The Rise-And-Rise Of The Humble Burger

How did the humble (greasy, fattening, delicious) hamburger become 2013's foodie phenomenon?

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We’ve all been there. You’re working late in the office. You’re hungry. It’ll be too late to eat once you get home and if you nip out for a quick bite in a restaurant it’ll just mean staying longer. Might as well call out for takeaway. Where’s that burger menu? 

At around 10pm on Tuesday 25 June, in a central London conference room, one overworked 42-year-old executive took delivery of his evening meal: a hamburger and fries from the Waterloo branch of Byron, the fast mushrooming chain of burger restaurants. He ate it at the conference table, with his co-workers, the notes for a speech he was preparing to give the following day spread out before him, alongside the cardboard food containers. 

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A-ha! A perfect opportunity to TwitPic himself, burning the midnight oil like any other middle-class striver while chomping away, man-of-the-people-style, on unpretentious snack food. An indication to his followers, and the wider world, that he, like the rest of us, is diligent and dedicated, and that his tastes are typical, commonplace.

The next morning, that photo appeared on the cover of The Sun, beneath the headline “Shamburger”. The speech, it turned out, contained details of a spending review, in which our man would shortly announce an £11.5bn cut in government spending. (You’ve guessed by now that he is George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.) The burger, The Sun and every other national newspaper reported, would have cost a minimum of £6.75, the fries an extra £2.95. “If cheese is added,” The Daily Telegraph helpfully followed up, “the price of the burger rises to £7.95.” Well, fancy that.

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Clearly, the Chancellor’s latest attempt at appearing “normal”, “one of us”, had backfired spectacularly. Instead of a typical middle-class white-collar worker he was being portrayed, not for the first time, as posh, privileged and out of touch.

“I was working late on a speech and I had a hamburger,” he told Radio 4’s Today programme. “It’s perfectly reasonable to have a hamburger while working on a speech.”

Oh, but it wasn’t just a hamburger. At least, not as the world once understood them — and, in the case of The Sun et al, still understands them, as cheap and cheerful fast food. It was a gourmet burger: a cultural signifier of the urbane, foodie, metropolitan elite. Why, wondered The Sun and others, hadn’t Osborne got a takeaway from McDonald’s, for example, which is far less expensive and closer to his Whitehall office? How could the austerity Chancellor be so insensitive as to gorge on premium beef while making benefits cuts? Osborne had a perfectly reasonable answer, and he gave it to ITV’s Daybreak — “McDonald’s doesn’t deliver” (neither does Byron) — but by then it was too late. He was a gourmet burger man. McDonald’s wasn’t good enough for the likes of him.

The thing is he’s not alone — far from it. Chances are, you’re a gourmet burger man, too. In 2013, we all are. (Depending on your political bent, you may be discomfited at being bracketed with Osborne in this way. Don’t worry; cool people eat at Byron, too.) 

Suddenly, burger restaurants are no longer democratically guilty pleasures or cheap substitutes for a nourishing meal. They’re hip. They’re hard to get into. They’re patrolled by clipboard nazis and staffed by tattooed mixologists. They’re full of young, beautiful sophisticates obsessively cataloguing their suppers on social media. They are, in short, where it’s at.

In London’s West End, a dozen new gourmet burger restaurants have opened in the last year. There’s Patty & Bun, BRGR.CO, Burger and Shake, the American chains Shake Shack and Five Guys and Hawaiian burger eatery Kua ’Aina (President Obama’s choice), Soho Diner, Jamie Oliver’s Diner, Tommi’s Burger Joint, Grillshack, Honest Burger and Lucky Chip at Slider. Instead of sating our cravings, these seem to have only heightened our hunger pangs. Established players like MEATliquor or Burger & Lobster continue to report lengthy waiting times. It’s not as if there aren’t other options. The same area teems with McDonald’s and pub-grub burger options. But like the Chancellor, we are plumping for premium: impeccably sourced meat from rare breeds, ground on the spot, placed in an artisanal bun (oh, yes) or brioche, served with a special sauce somewhat more nuanced than that of the Golden Arches.

