Britain and the Gourmet Burger - A Love Story

Britons and burgers have enjoyed a long and harmonious relationship since the days when Wimpy and independent burger vans ruled the streets. Recently however, the burger has enjoyed newfound popularity in its latest form, made from prime cuts of meat and fresh ingredients. Gareth Samuel investigates our evolving love affair with the gourmet burger.

In June this year, The Guardian, reported that the public are turning down traditional fast food options in favour of the array of gourmet burger chains that are popping up all over the country.

This trend is personified by the rapid expansion of Byron and Gourmet Burger Kitchen, who, along with U.S. alternatives, including newly launched Steak ‘n Shake, Five Guys and Shake Shack, have both thrown their hat into the ring to be recognised as the restaurant that serves the UK’s best burger.

Director of Operations of Five Guys UK, John Eckbert, believes that it is a universal push for better consumables across the market that is attracting the attention, and the custom, of the British public. He says: “I guess part of it is that the burger has always been a great product, popular with both Americans and the British alike. I think some of the entry level burger places may have grown a bit too familiar and so we are seeing this massive drive to quality right across the board.”

“If I can pay a little bit more, within the same price range, for a far better quality product, made with better ingredients, then I am going to do so.”

Exactly what qualifies as a gourmet burger is debatable as some restaurants use more expensive and exclusive ingredients than others. However Steak ‘n Shake founder, Gus Belt, laid a reasonable claim to have pioneered the concept of the premium burger in 1934 and the brand have come along way since, having crossed the pond and begun franchising throughout the UK.

In November last year, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, one of the UK’s most popular restaurant chains, announced expansion plans to the scale of five new restaurants by February 2013, with many more to come later in the year. The chain is riding high on this wave of public demand for gourmet burgers with UK consumers.

As is natural with any expanding market, businesses come in to meet demand. In the battle for gourmet burger market share, popular London restaurants, MEATliquor and Patty and Bun are expanding, while Five Guys, the U.S. burger chain that President Obama is particularly fond of and Shake Shack have both opened stores in Covent Garden in London and are expecting to replicate their US popularity this side of the Atlantic.

While the battle for market share heats up, the war for the title of ‘best burger’ has been raging for years. The Internet is saturated with lists from self proclaimed ‘burger experts’ giving their opinions on who makes the best burger.

Burger chains have shown their intent to feature high on these lists by constantly releasing new products to tempt consumers with new themed burgers and innovative products and meal options. Hache’s Steak Louisiana comes with peanut butter and melted cheese, while GBK’s Kiwi Burger comes with beetroot, egg, pineapple and cheese and even helps fight the extinction of the kiwi bird.
Adam Roberts of Epicurious.co.uk believes our love of the burger comes from its convenience, reflecting a typical 21st century lifestyle: “It’s not just that burgers are cheap, it’s that they’re easy to eat. Because the meat is ground up, you don’t have to do much chewing.

“There’s no cutting, only lifting. And because burgers come with an array of sides, you can build yours to your own taste. That’s appealing too.”

Gourmet burger chains provide all the taste options and convenience of traditional high street burger restaurants, but with better quality ingredients and a pleasant restaurant atmosphere – they combine two of the most desirable traits consumers are looking for from a culinary experience.

John Eckbert adds: “The Five Guys concept is about making a burger that you would make your mum on a Sunday afternoon if she came over for dinner. Using the best meats and ingredients, we have distributed this concept through a sustainable business model.”

To gourmet burger chains, differentiation from traditional fast food restaurants serving more standardised burgers is an issue of paramount importance. Typically, everything from the unquestionably trendy interior design to the artisan ingredients used for each option on the meticulously designed menu in a gourmet burger restaurant is wildly different from a traditional fast food establishment. Gourmet Burger restaurants aim to provide a resolutely higher quality restaurant experience.

“It took us the best part of a year to find the right supplier,” explains John. “Most of the beef in the UK comes from grass-fed cows and it didn’t really suit the Five Guys burger flavour, so eventually we sourced our meat from a supplier in Ireland. We don’t do things like milkshakes or coffee or sandwiches because it takes a lot of effort to make sure those things are done really well. We want to make sure that the hamburger we sell is the best around – that is what is going to make us famous.”

In July this year, the emerging gourmet burger market took a different turn and went mobile. Gourmet Burger delivery company, Chosen Bun, opened up a delivery service whereby their burgers are delivered on bicycles to door in a two-mile radius of the restaurant.

Co-founder, Andy Shovel, told The Telegraph: “It slowly dawned on me that no one has ever taken the problem of delivering burgers by the horns and nailed it. So that’s what we’ve done.”

Better burger chains are setting up locations all over England as investors and managers rush to give the public what they clearly want. Five Guys have pledged to add to their solitary store with five stores in just a few months to begin with, Byron, GBK and MEATLiquor are also planning rapid-expansion.

As Britons consume, record and compare the host of better burgers that are quickly becoming a UK staple meal option, investing in a burger franchise like Steak ‘n Shake is likely to be a smart move for successful entrepreneurs. One thing, however, is beyond dispute – Britain’s better burger chains are here to stay.