Patty & Bun is emerging from its status as cult burger bar to established player with almost a dozen sites. Founder Joe Grossman reflects on the roller-coaster ride in the early years and how he has combined focus and mayhem to build a brand with lasting cool. Finn Scott-Delany reports

Patty & Bun looks, from the outside, like a brand that can hardly put a foot wrong. Emerging from the street food scene, it has grown carefully and confidently from early cult status into an established brand in London, all while maintaining its cool reputation through festivals, pop-ups and collaborations.

Earlier this year, it took its first step outside London, opening in Brighton, a move founder Joe Grossmann describes as an emotional landmark.

And now, seven years after it was founded, Patty & Bun it is on the verge of its most ambitious challenge yet – opening a large two-floor site in Borough High Street, that will include a takeaway, restaurant and see it take on the breakfast market for the first time.

Grossman, who seems to have lost none of the exuberance that propelled him into London’s A-list of new-wave operators, is brimming with nervous excitement at the prospect.

And with a site at Television Centre on Wood Lane, west London, also recently opening its doors, he reflects on the various milestones achieved in the three years since MCA last spoke him, during which time Patty & Bun has grown from a four-site operator to approaching 11.

Landmark sites

“We started on a journey where we wanted to do a really great indie burger joint, and it all spiralled from there,” he says.

“People think we’re growing quickly, but I don’t think we are. That said we do have a pretty aggressive couple of months coming up.”

One such milestone was Brighton. Grossman says: “It’s an emotional landmark, and the culmination of the past three years and how we’ve progressed the team, the vibe, operationally.

“Brighton is like launching the brand again. It’s a sensitive place with tight-knit community. That’s how we try and open a site – to be part of the environment.

“The last thing we wanted to do was show up like London bobby big balls!”

With Borough the next big project on the cards, the brand is trying to do something completely different. He describes it as a combination of Patty sites, like a two in one, with a “super hard core streamlined” version of Liverpool Street, geared towards breakfast and takeaway on the ground floor, and downstairs a “pimped-up” version of James Street, with a 5m-high ceiling, and room for 40 covers.

“In terms of the position, pitch and amount we’re trying to do, it’s definitely our most ambitious site yet,” he says.

“I love the idea of challenges and this is a super exciting site on a great pitch. If we get it right, it will be great, but we need to make sure we learn all the lessons.”

The site is something of homecoming for Grossman, who first dipped his toe into the world of hospitality with a job in the kitchen at Roast in Borough Market.

It is also an opportunity for new menu items, with breakfast including tater tots – a hash brown-type grated potato set in duck fat and deep fried – sausage, bacon and vegetarian patties, and omelettes with tomato compote, as well as filter and espresso coffee from Allpress.

The desire to do things differently and keep it interesting is one that has characterised Patty & Bun’s journey – but Grossman is aware of the risk of failure.

“We are really excited to be doing breakfast, but we have to nail it. It has to be accessible, and it needs gravitas and a ‘cravability’ factor,” he says.

“Patty & Bun is known for eat-in and takeaway burgers with great vibes, and the hardest thing is you’re trying to change the identity of what we do at the site.

“If you don’t do it to best of ability and for right reasons, there’s no point.”

Taking risks

It was this eagerness to innovate and take risks that may have led to Patty’s only real misstep.

When the group took on a tiny site in Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, Grossman saw as an opportunity to try something different.

The plans was to do a speakeasy bar, with a stripped-back on-brand menu of sharing plates, with more space in the basement.

“It basically didn’t work. Simply put, it was a shit show!

“People came in, and they were just confused. They didn’t know if it was a bar or a restaurant.

“It was a stark reality check, and brilliantly illustrated how strong our brand presence was.

“That was an example in my evolution of me trying to push it too far.”

After failing to make the format work, the company reverted back to a more familiar Patty & Bun offer and it was business as usual.

He adds: “Maybe if it wasn’t called Patty & Bun, we would have crushed it!

“But if we hadn’t done it then, I might have done it further down the line, and it would have created more stress. There’s no perfect way of doing things. It’s a continuous learning curve.”

‘Lunacy’ helps momentum

Grossman admits the early days were frantic and naive – and that he still keeps some of that “lunacy” to push the brand forward.

Before getting a proper central kitchen for example, the team would prep through the night ahead of festivals, in the tiny Liverpool Street site.

“People were in tears, it was a roller-coaster. You live and learn,” he says.

“The early days were pretty hairy – in a great way. But it was rough and ready. The whole food scene has changed a lot.

“It was amazing, we were a lot more naive. I was basically just a complete lunatic.

“I still have a bit of mayhem in me, but a touch more reserve and focus.

“You’re starting from passion. You can’t build a restaurant business without complete belief. You have to try and push every day.”

Wider market

Does he have any concerns about the wider problems in casual dining, in particular a slow down in burgers?

Not particularly – he says he is too focus-ed on creating unique restaurants to worry too much about what others are doing.

“When we launched, Byron was at the early stages and still semi cool. What they did was really good, but it turned into crazy growth for growth’s sake.

“When you’re that big you can’t change, you can’t go back and become cool and do funky stuff.

“We don’t compare ourselves to them, it’s a different culture and demographic. We want to keep that indie cult feel.”

The future

How does Grossman sum up what Patty & Bun does and what shape it will take in the future?

“We use the word ‘dynamic’, we’re constantly moving and progressing,” he says.

“We don’t need to open two or three sites a year, though there did come a point when we tripled in a year. There were growing pains. But we are like a family-run business, it’s a tight-knit crew. You’re only as good as the people around you.”

He accepts it is much harder for up-and-coming operators to get into bricks and mortar, with many now taking the route of food halls and street food markets.

But, he believes there are still opportunities out there for those willing to put in the hard yards.

“You need luck and timing. In terms of barriers to entry, there weren’t as many then as there are now,” he explains.

“But you need to have a knock-out product. You need a full idea of how you’re going to evolve that into a site and operate as a business.

“Back in the day, you had a bit more time to get momentum going and learning. Now you have to hit the ground running.

“You’ve got to be fully dedicated, 110% all in.”

While previously ruling out regional expansion, Grossman hints there could be further regional sites after Brighton, with Manchester a possibility.

And his long-held ambition to go to the States would also become more achievable with long-term collaborator Swingers announcing its first US site.