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How Burgers Came to Dominate the London ‘Fast Casual’ Market

  • Fast Casual Burgers

Burger restaurants are nothing new in London. Wimpy first opened in 1954 at the Lyon’s Corner House in Coventry Street and on November 13th 1974, the first McDonald’s in the UK opened in Woolwich. Burger King followed in 1977 on Coventry Street, the same street as the first Wimpy.

Since then the UK burger market has gone on to be worth an estimated £3.28b in 2016 according to Mintel, up 22% from £2.7b in 2011, and is predicted to rise to £3.9bn by 2019.

Londoners are the most frequent visitors of gourmet burger bars, with one in five eating at a gourmet fast casual burger bar in the last three months, up from a national average of 7%. What makes a gourmet burger? 71% of British consumers say they would expect freshly made burgers from a restaurant that touts themselves as a gourmet burger bar. This is followed by customisable burgers (54%) and a choice of how the burger is cooked (48%).

Fast casual dining

A fast casual restaurant is a fairly new and still-expanding concept that sits between fast food and casual dining. Fast casual restaurants typically offer more customised, freshly prepared and high quality food compared to standard Quick Service Restaurants.

Burgers, more than other types of fast casual food, seem to have taken root in London. Wholesome buns, thick patties, a wealth of toppings all served in a rustic-inspired setting have made eating burgers more than a meal, it’s now an experience.

Market leaders

One of the first fast casual burger restaurants was GBK (Gourmet Burger Kitchen) which opened in Battersea, London in 2001. Chef Peter Gordon, a New Zealand-born, London-based chef, oversaw the menu development, bringing the concept of ‘gourmet burgers’ to London. GBK’s set a new standard in the market with its decent sized burgers, fresh produce and casual service style.

Another market leader is Byron. Founder Tom Byng came up with the idea for Byron Hamburgers whilst living in New York. Tom realised that there weren’t any restaurants offering hamburgers like the ones he’d often enjoyed at Silver Top Diner in Providence, Rhode Island. Simple, tasty burgers that were a bit messy, made with quality meat with classic toppings of lettuce, tomato, onion, and perhaps a slice of cheese or bacon. Launched in 2007, The initial success of the Battersea branch led to more openings across London.

In the summer of 2013 there was palpable excitement after it was announced that Five Guys, the popular US burger chain, was to open their first UK site in Long Acres, Covent Garden. A prime location perfect for passing trade with a heavy flow of tourists and commuters alike. Since 2013 Five Guys has become something of an institution amongst avid UK burger eaters.

Along with these chains there are the independently cool start-ups like Dirty Burger and MeatLiquor. Despite all these options, people’s appetites don’t seem to tire, with new burger joints opening all the time. BurgerFi opened its first London restaurant this year in Wembley’s Central Square. The new restaurant is owned and operated by franchise group Ground Round Limited. Led by entrepreneur Jamie Wood, son of Rolling Stones’ guitarist Ron Wood, and Constantine Kulukundis, the group plans to develop a total of 10 new restaurants throughout the U.K. over the next several years. There seems to be plenty of space for healthy competition and consumers appear to have an eternal hunger for hamburgers.

The gourmet burger zeitgeist

The model of fast casual burger restaurants make it a winning idea, as does the timing. The emergence of these new generation burger bars comes during the time of the hipster. The hipster aesthetic fits perfectly well with the ethos of these burger joints. Often in older buildings and with renovated, reclaimed interiors and vintage fixtures, the hipster generation feel comfortable and at ease in these surroundings as they sink into a double beef burger with bacon rashers. That said, these are not solely the eateries of hipsters. These restaurants don’t alienate anyone and this could be another key to their success. Office workers during lunch are equally at home dining in them as are families.

A great menu and hip, trendy interiors aside a key component to the success of these ventures is location.

Location, location, location

Fast casual restaurants do best in and around the business district – giving a quick and tasty option for workers’ lunches or post-work dinners. Current places particularly popular for gourmet burger restaurants are areas like Shoreditch, Covent Garden and Islington. Busy places with great transport links, passing trade, bars and offices. What else is common in these areas are buildings with character. A key feature of these eateries is the buildings they inhabit. Often old, repurposed buildings given a fresh refit that enhances any existing charm and brings it closer to the forefront. Like Byron’s Soho branch in the old Intrepid Fox pub. Right in the heart of Soho, this former pub has a prime location easily accessed by nearby revellers. This branch still retains much of the late 1700’s pub façade with a stylish interior refresh of exposed brickwork walls and steel girders on the ceiling.

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Think about your target audience of diners. Who is your customer and are they likely to be in the area? It would be sensible to find premises in a city centre where your target market is likely to be. If your brand is passionate about local produce, you may opt for somewhere close to a farmer’s market.

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