Burger kings

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

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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,

Yianni Meatliquor’s

(below left) Papout­sis; burger By­ron’s B-rex

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