Joe Grossman’s London-centric chain Patty & Bun is responding to challenges in the premium burger market with two new concepts and the launch of several vegan dishes, as Restaurant magazine’s Joe Lutrario finds out.

Patty & Bun launched its first bricks and mortar site on London’s James Street at the peak of the premium burger boom in 2012 at a time when it felt like the upmarket burger category had a bright future ahead of it. Fast forward seven or so years and the outlook for premium patties is less clement.

Several big players including Byron and Gourmet Burger Kitchen have had to significantly scale back their operations in the face of rising costs, intense competition and an overall softening of the casual dining market. And then there’s the not so small matter of the vegan movement, which is also having an impact on the burger category.

Patty & Bun’s founder Joe Grossman believes the writing was on the wall for many of the casual brands that have come unstuck over the past few years.

“Complacency is death in restaurants”, he says. “You need to be constantly striving to improve. As the last few years have shown, little things can add up over time and before you know it you’re saying ‘what the fuck happened?’. These chains that are going bust are mainly run by suits who seem to have forgotten the need to focus on product quality.”

Grossman is certainly not wearing a suit. In fact, he is as uncorporate as a man running eight successful – and private equity-backed – restaurants could conceivably be. When we meet outside his James Street site (double denim, if you were wondering) he is locked out, so much of our interview is conducted sitting outside someone else’s restaurant that is yet to open for the day.

He talks with such exuberance about his brand that he is prone to sudden increases in volume to emphasise key points. Exclamations including ‘spicy’, ‘banging’ and ‘naughty’ ring out across the Marylebone street as Grossman talks in his rapid-fire manner, stopping only occasionally to draw breath.

Surprisingly, Grossman worked in insurance prior to Patty & Bun. Less surprisingly, he absolutely hated it. Like many of its peers, Patty & Bun started life as a pop-up, trading at a number of London pubs, most notably Soho’s Endurance. James Street was an instant success and remains Patty & Bun’s highest grossing location despite having only 30 covers.

“That site just goes to show that this business is all about luck and timing,” says Grossman. “I wasn’t sure about the area at first but it was a short lease so there was an opportunity to get the site open on a shoestring budget. It’s turned out to be the best thing we’ve ever done. It’s one of the few true seven-days-a-week trading pitches in London. You have office workers, tourists and a big Middle Eastern crowd because we’re near the big department stores.”

Grossman initially resisted outside investment, organically adding two more locations including a restaurant in London Fields that also houses Patty & Bun’s centralised kitchen. But he has since taken two cash injections from New World Private Equity that has allowed the brand to expand a little quicker but still at a measured pace.

An irreverent burger brand

As one might expect from Grossman’s demeanour, Patty & Bun is one of the scene’s more irreverent and trendy burger brands and has, for the most part, managed to retain its indie feel despite it now operating a total of 12 sites (its portfolio also now includes five concessions at locations including crazy golf-concept Swingers) and a successful events business. Collaborations are a big part of keeping the brand fresh and on trend, with Patty & Bun teaming up with like-minded people and brands including Kricket, People Just Do Nothing’s Chabuddy G and, most recently, sandwich concept Morty & Bob’s.

Its relatively tight menu of burgers and a few supporting dishes is eclectic, with many dishes referencing popular culture, including the Ari Gold (a cheeseburger named after one of HBO sitcom Entourage’s more memorable characters); the Smokey Robinson (a burger involving caramelised onions and bacon named after the famous US singer and producer); Winger Winger Chicken Dinner (smoked confit’d chicken wings with barbecue sauce); and the Lambshank Redemption Burger.

It’s one of the more creative offers in the burger space, but recently Grossman and his senior team – which includes Fred Trussell, Tom Monaghan, Alex Notley and Matt Thompson – have doubled down with a fresh burst of R&D that looks to be at least partly designed to future proof the business in a rapidly changing market.

Typically located in cosmopolitan areas and with a customer base that skews heavily towards younger diners, burger chains are facing an existential crisis as more and more of their diners seek to reduce their consumption of red meat or cut it out of their diet altogether. The rumour is that rival group Honest Burger’s vegan burgers now account for 20% of its overall burger sales.

“Some are saying it’s all hype, but it’s a bit of the market that’s there for a good reason. Consumer culture is shifting. Love it or hate it, we now live in a world where everyone needs to be accessible,” says Grossman.

One of the biggest challenges for a brand like Patty & Bun that serves high quality meat – Grossman has been using HG Walter since day one – is that exploring vegan substitutes typically requires buying in processed foods.

Launched early this year, the brand’s vegan offering uses This products, which are made from soy and peas. Developed by Chosen Bun founders Andy Shovel and Pete Sharman, the products are now used in Patty & Bun’s Whoopi Gold Burger and served as chicken nuggets. This Bacon can also be added to any burger.

