Neat Burger Camden-1

The timing of London’s tier 3 announcement couldn’t have been worse for Neat Burger.

Launched in September last year, the plant-based burger concept’s first site was only six months old before the pandemic hit, forcing it to shift its then ambitious growth strategy of expanding to a further five dine-in sites in 2020 to fit a dramatically different marketplace.

Nevertheless, the business pushed on, launching two dark kitchens in Battersea and Whitechapel earlier this year, and a further two bricks-and-mortar restaurants – to join its original Mayfair restaurant - in Camden and Soho.

Located on Old Compton street in the former Herman ze German site, with its capacity for outside seating and guaranteed through-traffic of Christmas shoppers, co-founder Stasi Nychas had hoped that the all-new Neat Burger Soho would benefit from what’s left of trade in the capital.

That was before Monday’s announcement in the Commons.

Less than 24 hours after the restaurant opened its doors, health secretary Matt Hancock announced London’s “imminent” entry into the highest tier, forcing the business to remove its dine-in operations just days after launch.

“Out of all the announcements, I was the most frustrated this time,” Nychas tells MCA. “Retail is allowed to stay open, and that’s great for them, but I don’t understand why the hospitality industry is being targeted.

“We’re one of the safest environments and we’ve followed all of the rules, but we’re being told to shut down when people are still shopping and the streets are still full, we just can’t take advantage of it.”

Though the site’s initial plans to go alfresco haven’t come to pass, Nychas says the business will be “pushing through” under the latest restrictions, keeping all three restaurants open for click and collect, takeaway and delivery.

“To say it’s not a challenge would be a lie,” he says. “But it’s how we adapt to it that matters. We’re implementing all the measures that we can to bring revenue into the stores.”

Neat Burger

Supported by a click and collect app, delivery capabilities and with self-order kiosks in each Neat Burger site, the brand is well equipped to adapt to whichever tier it finds itself in, but by nature of its location, Nychas says it is still feeling the impact of the capital’s fall in footfall.

“The biggest impact has been the loss of offices and tourists,” he says. “When we were in lockdown, and now in tier 3, sales drop a lot and delivery takes over to be about 70% of trade.

“We’re not on last year’s numbers, but when everyone is allowed to dine-in and eat, numbers are decent. It’s just about adapting and implementing all the means we can to get through this.”

Backed by the likes of Lewis Hamilton, The Cream Group and investors including Unicef Ambassador and early backer of Beyond Meat, Tommaso Chiabra, the business is in a strong position to weather the next few months, and whilst the pandemic has “slowed things down” in terms of expansion, it has by no means curbed Neat Burger’s ambitions.

The business has already secured two further London locations – in Canary Wharf and Victoria – which it intends to move into in early 2021, “and we have a few other sites in fantastic locations lined up where we’re finalising terms,” Nychas says.

Akin to its initial growth plans, the business is now looking to open another “five or six” UK sites in 2021, and Nychas adds that with expansion opportunities in the US and elsewhere, “the UK market won’t be the only one we’re in next year.”

“There will definitely be room for brands to grow and expand off the back of this, and if the right opportunities come up for Neat Burger, we will be looking to start those conversations,” he says.

“The plant-based, sustainable ethos and message that we have has grown through the pandemic, and I think people will start to be more conscious coming out of this and look at us as a great alternative.

“We plan to grow and grow, until we are the market-leading plant-based burger chain in the UK, and abroad.”