“We’re both chefs, we love going wild in the kitchen, and working without the constraints of the street-food fast-food market,” he says.
“We feel that by next summer, it’s important for us to establish there’s more to us, before it becomes too diluted into just the street food thing. We’re not your average street food slinger. It’s two chefs pouring their heart and soul into a dumpling or a fried chicken burger.”
Griffiths echoes that the best is yet to come.
“Anyone that’s eaten Flank food in the last 18 months will have no idea what to expect, and it will hit them like a brick wall when they come to the restaurant”, he adds.
“It will show people that there’s more to us.”
A version of this feature originally appeared on BigHospitality's sister site MCA. To subscribe to MCA, click here.