Outside central London, Dirty Burger — the Soho House group’s foray into gourmet burgers, opened in Kentish Town in 2012 — has spread to Vauxhall, with another two sites in the pipeline. Byron, the biggest player in the gourmet burger world, has 29 outlets in London and opened in Liverpool and Manchester this year. Those cities are also home to gourmet burger joint Almost Famous, which became Momentarily Famous in the summer when a woman eating its triple-patty burger dislocated her jaw. She still managed to finish it, mind.

The market is booming and it is only going to get bigger says Tom Byng, the founder of Byron. “We look at our stores in Covent Garden, the epicentre of the burger craze, and it’s actually grown more in the last number of months. That’s happened because the pie has become bigger. Now the question for everyone is: how big is the pie and what’s my slice of it? Before we [Byron] had a big slice of a small pie. Now we want an even bigger slice of a much bigger pie.”

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Gourmet burgers are not new to the UK, but the zeal for them is. New Zealand company GBK (Gourmet Burger Kitchen) opened their first branch in London in 2001 in Battersea. There are now 58 branches across the country. It is owned by Capricorn Ventures, the company that also runs Nando’s. GBK offers a better burger than most of the famous global fast food outlets but has never gone in for the fashionable positioning achieved by Byron. There was Hamburger Union, which opened in 2003 but sold its five central London sites to Noble, the owners of Aberdeen Steak House in 2007, citing tough market conditions. After similar reports of a number of tough trading years, GBK announced in late 2012 plans for five new sites in six months to capitalise on the “rapidly expanding” gourmet burger market. 

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What’s happened is that a new generation of diners has entered the market during the economic downturn. These recessionista twentysomethings are driving the burger foodie phenomenon. They have a limited income but high expectations of a night out. Crucially, sitting in a restaurant is only part of that experience.

“When young people go out now, fewer and fewer go out just to do one thing,” says Esquire contributing editor and Sunday Times restaurant critic AA Gill. “They will want to do two or three things: they may want to eat, go to a club, two clubs, a cocktail bar. People’s idea of a night out is more grazing on a lot of things. That’s absolutely where a burger comes into it.”

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This works for the restaurateur in a recession. A hamburger is an attractive proposition: it is cheap to produce with high margins and quick turnaround on the tables. Restaurants in London in 2013 are as much about property prices as they are about customers, says Gill, and you have got to make them earn their overheads. 

“The cheapest food you can sell is pizza. Pizza is flour and water with a smear of tomato,” says Gill. “It costs absolutely nothing. Burgers come close. If you are doing one simple thing and varying it by saying what you have put on top of it, you don’t need to have highly qualified staff to make it.”

Byron is the PizzaExpress of the gourmet burger world: it offers an excellent product at an affordable price point with a patina of mainstream fashionability, to satisfy the middle class. It is owned by Gondola, which also runs PizzaExpress. You will find it in many of the same locations as PizzaExpress, a sign of where exactly it wants to sit in terms of dining demographics. “In PizzaExpress you won’t find anybody very horrible,” cultural commentator Peter York grins. “PizzaExpress is in all the nice places and not everywhere else. Byron is a package for the same middle-class demographic, but in their early twenties.”

Byng launched Byron in 2007 on Kensington High Street in London’s affluent Kensington and Chelsea borough. The chain has since plotted a path through London’s more bourgeois suburbs from the King’s Road to Upper Street in Islington. This year, it went to Oxford and Cambridge, places you’d expect to find that metropolitan elite to which The Sun alluded. “It is utterly defined by a locational demography,” York says.

Byron’s Beak Street branch in London’s Soho is a slick diner homage with oxblood seating booths, mismatched chairs, rustic lighting, Formica table tops and a staircase designed to look like those gated Manhattan elevators. The decor changes for every outlet but all share the same design tropes: chipped furniture, unvarnished floors, exposed brickwork. You can trace the design references back to Nineties New York, Friends and to Shoreditch’s Noughties London version of SoHo loft living. “These ideas hang around a long time,” York says. 

