It’s 10 years since the first Byron branch opened in west London and took the humble fast-food snack to another dimension. Now, with premium outlets all over the country, how much posher can the burger get, asks Tim Walker
It was while he was reading classics at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, that Tom Byng first began a serious study of the American hamburger. After a long night of college carousing, the Old Etonian would often end up at the Silver Top, an elderly diner in the heart of Providence, which had been serving the same greasy, roadside staples since the 1930s.
In December 2007, a decade and a half after his US sojourn, Byng took everything he had learned about beef patties, buns and the restaurant business and opened the first branch of his burger empire, Byron, in west London. The British hamburger has never been quite the same. To date, Byron has served more than 24m burgers at 70 locations across Britain. Originally backed by Gondola Group, the owners of Pizza Express and Ask, in 2013 the business was acquired by Hutton Collins Partners for £100m.
Byng stood down as CEO earlier this year, but he left the meat sandwich market transformed, from the Big
Macs and gastropub grub of the late 20th century into a burger universe that incorporates fast-food; so-called “better” burgers, flipped by the likes of Five Guys and Shake Shack; and premium burgers such as the Byron, the Honest Burger or the Bleecker Black. The UK burger business is now worth a super-sized £3.3bn, according to market research firm Mintel.
The rise of the burger from a scapegoat for the obesity crisis to the symbol of a dining revolution was fuelled by a combination of social media and recession-era economics, and it established a whole new class of restaurant: inspired by simple street food, led by untrained chefs and advertised via Twitter. The gourmet burger has certainly dented the dominance of the old fast-food giants. But it has also disrupted the entire restaurant food chain.
Before Byron, Britain’s leading purveyor of premium burgers was Gourmet Burger Kitchen, launched in London in 2001 by three New Zealanders. But while GBK’S menu was replete with elaborate, bastardised burger recipes (among the ingredients of its signature “Kiwiburger” are beetroot and pineapple), Byron went back to basics.
“GBK messed about with ‘global influences’; that’s not what I want from a burger,” says food writer and burger connoisseur Helen Graves. “I think a burger has specific parameters. Byron were groundbreaking because they made a fresh-tasting burger and didn’t mess about with it: it’s just a standard patty, lettuce, pickles and sauce, American-style.”
Ten years ago, the hamburger was an object of suspicion, thanks to Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation (2001) and the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, which had vividly portrayed the health and environmental damage wreaked by the fast-food industry. Byron sidestepped that controversy by focusing on quality ingredients, offering healthier-sounding sides such as courgette fries, and by serving its burgers alone (the fries cost extra) on a white plate, thus elevating the burger’s status from junk food to restaurant dish.
If Byng was the modern burger’s Lonnie Donegan – the first person to popularise an American style in the UK – then Yianni Papoutsis was its Lennon and Mccartney. Papoutsis was a technician for the English National Ballet, who had flipped burgers at the Burning Man festival in Nevada and who had travelled America eating old-school diner food, educating himself about how best to mince one’s beef, toast one’s buns and grill one’s onions.
“The best burger I ever ate in the US was at a tiny little diner opposite an amusement park somewhere in New England,” Papoutsis says. “I can’t even remember its name. I’d gone there for breakfast and chatted to the owners over the counter for so long that it got to lunchtime. The burger was a gamechanger: really, really simple, but made with such care.”
In summer 2009, he bought a burger van, opened a Twitter account and started cooking on an industrial estate in south London. Graves was the first to review the Meat Wagon. A reader of her influential blog, Food Stories, had spotted the #Meatwagon hashtag, “discovered this little burger van in a carpark in Peckham and emailed me about it,” she recalls. “I went down there, ate one of Yianni’s big, juicy, filthy, drippy burgers, wrote about it on my blog and it blew up from there. It couldn’t have happened without Twitter.”
The online buzz had also attracted pub owner Scott Collins, and when the Meat Wagon was stolen in late 2010, he and Papoutsis teamed up to open a punky, pop-up diner, Meateasy, above the Goldsmith’s Tavern in New Cross. Londoners dutifully made the journey to the then-barely-fashionable corner of the city to sample Papoutsis’s signature “Dead Hippie” burger, made with a special sauce whose recipe remains a closely guarded secret.
If Meateasy’s remote location and authentically scuzzy decor made it more attractive to questing millennial foodies, then that was just luck, says Papoutsis. “We set up in the only places we could afford or arrange. We had to decorate Meateasy with pages from my old books because we didn’t have enough money for paint. I think it worked because it was true to itself. It wasn’t a piece of scenery; it was what it was.”
‘A burger is a very simple thing, but the simplest things are the ones you have to do best’
Their first permanent venue, the cavernous Meatliquor, opened less than a year later beneath a multistorey carpark near Oxford Street. It didn’t take reservations, nor run a waiting list, yet punters queued in the winter cold for over an hour to eat a Dead Hippie. Six years on, Collins and Papoutsis have 13 London sites and expect to hit £17m in sales in 2017.
When Meatliquor opened, Gavin Lucas, then a staff writer for Creative Review, had just launched Burgerac, his website devoted to London’s burgeoning burger scene. “Yianni’s success was to do with several factors coming together,” he says. “People lost their jobs in the recession and started to wonder if they could make a living without working for the man. Meanwhile, social media took hold; suddenly, you could turn your passion into a stall without having a bricksand-mortar premises, without hiring a brand agency to get the word out.”
The era also created a generation of 20- and 30-somethings keen to eat restaurant food that was both affordable and worthy of Instagram. Polpo founder Russell Norman, who launched the first of his unpretentious Italian restaurants in Soho in 2009, joined the London burger boom by opening a Brooklyn-style diner, Spuntino, two years later. “People still wanted to eat out,” he says, “but it was more acceptable to spend money in scruffy places like ours, where the average bill was low, than in more formal places. The value-added, fun element meant you were still getting an experience that helped lift the recession blues in an appropriate, unflashy way ... A meal at Meatliquor is as much about the story, the design, the tonguein-cheek attitude and the service-withswagger as the excellent grub.”
In the months and years after Meatliquor’s launch, a string of premium burger joints opened across London and the UK. Some, like Patty & Bun and Honest Burger, have grown into thriving chains. Others, like
Lucky Chip and Bleecker Burger,
(below left) Papoutsis; burger Byron’s B-rex