Like any crowded market place there is a greater need for branded operators to differentiate themselves and raise their heads above the proverbial parapet to be seen. In the opinion of Stephen Evans, development director at Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK), three clear markets have now emerged

As dangerous as it is, I’ve been thinking… restaurant brands and concepts are more like London buses than most people think. Save Gondolas first attempt at entering the burger market with their Jo Shmo concept and the evolution of the food led pub, Gourmet Burger Kitchen had enjoyed 10 uninterrupted years as a market leader and innovator before the arrival of as many burgers as Vauxhall Cross has buses! Honest ones, American ones, Homemade, Handmade, barely made, it seems everyone is seeking a piece of what is highly regarded as a culinary institution.

Recent activity

The last 12 months has seen possibly the biggest flurry of activity in the burger market yet. Byron ventured further north with openings in Manchester’s Deansgate and Liverpool One and the long awaited sale was finally completed at an impressive EBITDA multiplier. After 12 months of media speculation and hype, ‘the Americans’ finally arrived in Central London with Five Guys taking the former Long Acre Bar and Shake Shack within Covent Garden Piazza.

Whilst it is understood that both are trading well the food reviews have been less than favourable. Dirty Burger opened in a genius of a site behind Vauxhall Station with further sites understood to be under consideration, the third instalment of the Honest Burger march opened in Notting Hill in October and Meat Liquor have partially opened their Brighton restaurant, the first outside the capital with another under offer in Leeds Trinity. 

Who, what, where and when

Despite the obvious challenges of a crowded marketplace, the increased competition and conversation within the burger market has actually served to raise the profile of the humble burger and has certainly ensured that the quality of the product is second to none. The general demand from the A3 sector, but more specifically the burger market, has had a more adverse effect on the property market with competition for sites in good locations at an all-time high leading to some questionable premiums and rents being paid. Landlords, however, have been happy to see more operators in the market, especially those looking to improve the quality and choice within their estate.

Spot the black sheep

Like any crowded market place there is a greater need for branded operators to differentiate themselves and raise their heads above the proverbial parapet to be seen. In my opinion, three clear markets have now emerged:

McDonalds et al – self-explanatory, I guess, but essentially the traditional fast food market and the original founders of the burger sector.  Natural habitat - food courts, retail / leisure parks and have a very distinct focus on driving a value proposition.  Cheeseburgerometer – McDonalds (£3.50), Burger King (£3.79).

Traditional Mid-Market – a sector that originated with Gourmet Burger Kitchen in 2001 but now includes Byron in the south (and heading North), Handmade in the North (and heading South) and now, of course, ‘the Americans’. Natural habitat - traditional high street locations, shopping centres Cheeseburgerometer – GBK (£7.95), Byron (£7.95), Handmade (£6.85), Five Guys (£8.00).

The Trendies – here there is a focus and a great deal of pride in starting and remaining small and independent. Natural habitat is ‘up and coming’ areas such as Brixton or Shoreditch or established niche locations like Soho or Notting Hill. Cheeseburgerometer – Honest Burger (£8.00), Tommi’s Burger (£6.50), Dirty Burger (£5.50)

Whatever your angle, the consumer choice has never been greater and the expectation in terms of food quality and customer experience never higher resulting in the whole industry raising their game. Any brand that chooses to rest on their laurels and ignore the world around them does so at their peril!

London and beyond

An organisation growing any brand is a challenging feat, taking that concept outside its geographical comfort zone, wherever that might be, is a whole new challenge. It took GBK 5 years and 10 restaurants to venture outside the M25 and even then it was a 45min train ride to Brighton. Byron didn’t have as much luck with their first attempt, closing Guildford shortly after opening. They seem, however, to have found their stride again and are slowly easing themselves into ‘nationwide brand’ status.

Whatever your beef the challenges are the same… how do you extend your supply chain and maintain quality? How do you keep up operational standards for remote sites? How will customers react to your brand? What are the associated costs with a larger geographical spread? How do you instil and protect the brand values you have with 2 sites when you grow to 10? Nobody has a text book answer on these issues, and each issue will have a greater impact depending on your operation. But for those who are able to crack the code, the rewards will be plentiful.

Those who find success in growing a brand will need to keep more than a passing glance on the needs of the consumer and the brand, its values and product will need to be as fresh on the tenth anniversary as they were at inception. GBK have been quietly refurbishing their estate over the last 18months and have just launched a new fascia and logo, the first rebrand in its 12 year history.

There are many other examples of successful rebrand and reposition exercises, however in my opinion the greatest of them all is that of McDonalds following the documentary film ‘Super-Size Me’. By 2015 they hope to have rebranded and refurbished all 14,000 of their stores, turning themselves from a traditional fast food concept into a reputable all day food offer, selling more coffee in the UK than Starbucks. Whichever your burger preference, even the finest burger connoisseur can appreciate such an outstanding transformation.