Tom Byng, the founder of Byron, likes to keep things simple, “just talk plain English, your teams will understand that” is one example of that point, but what happens when your trusted head of food and fellow burger expert falls foul to some office b******t bingo?

Byng says: “We are not seasoned restaurant chain executives. Our mantra is to keep talking common sense. We do play quite a lot of b******t bingo in the office. I caught Fred (Smith), our chef, saying the other day ‘of course in terms of future-proofing the menu’. I said ‘chef, there needs to be a forfeit for that!’ The key thing there is everyone was having a giggle about it, if I had been the only one laughing, something isn’t working.”

Almost two years on from the sale of the business by the then Cinven-backed Gondola to private equity group Hutton Collins in a deal valued at c£100m, it is clear that Byng’s philosophy is still very much working. The group recently opened its 52nd site and plans 15 openings a year going forward, with an international play a question of when, not if. It posted turnover of £55.3m in its past financial year and it is safe to say it is on track to post another impressive figure when it updates at the start of next month. A lot has happened to the company, Byng and the UK eating-out market during the past 18 months, including the state of the M&A market.

Relief and excitement

Looking back at October 2013, the interesting thing about that period of time is that the sector was coming from a period of no deals, activity was just beginning to get going with the deals for Côte and Byron standing out in a barren transaction landscape. Byng says: “We used the phrase that speedboats are not compatible with supertankers, eg, Byron and Gondola. The timing of the sale was right for us as a business, as a management team, and ultimately Gondola and Cinven as shareholders, and how they maximised the value out of all the businesses they had at that time (PizzaExpress, ASK and Zizzi).”

Byng says he had about 12 hours to reflect on the change of ownership, which brought overarching feelings of relief and excitement. “The relief of knowing you could get on with your day job again. Anyone who has been involved in a process will tell you, that no matter how hard you try to not make it a distraction, it will be and takes up a lot of time and energy. Excitement that we had the opportunity to continue the plan and story with a dedicated partner rather than being a small cog in a bigger wheel. We were a shiny toy in a new box with people who are 100% focused on our plans.”

Hutton Collins seems the ideal partner, providing plenty of experience in the sector, with as, Byng points out, the right kind of businesses – Wagamama, PizzaExpress. He says: “They understood the business and the opportunity. They are really easy to work with. It is incredible how often they are found eating burgers in restaurants, I am almost in awe of their commitment to that! We have no problems in terms of funding and they have been hugely supportive of me as a founder/chief executive.”

He admits that there was a part of proving themselves outside the Gondola umbrella to the new owners. “One of the things we had to prove, as part of the sales process, was how fully stand-alone we could be from the structural perspective,” he says.

“In the first six months that was what Hutton Collins was most focused on. Culturally, Byron has always stood alone. Six months later they turned around and said it was a lot smoother than they thought it would be, which was a compliment to us as a team, but also what we sold was what we said it was. You have to give credit to the good parenting of Harvey (Smyth, chief executive of Gondola) and Gondola for a lot of that. We built the business entrepreneurially but with much firmer foundations than another entrepreneurial operation would have enjoyed.”

The group operated 34 sites when it was sold, it now has a full deck, with each card carrying the address and booking number of a restaurant. The company is now working on a new deck and Byng is rightly proud of the “steady, proper growth” the company has undergone.

In terms of changes to how Byng works since the Hutton Collins deal, he says it more about the team now. He says: “It has been about building a market-leading team (appointments have included Mike Williams as people director and Amanda Royston as marketing director. That has allowed me to really focus on the vision, a dead-simple, razor-sharp vision. Also it has allowed me to become a chief storyteller and visit all the restaurants as much as I can. My three real strong points are people, food and customers. I have to go out to inspire and, as the founder, I have the credibility to do that. I think it is really important for senior management to be visible to the people who actually deliver the experiences that makes the business work.”

Byng says that his role during the past two years has also been about developing a world-class team that is not just set up to go from 60 to 70 to 80 restaurants but to go beyond 100 sites.

He continues: “It is also to have a relentless focus on standards and consistency, driven by great people. Great people is about the culture in the business and answering the question ‘what is your business about?’ Then how you recruit them, train them, reward them and develop them. You hear it again and again, it is not rocket science in terms of principle, but putting it into practice is key and we are relentless about making sure that happens. The energy around that can never drop.”

Alternative progression

Like Wahaca, you get the feeling that Byron doesn’t struggle to attract staff, but it is what it does with them from there that has seen staff turnover for managers come in at 25%, against the 66% industry average. Managers at Byron are put on a six-to-seven week training programme, with the company choosing one restaurant as a training centre within each area, which will then be run by a “really strong team”. In terms of new restaurant teams at floor and back-of-house level, it starts recruitment for that as far out as 10 weeks before an opening. In the regions, they will get two weeks of training in which they will come to London, see how the business works and be trained there.