So it is trendy but not alienatingly so, with plenty of signposts to make it appeal to as broad a base as possible. There is a mini menu and colouring books for children. There are courgette fries, salad and a wine list specifically targeted at the kind of women and middle-class sophisticates who’d never usually go near a burger joint. Byron’s website gives a detailed breakdown of allergy information for each menu item. No vegetarian is going to have a burger joint as their first dining choice, but if you’re in a group — and the demographic is the most likely to socialise in packs — there are options to suit everyone. (And they do a mushroom burger — Portobello mushroom with roasted red pepper, goat cheese and baby spinach, that is.)

“If you are going with a gang of people, three of whom are girls who perceive burgers as what fat people eat, giving them the option of eating something they perceive isn’t going to make them fat is obviously much better,” Gill says. 

The upgrade of the burger from fast food to gourmet experience starts well before the meat hits the mouth. Byron gives you reassuringly old-fashioned restaurant hooks. You are greeted at the door, given a knife and fork that you then don’t use. Byrons look smart and expensive, but they also hand you a menu that says simple, good value, cows happily reared. It is a considered package, down to the brand name. “Byron is very cultural, it’s romantic. It’s not calling it Fast Eddie’s,” Gill says. 

At the other end of the scale but equally considered is the ferociously hip MEATliquor operation. Yianni Papoutsis — tiny, Greek, wearer of Hawaiian shirts — set up Meatwagon, a glorified burger van, and dragged it about London, gaining a reputation on the wires for grilling the tastiest burger this side of the Atlantic. Scott Collins, who ran a number of London bars, heard about him on a blog and visited the wagon when it was located in a car park in Peckham in May 2010.

Collins picks up the tale: “I found this shitty, industrial-estate car park, this midget flipping the odd burger in the rain, had a burger and thought, ‘Fuck, this is good’. He happened to tweet he was looking for somewhere to put the van that wasn’t an industrial estate. We met, I took a punt and put it in a car park in one of my pubs.”

The punt worked. MEATliquor currently has a turnover of £10 million a year. Papoutsis can watch over all three operations from multi-screened CCTV on his iPhone. Apart from having the sluttiest burger on the block — a big, greasy, satisfying affair — MEATliquor gave the burger a loud personality to match. Their restaurants are ear-deafening, dark and decorated in graffiti. They play dingy garage rock and serve Brooklyn Brewery beer in a can and alcoholic Coke floats in homage to the hipper parts of the American experience. All of this went wild on the blogosphere; MEATliquor was one of the first to teach that queuing for burgers was cool. Claudia Schiffer and Princess Beatrice have been in, a sure sign that the burger has come a long way from its origins in 19th-century New York. 

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Burgers started life as a lower-class food with a bad reputation. A cheap street food developed in the US by German immigrants (hence Hamburg-er), burgers took off when meat grinders came into play in the 1880s and butchers could make a profit by throwing cheap filler like gristle, skin and excess fat into the mix. A 1933 book, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics, called hamburgers “about as safe as getting your meat out of a garbage can standing in the hot sun.” 

In his bite-sized book Hamburger: A Global History, food historian Andrew F Smith illustrates there were decent burgers out there as far back as 1921 when Walter Anderson and Edgar Ingram founded White Castle, in Wichita, Kansas. They insisted on same-day beef delivery, on grinding it themselves and having windows into the kitchen so customers could see the preparation. The company grew, establishing its own meat-processing plant and bun-baking operations. A business plan evolved: cheap food, limited menu and big volume. By 1925, White Castle was selling more than 84,000 hamburgers. 

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Subsequently, the hamburger went super-sized with a side order of controversy. The McDonald brothers opened their first drive-in 60 miles east of Los Angeles, at San Bernardino, in 1940. The rise of the hamburger paralleled that of the automobile, as drivers looked for food they could eat behind the wheel. Taking their cue from the auto industry, the McDonald siblings implemented an industrial assembly line model popularised by Henry Ford. It meant faster food, cheaper prices and consistency in taste from Boston to Beirut. But a globalised, standardised burger also meant sacrificing freshness and quality. 

If you looked beyond the modern fast food giants, that original home-grown idyll envisioned by White Castle continued to flourish. Family businesses like In-N-Out, established in 1948 and now spread across California and the US Southwest, insisted on fresh ingredients and slow growth. Their burgers are still regularly voted the best in the US. The independent diner — free of the demands of multinational corps — thrived in the US: wherever you roamed in the Land of the Free, you were pretty much guaranteed to get a knockout burger, served by an authentic fat guy in ketchup-stained whites. It may not have had the modern day organic food stamp, but it was tasty. Over here? We got Wimpy. 