“We were pretty blown away when we tried them. They’ve spent a lot of time developing the product. The chicken nuggets are pretty much the same as Maccy D’s. But we’re Patty & Bun and we do great quality meat burgers. That’s what people love about us. We’re not going to get whole tables of die-hard vegans in. This is more about appealing to flexitarians.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given its catchment, the new menu items have gone down particularly well at Patty & Bun’s Brighton restaurant. The group’s first non-London restaurant opened just over a year ago and has been a bit of an eye-opener to what life can be like outside the capital.

“I love Brighton and it made a lot of sense for us because we have an ops guy who knows the city well. But it’s a lot more seasonal down there, mainly because you don’t have the office density that London has. We’ve had some tough months in which I’d describe the trading as being sporadic. But we’re happy with it; the business builds through the week and we generally have really busy weekends.”

Honest Burgers recently parking its tanks on Patty & Bun’s lawn with a Brighton restaurant just around the corner won’t have helped either.

The Brighton opening roughly coincided with two further London openings, one at the former BBC Television Centre development in west London and another near Borough Market. This, Grossman says, pushed Patty & Bun’s small ops team to the limit and has necessitated a period of reflection.

“Last year was spicy. We’ve grown a lot this year but not in terms of site numbers. The focus has been on our people and the product. Besides, we’re not looking to follow Byron and open hundreds of cookie cutter sites. That’s not us.” Patty & Bun is currently eyeing two new sites so is likely to bring its bricks and mortar business into double figures this year.

While the menus at each site are broadly the same, there is an unusual amount of variety in Patty & Bun’s estate in terms of size and feel. Some – including James Street and Old Compton Street – are small and geared towards getting customers in and out quickly, while others – including Brighton and London Fields – are larger spaces that encourage customers to make a night of it.

“They all have a different personality, which is probably a reflection of how scatty I am myself. But I’m not as loose as I was back in the day,” he says.

Stretching the concept

Grossman’s restless nature came to the fore earlier this year when he quietly converted two existing Patty & Bun locations into all-new spin-off brands: a chicken concept called Jefferies and a stripped-back burger concept called Smash Patty. Both brands trade from venues operated by Incipio Group – Jefferies at The Prince in Earl’s Court and Smash Patty at Pergola in Kensington. Jefferies is billed as an evolution of Patty & Bun’s existing chicken menu items.

“I love chicken. Our specialty is beef burgers but we’ve also done a lot of chicken at Patty & Bun. Our chicken dishes have got a cult following, the Hot Chick Burger and our wings in particular,” says Grossman.

“We were developing a few more chicken items for Patty and it occurred to us we probably had enough for a standalone chicken place. That coincided with Charlie [Gardiner, the owner of Incipio Group] wanting to freshen things up at some of the sites.”

Chicken burgers at Jefferies include the eponymous Jeffery (fried chicken thigh, smoked garlic aioli, Matt’s hot sauce, picked red onions, potato bun); and Hercules! (fried chicken thigh, ranch mayo, hot butter sauce, Jefferies pickle relish, potato bun).

Smash Patty, meanwhile, offers a menu of just four burgers, with Grossman open about the fact that the new concept is a homage to Danny Meyer’s US-founded Shake Shack.

“We love smashed burgers. Shake Shack was a big inspiration, as was HG Walter, who sent us some outrageous hand-chopped Dexter mince that works brilliantly smashed on the hotplate. The potato and buttermilk buns are unreal, too. Our Entry burger is just bun, sauce and meat. There’s nowhere to hide.”

Both concepts are pitched at a slightly lower price point, serving burgers for between £7 and £8 (Patty & Bun burgers average out at a little over £9). Both concepts could eventually feed into Patty & Bun’s delivery offering – run on an exclusive basis with Deliveroo – with Jeffries currently on trial at the group’s London Fields site.

Delivery accounts for up to 40% of sales at that location but the group average is more like 15% to 18%. Grossman doesn’t do any Deliveroo Editions sites but he did recently go into Food Stars’ Battersea dark kitchen and is eyeing a launch of Jeffries there.

Could either Jeffries or Smash Patty eventually get their own bricks and mortar proper? “Never say never. It’s a funny one. When you launch into places like The Prince and Pergola you’re going to get great sales straight away. The wider market is different now, there are more barriers and risks involved when trying to launch restaurants than there were when we started Patty seven years ago. Smash Patty would also be a slight conflict of interests. It will be interesting to see how Jefferies evolves. I’m up for trying new things. If it doesn’t work then at least you’ve given it a go.”