Bleecker Burger may have one of the best quality burgers on the market – but is that enough? Founder Zan Kaufman grapples with high expectations, relinquishing responsibility and building a culture that goes beyond a world-class burger. 

When we meet at Bleecker Burger’s office HQ, in the WeWork Bishopsgate building, Zan Kaufman technically shouldn’t even be there.

The founder still has a month of maternity leave left to take, but has been dipping in and out of work, probably doing “more than she realises” according to brand director and shareholder Liam O’Keefe.

Needless to say, Kaufman says the experience of parenthood has left her tired – but it makes for a contemplative exchange. With a reputation as a straight talking former corporate lawyer from New York, Kaufman is in a more thoughtful, soul searching mood.

And the interview comes at a key juncture for the business, as it emerges from start-up operator to more established player and prepares to open its biggest footfall site yet in Westfield London.

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Street food origins

One of a golden generation of street food concepts, Bleecker built a reputation for one of the most uncompromising burgers in London, based on a no-frills formula of patty, bun and cheese.

Sourced from native bred, well-aged beef, Bleecker’s burger is known as high in quality and deep in flavour, with no elaborate garnishes or sauces to hide behind.

Graduating from a street food truck to a unit in Spitalfields Market, this was followed by indoor shops in Victoria and in Bloomberg Arcade, in quick succession. Westfield will follow a pause for breath, which has seen Bleecker establish its existing sites and bolster the senior team with some experienced hires.

With the quality of the burger the main focus of the business so far, Kaufman is only now finding space to build on other elements that make a successful hospitality business – though the pressure to deliver excellence is ever present.

“Most of the pressure comes from myself,” she says. “In the beginning it was easy. We were doing everything we could to make a burger that would make people instantly know they were eating something different – the burger they hadn’t met yet in their entire life.

“As we’ve grown, it’s become more about profitability, longevity and people. With those factors in the mix, everything has become a lot more complicated and needs more thinking and planning.”

Thinking and planning – and indeed taking time out of the business she founded – has become infinitely more possible with the appointment of Nicola Pegues, the Byron and Nando’s alumni, who came in earlier this year as head of operations.

It’s a position Kaufman has always struggled with, due to her gravitating towards ops – though the high calibre appointment provides a strong counterweight to this tendency, and allows the founder to concentrate on property, investment and culture.

“Ops is where I felt most comfortable and most natural,” Kaufman says. “So to relinquish it was difficult. I’d hand over the reins but not really. It was a constant issue with new people.”

Pegues’ background at Nando’s was a big draw, with Kaufman hailing it as a restaurant “I always feel safe in”. She has provided a critical voice to Kaufman’s conventional wisdom, which has led to some soul searching about the best way to expand, and indeed Bleecker’s entire operating model.

“I always want really small sites,” Kaufman says. “I want it to be busy, chaotic and exciting, and always be a bit too big for the space you’re in.

“Nicola has questioned that. We need more space for the team. It’s a hard environment. It’s hot. They don’t have their own room. The pressures build up and it becomes harder to operate in a space that gets busier and busier. She really comes from the team’s perspective.”

It’s just one of the questions Kaufman is grappling with as she begins to reacclimatise back into the business. Yet it’s also part of a wider shift for the American as she takes a more CEO-like, big picture view.

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Kaufman admits she has spent so much time agonising over building the perfect burger, there’s been a game of catch up with other more conventional business tenets.

“In the beginning we were so food focused, that’s all we saw. It’s kept the food to a very high standard, but also left gaps that we’re now filling. We’re now circling back a bit, through our systems, financials and targets.”

Beyond the product

While Kaufman would never admit to being perfectly satisfied with the burger – “If you start thinking the food’s done, you’re done” – she’s happy they are pushing for it to be as good as it can be.

Alongside a relentless focus on the hero product, with a very tight menu, short on gimmicks and garnishes, Kaufman is now thinking more about culture and company vision.

“We have a great burger, but so what? It started to become not enough. We started to talk about other things. Diversity and inclusion came up a lot. Where our vision was originally about food, we started to incorporate these ideas. We knew it needed to be more than just burgers.”

Kaufman has used her platform as a female leader in a male-dominated industry, and origins in the media-friendly street food scene, to promote this vision.

It is always a work in progress though, and while the head office has a female majority, she is bothered that it is all-white.

“Culture is something I didn’t start thinking about it until a year and half ago,” she says. “We were doing it but I wasn’t consciously thinking about how to incorporate it into the daily life of the business.”

Dealing with everything on the other side of the counter, brand director Liam O’Keefe has a unique insider-outside perspective on the business.

Originally a burger blogger and customer of Bleecker, he came on board at the street food market stage and tries to keep in mind this original consumer view. Even in those early days he recalls concern about developing the operation without Zan’s presence there every day.

“When it started, there was excitement among the team because Zan was there every day. When she stopped at the truck, I wondered whether Bleecker could survive, because her personality coming through was a given.”

In actual fact, those early days were a baptism of fire, which have made the foundations stronger. “The truck’s a really tight space, you had to get along or it wouldn’t work,” he says. “Street food is hard. You grow from that.

“Now we ask, how can we replicate that at bigger sites? How can we create that team environment, while staying true to the Bleecker beginnings?”

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As the man in charge of brand and marketing, O’Keefe knows only too well how high expectations are and the pressure this creates.

“I’ve seen people land at Heathrow and come into London just for a Bleecker Burger, and then flying out. That’s a lot of pressure on meat and bun. That expectation needs to be there for every single burger. You never know who you’re serving. Everyone needs to be treated the same.”

While the offering is super concise, O’Keefe says it makes it more of a challenge because there’s nowhere to hide.

“Being boring, keeping a tight menu, it’s hard to be disciplined,” he says. “We know if we added things it would add a few more sales, but it’s too good a burger and too good a business to go off and lose focus.”

Kaufman agrees, and sees no reason to drastically shake up the counter service operating model. “Simplicity, being really unambiguous, we do a few things and do them really well. Let’s not cloud the picture. That’s a really important brand value.”

At Westfield, Bleecker will go head to head with the likes of Five Guys, and open what Kaufman calls “our true format”.

It plans to open 10 outlets in London, with the possibility of spreading further afield, though perhaps more likely international than regional.

Needless to say, this idea will only take shape if the same quality can be maintained. As Kaufman says, she simply “wouldn’t feel confident expanding a burger that wasn’t awesome”.