“Hamburgers are the edible American dream, the European immigrant who made it into the big time in the US,” says Esquire food editor and Mail on Sunday restaurant critic Tom Parker Bowles. “But for many years, over here we had the choice between Wimpy and the gritty funfair beefburger. Even McDonald’s seemed like manna compared to this pair of second-rate wretches.” As a result, US food in general, says Parker Bowles, was dismissed as “fast and cheap.”

In other words, for years we were missing out. The US wasn’t just clogged with junk-food chains. There were great-tasting burgers sizzling away beside highways and byways. The men who were to become our new burger kings knew this. They were there sampling the real deal and wondering why we weren’t getting it here. 

MEATliquor’s Papoutsis worked for years backstage in the West End and took road trips in the US, dining out at red-leather-booth burger joints. 

“Diner burgers in the US knock us out of the water,” he says. “Places just on these two-lane highways. It used to piss me off you couldn’t get a decent burger back here.”

Byng, of Byron, also travelled in the US in his twenties and noticed that there was no equivalent back home to the delicious diner burgers he found on the road. In the UK, we had only fast-food monoliths serving up what he calls “consistently mediocre” fare. Byng was already an experienced restaurateur. He’d run the modern Italian restaurant Zucca, in south London, and Nineties celebrity haunt 192 in Notting Hill for nine years before that. Byng floated the idea of bringing an authentic American burger experience here to Gondola, which runs PizzaExpress, Zizzi and Ask, a portfolio that makes it the biggest for mid-priced or casual dining in the UK. The deal was they’d do it his way with their money. 

It was going to be a challenge. The burger had become synonymous with values that might put you off your dinner. Take your pick from corporate greed, employee exploitation, the dark side of globalisation, the destruction of the planet. There were plenty of associations to choose from, and none of them appetising. We’d swallowed Morgan Spurlock’s gut-wrenching Super Size Me. We’d choked on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. This new breed of burger needed to wipe the palate clean of all that bad aftertaste. 

The US had already thought about this. In 2004, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, owner of New York foodie institutions Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe, won a bid to open a permanent burger kiosk in Madison Square Park, part of efforts to revitalise the green space in midtown Manhattan. From this humble beginning, albeit one backed by a dining powerhouse, the US phenomenon Shake Shack was born.

Danny Meyer is seen, by his disciples, as a gourmet burger visionary. The British burger guys speak of his manual on dining, Setting the Table, in reverential terms. He’s the kind of man who wins awards for Exemplary Service to New York City, like he’s the Bruce Wayne of burgers. He speaks with nostalgia for the kind of “roadside” joints the US was built on. Shake Shack returned to this original ideal of the burger chain, as exemplified by White Castle or In-N-Out. He also shook it loose of any more recent fast food connotations. Firstly, it didn’t act like a chain, taking its time to expand. It was four years before the second New York outlet opened. Second, it made having a burger a quality dining experience, selling upscale fast food without a major price increase. It’s still under $5 for a cheeseburger. Meyer calls it “fine casual”, the quality you’d expect from fine dining at the price and convenience of casual. 

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To do this, Meyer utilised his connections in the supply chain. He secured meat from steak restaurants that had boomed in the Nineties and had decent off-cuts they threw away. The chain added wine to its menu in 2007; there are Pooch-ini dog biscuits, with peanut butter sauce and vanilla custard; corporate social responsibility and feel-good consumerism are twinned in their slogan “Stand for Something Good”. The American burger had gone up a class.

Shake Shack is now a destination restaurant in the US, one for which people typically wait in line for as much as an hour. “The hamburger’s gourmet moment is now ebbing,” says Josh Ozersky, Time magazine food columnist and author of 2008’s The Hamburger: A History, “leaving in its wake a few enlightened operators like Shake Shack who seek to make real burgers as well as they can, rather than distorting and exploiting them with freakish and ludicrous toppings.” 