Byng says: “We want them to come and see and feel the brand. We always try to get 50% of a management team in new openings being existing Byron lifers. The progression through the business is not like other businesses that talk about being a waiter, then junior manager, then general manager, then ops manager. Actually it is not about that at all, it is about building 20 odd steps, which allows people to progress properly. We tend to go from floor to supervisor to assistant to deputy to GM in small restaurants, to GM in bigger restaurants, to a restaurant out of town, to a new opening, to a new opening out of town, so you can give people a solid skill set across all the spectrum, whether that is a turnaround restaurant or one near a tourist location.”

Byng is quick to point out that the company has no loss-making site and in an ever-increasingly competitive market that is a badge of honour in itself. The company’s attitude has been to embrace the growing competition. It is case of ‘bring it on’ for Byng. He says: “The thing about our market is that for everybody who says it is saturated, there is someone who says there is still plenty of space/spend to go after. You only have to look at other mature markets, pizza for example. What has happened in the past four or five years is that a new category has been created in the burger market. That category is taking more and more people on a journey from what they thought a burger was to something that is infinitely more enjoyable, which they are happy to pay a bit more money for. I look at the burger competition and I see clear differentiation in terms of offer, format, menu and brand between GBK, Five Guys, MEATliquor, Honest and Ed’s.

“We are not targeting the stalwart customers of the fast-food market, but people that spend £12 to £20 on eating out. We are giving that casual-dining customer a premium burger experience that previously didn’t exist.”

Byng is relieved that the group was able to build up a flagship estate inside the M25 (where it has 37 sites at present) before the capital’s property market became “mega hot in terms of prices and availability”. He says: “Do I think there is potential for Byron to double its size within the M25? Yes I do but, in terms of delivering that, it is very much a long-term play. I don’t think it is possible to scale a brand in London any more and I think that is evidenced by lots of growing, emerging concepts stepping outside London far earlier and quicker than they normally would.

“The 25 major cities in the UK are not as hard to get into as London, but still pretty hard, certainly much harder than they were three or four years ago. The UK restaurant property landscape is changing at pace. Whereas, traditionally, people said you had to go to those 25 major cities first, you don’t need to do that any more. There is more subtlety at play. There are developments springing up where they have the right people in the right numbers where there used to be a tatty old high street. They are reflecting the changing taste of the nation. The benefit is that when you have some infrastructure, scale and confidence in your offer, and where it can go, you have a broader range of sites to choose from.”

Huge potential

The group’s next opening in Manchester’s redeveloped Corn Exchange scheme will also be its third in the city, which Byng admits is exciting, when two years ago “people were saying it is not going to work outside of London”. The company has a pipeline of 13 secured sites and is in advanced legals on almost the same number. In terms of confirmed openings, there will be launches in Bury St Edmonds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bromley and Harrogate this year. So far, secured for next year, are openings in Southampton, Farnham, Watford, Bath, Chelmsford and Worcester.

Byng says: “Being British, restrained and proper, the one thing we have never done is talk big numbers, customers aren’t interested in that, although our teams want to know whether we are ambitious and can fulfil those ambitions. Do we think this is a business with huge potential? Yes we do. Internationally, it is not about if, but when, and we get approached a lot about going overseas. However, we are obsessively focused on the main thing, which at present is Byron in the UK. When the time is right we will do some other stuff, but the time is not right.” Byng admits that this “other stuff” could also include trying a different concept. He says: “We believe in our ability to create and develop successful restaurant businesses.”

With Côte having recently changed hands, Byng is prepared for speculation to grow about whether Byron will also come back to the market quicker than expected. He says: “We have a plan and constantly re-evaluate it. We will agree the right time with Hutton Collins, but that time is not now. We are slightly different to Côte in terms of timing. The M&A market is hot. There is a range of valuations out there, with Côte representing the higher end of the market. It is still the case that you can get top dollar, but only for best in class.”

Byng’s challenge is to remain best in class and to continue to work hard to cut through “a lot of noise” the market and new competition generates. He says: “We are not sitting on our hands. There is a steely determination to create a proper restaurant business that is sustainable for not just three or five years but over multiple periods of ownership. People don’t buy unsustainable businesses.

“It is about the quality of the operation. The restaurant delivering consistent, memorable experiences for customers is the best marketing tool you can have. The rest – delivery, social media, etc, is important, but the main thing is that this is a brand that delivers consistently.”

The group’s original site in Kensington recently underwent a major refurbishment, and Byng’s philosophy hasn’t changed since its launch in 2007, let the business and not himself do the talking. “I am a hamburger man. My vision remains the same as ever – to serve consistently delicious hamburgers in beautiful, individually designed restaurants; 2013 was the year of the burger. You couldn’t move in the trade or national press for burger stories and there was a reason to raise the profile at that time. After that, it was about getting the day job back. We have got on with it.” Plain speaking everyone can understand.