For countless operators across the sector, the extent of their ambition through the coronavirus crisis amounts to one thing – surviving.
And rightly so. Faced with a three-month closure and a complete collapse in like-for-likes overnight, even to survive this period would be no mean feat for many businesses.
But as co-founder Philip Eeles tells MCA, Honest Burgers isn’t one of them.
Since closing its entire estate at the end of March, the Active Partners-backed burger brand has reopened 28 of its 37 restaurants for delivery, and as Eeles reveals, is already trading at 50% of its pre-coronavirus sales.
And because of its relatively comfortable cash position – the business didn’t have to take on any debt throughout the crisis – Eeles explains that to an extent, the lockdown has been somewhat of an opportunity.
“We’ve had a chance to pause our business which is an absolute gift,” he says. “In the last five years of Honest I’ve always thought how great it would be to pause for a few months, not have to worry about banks or investors and focus on how we can be more dynamic.”
“In the last few months we’ve done some of the most dynamic, entrepreneurial things that we’ve done since starting the business.”
One of those things is the creation of its new chicken spin-off concept, Honest Chicken, which Eeles says has been approached with the same optimistic risk-taking attitude ingrained in the running of the brand.
“We just thought, why not? What’s the worst that could happen? What have we got to lose?
“I think sometimes people overthink stuff. We certainly didn’t overthink it when we opened Honest in Brixton nine years ago, we just did it and here we are.”
“We’re not in a bad cash position so we’re thinking let’s innovate, let’s be nimble and let’s crack on.”
With two Honest Chicken’s operating out of previous Honest Burger sites through Deliveroo – in Waterloo and Kings Cross – Eeles reveals that there are plans to open one more “and then see from there.”
Judging by the consumer responses to previous Honest fried chicken burger specials the sites are likely to prove profitable, but he explains that the primary objective in diversifying the brand was to get staff back into their jobs as soon as possible.
“It’s all about trying to create opportunities to get people into work,” he says. “And if we can open a couple of Honest Chicken’s where we wouldn’t necessarily open a beef burger site right now, then that’s another six or seven people back into jobs, and that’s the most important thing.”
“Obviously before we grow Honest Chicken we’ve got to make sure people love it. Deliveroo isn’t really the best way to test a concept but it gives us the opportunity to tweak operational things and we’re still learning.”
With the 4 July reopening date inching ever closer, this delivery-only test and learn phase may not last too long, but despite having reopened the majority of its sites for takeaway, Eeles intends to take a slow and cautious approach to the return of dine-in.
The business plans to open “four or five” restaurants next Saturday, all of which will those already open for delivery.
“We’re going to go in phases and start with the ones that are usually slightly quieter,” he says. “We need to give ourselves a chance to work out how to manage the queue and keep distancing.”
Unlike many restaurant operators who will require pre-bookings upon reopening, Honest has opted instead for a virtual queueing app, which will be able to manage and hold customer details both in-store and for delivery.
“We’ve never done pre-bookings because it doesn’t really work for us,” he explains. “People should be able to join the virtual queue from their home if they’re close enough, or they can come down to the restaurants and we’ll take their name.
“Being able to manage the flow of people coming to the door for various things will be the make or break.
“We feel like on that Saturday there’s a chance that it could go quite mental, so my gut is saying we have to be careful and make sure that we’re ready for it.
“But we’re going into this next stage with a pretty open mind and there are loads of good things going on at Honest right now.
“We’re going to do some pretty bold stuff, so watch this space.”
THE BIG INTERVIEW
Honest Burgers co-founder Phillip Eeles: “Let’s innovate, let’s be nimble, and let’s crack on”
For countless operators across the sector, the extent of their ambition through the coronavirus crisis amounts to one thing – surviving. And rightly so. Faced with a three-month closure and a complete collapse in like-for-likes overnight, even to survive this period would be no mean feat for many businesses. But as co-founder Philip Eeles tells MCA, Honest Burgers isn’t one of them. Because of its relatively comfortable cash position, Eeles explains that to an extent, the lockdown has been somewhat of an opportunity.“We’ve had a chance to pause our business which is an absolute gift,” he says.“In the last few months we’ve done some of the most dynamic, entrepreneurial things that we’ve done since starting the business.”