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Even with its slow growth, Shake Shack is set to triple in size by the end of 2013 with at least 33 outlets in six countries, the UK being the latest port of call. In July, another American chain, Five Guys opened the same weekend as Shake Shack in London. A take on the red-and-white-tiled diner experience but with transparent food sourcing and a 100-flavour soda fountain (how about Peach Fanta?), there are plans by its British investor Charles Dunstone, founder of The Carphone Warehouse, to roll out Five Guys nationwide. There was only one snag to the Americans’ plan for burger domination: the British burger had got its act together. 

“Shake Shack reckon they have been looking [in London] for three years,” MEATliqour’s Collins says. “If they had turned up three years ago, we wouldn’t be sitting here now. Undoubtedly.” 

“They would have turned the market upside down,” adds his business partner Papoutsis.

Instead, by the time the Americans opened up this year, the British had already turned the market on its head themselves. The food critics and bloggers, grown fat on UK gourmet burgers, gave the new arrivals from the home of the hamburger a grilling. 

“The irony is that when the much-lauded American chains arrived a few months back, they weren’t a patch on our home-grown versions,” Parker Bowles says. 

In fact, soon the tables may turn to such an extent that, in an ice-to-eskimos moment, we may be selling burgers back to the US. Scott Collins of MEATliquor says they might open in New York “for shits and giggles”. When asked, all Tom Byng will offer is a wry smile. Ozersky, who brought his Manhattan meat orgy Meatopia to London in September, welcomes the fact the Brits have finally got the burger right and concedes we could breach the home country.

“As an American I am appalled at the thought that a British chain could achieve success here in the hamburger’s mother country. But our chains have done such a botch job over the years that a company like Byron’s might well swoop in on us.”

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Like trains, burgers now attract enthusiasts. Guys like Gavin Lucas, a blogger who goes by the handle Burgerac. He also has a sister blog which reviews burgers outside London. That one’s called Midsomer Burgers. He credits food television — from Jamie Oliver to Gordon Ramsay — for turning us into fanatics. “People like Jamie Oliver have made food approachable,” he says. “Great cookbooks and TV personalities have made men vocal about food.”

Lucas is a case in point. He got the burger bug watching Heston Blumenthal try to build the best one on telly. Since then, he’s been obsessed with the perfect burger: the beef, the bun, how the lettuce needs to be shredded and placed precisely beneath the meat so that the juice dresses the leaves and holds the flavour. “There’s all this architecture, if I can use such a lofty word,” Lucas says, “and all of that becomes massively important in the eating.”

Lucas and others like him also understand that we do not just want to eat food in 2013; we want to tweet about eating food and Instagram photos as we do it. No fast food has harnessed the power of social media in the way the endlessly photogenic hamburger has. Social media has forced the burger conversation, says Byron’s Byng, and it’s down to that key demographic again. “There’s a group of twentysomethings who have a voice where previously it was food critics in the broadsheets. It’s food with integrity but it’s not food you’d expect food critics to be talking about.” Byron has an employee who runs its social media full time. 

In this way, an essentially mainstream, mid-market brand like Byron can seem hip, like MEATliquor, without feeling the need to ape the edgier, less palatable aspects: the crepuscular lighting, the wailing guitar music, the endless queuing. What both of them emphasise, of course, is their supposed authenticity. 

“Byron doesn’t just roll it out,” Lucas says. “What they exhibit is a desire not to just serve the burger but contextualise them in a wider culture with craft beer, bourbon, American dessert classics.” Byron sells its craft beer in cans. So does MEATliquor. It’s something they picked up on in Portland, Oregon, spiritual home of the American hipster.

The burger’s place at the table of US icons continues to drive burger sales. They’ve had huge publicity from films and are perceived as cool, smart, Western. It’s why McDonald’s is so popular in India, AA Gill says, even though it’s relatively costly. “The perception of burgers is they are completely, authentically American like blue jeans,” he says. “A touch of the West and that comes at a premium.”

Does it make the experience of eating at restaurants like Byron “authentic”? Its boss thinks so. “The modern consumer responds to authenticity because they keep getting let down — by sportsmen, by politicians,” Byng says. “Everywhere you look, who do you trust? They are looking for something that’s real.”

Something for George Osborne to chew on next time he has a late night craving for burger and chips.    

 

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