How I Got Here: Liz Down

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

How I Got Here: Liz Down co-founder of Black Bear Burger

Related tags: Black Bear Burger, Burger, Fast food, Multi-site, Street food

The co-founder of Black Bear Burger, which is about to launch its second sit down restaurant on Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell, on how she and her husband built their business.

Why restaurants? 
Restaurants combined my two favourite things, eating and people. I'm a massive people person, I was a nurse before going into hospitality and i see hospitality much like nursing without the sick people! It's about making people feel really comfortable and looking after them, which is what I love to do. 

Tell us something you wish you had been told at the start of your career?
I wish someone had told me to go work in a restaurant before getting into hospitality! I literally had never used a point of sale before we set Black Bear Burger up. We've had to learn everything from scratch and have made many mistakes. Great to learn from, but would have been far less stressful if I had the experience. 

What’s your favourite restaurant or group of restaurants (besides your own)?
Dishoom, I have so much respect for them. The quality of the food and the service is always bang on. They always have a que out the door, the decor of their restaurants is great. I think they get every aspect right.

What motivates you?
I know it sounds a bit cringe, but I am genuinely motivated by seeing people have a great time. Reading 5 star reviews, having friends of friends say they've been to the restaurant and the food or service was amazing. It’s why we work so hard to get it right and it gives me a buzz to see it all working together.

What keeps you up at night?
My seven week old baby, occasionally my toddler - and Stew's [Liz's husband, whom she founded Black Bear Burger with] snoring!

Which colleague, mentor or employer has had the biggest influence on your approach to the restaurant business?
I didn’t have a background in the restaurant industry, but working as a burns nurse in the NHS gave me a lot of experience in dealing with highly stressful and upsetting situations. This has given me perspective that whenever there are stressful times at Black Bear Burger it's nothing compared to what I have seen people go through, so I don’t get too bogged down about it and I keep calm and crack on. 

Best business decision? 
Blagging our way into Boxpark Shoreditch! We were still working full time and only trading once a week at Broadway Market when we applied to go there. Obviously they were not keen to have us because they were worried about how we would step up to a seven day a week operation, but we didn’t take no for an answer and I think they let us in in the end to shut us up!! That was where we were really able to get our name out there to the masses.

Worst business decision?
Having a baby every time we open a new restaurant. 

Coffee or tea?
Coffee, couldn't survive without it! I'm hideous at making tea. 

How do you let off steam?
Watch trashy TV: Real Housewives, Selling Sunset, Married at First Sight Australia.

Do you prefer a night on the tiles or a night on the sofa?
Night on the tiles in my 20s, now if I stay up past 9pm it's a miracle. 

Typical Sunday?
Sundays are a sesh in our household, we find a pub that does a great roast and get a bit day drunk. 

Favourite holiday destination?
Whistler, Canada.

What are you currently reading?
I hate reading… I don’t think I’ve read a book since I left university 15 years ago.

What piece of advice would you give to those looking to climb the rungs in the business?
Start small and grow slowly. By starting in street food we were able to test and refine our product, get instant feedback and test what worked and what didn’t without impacting us financially. We haven’t changed our burgers since we were trading at Broadway Market. It is also a good way to see if hospitality is for you, to see if you enjoy it. It can be stressful setting up your own business and you need to be able to see if you can handle it. 

If you could change one thing about the restaurant industry today, what would it be?
We have some amazing beef in the UK but it’s really difficult for the general public to filter what is good and what is great beef. I would love a grading system for beef that both restaurants, butchers and supermarkets could use. The USA have a very simple one and Australia has one that’s a bit more in depth, but they mainly focus on just the marbling of the meat. Having one that incorporated that side of the equation as well as animal welfare, feedstock, breed, husbandry, how the land is farmed etc would really help to champion the great farmers and beef that this country produces. 

Bio

Born in Cheltenham, Down studied a bachelor of science degree in Nursing at the University of Birmingham and graduated in 2010. Her early career saw her work for three years as a burns nurse at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. In 2016, Liz and her husband Stew created Black Bear Burger, which started out life as a food stall in Broadway Market and went on to do residencies at Street Feast and Kerb. It later launched its first permanent location at Boxpark Shoreditch. In 2018, Liz and Stew also appeared on the first season of the BBC series Million Pound Menu​ with the Black Bear Burger concept; and the following year they opened their first sit-down restaurant in Brixton Village.

Related topics: People, Profiles, Street Food

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