If its master plan comes to fruition, Gourmet Burger Kitchen will open 30 new restaurants during the next three years and each will feature an open-style kitchen. FEJ meets the man fronting that strategy and finds out how a fresh approach to kitchen design lies behind its quest to deliver the best burgers in the country.
Consumer appetite for the trusty hamburger shows no signs of deteriorating, in fact all the evidence suggests the explosion of trendy burger joints will continue throughout the UK this year and well into the next.
Championing the evolution of this meaty marvel, and one of the strongest brands in the market, is Gourmet Burger Kitchen — known just as much by its acronym GBK — which made its debut in Battersea more than a decade ago.
Founded in 2001 by three New Zealanders, the company burst onto the market at a time when the burger chain opportunity was yet to be really exploited. Before long the brand had become one of the pioneers of the premium burger revolution in London, attracting the interests of Clapham House Group, which bought it in 2005 and gave it the foundation to take its posh patties nationwide. Five years’ later and another market shift saw Nando’s owner Capricorn Ventures purchase GBK for £30m during a time when the popularity of the ‘good’ burger was in its prime.
At the heart of this operation was CEO Alasdair Murdoch, a veteran of brands such as KFC, Pizza Hut and Pizza Express, who has overseen the development of GBK since.
GBK now has more than 60 restaurants operating throughout the UK, and that in turn means 60 kitchens all serving handcrafted burgers that combine 100% prime beef with fresh ingredients and sauces made from scratch every day.
The recent launch of four new city restaurants in Glasgow, Watford, Swindon and Bromley forms part of a much wider expansion plan to open 30 restaurants within the next three years. Murdoch insists the opportunity for success is greater now than at any time in its history.
“Since opening the first Gourmet Burger Kitchen in Battersea back in 2001, both the GBK brand and the UK burger category have seen significant growth,” he tells FEJ. “Customer demand for premium burgers is stronger than ever before.”
With an over-riding goal to reach almost 100 sites by 2018, the implications for future investment in kitchen equipment are huge. The brand has already utilised £3m refurbishing its restaurants as part of an ongoing renovation programme and the dynamics of the kitchen are absolutely central to that.
One of the most striking features of its new-look restaurants is the inclusion of open kitchens that bring the art of burger-making to the customer. These chime perfectly with the timber clad walls, cut stone flooring, dropped marble bars and bespoke lighting now seen in its newer sites.
In terms of layout, we tend to have a run of our equipment now, so the kitchens are all very visible to our customers.”
“Within all the new restaurants our kitchens are much more open and visible to the customer,” explains Murdoch. “They can look in and see what’s cooking and the kitchen is much more centrally based in our eateries now.”
As well as the kitchens becoming a more integral part of the dining experience at GBK, operationally Murdoch says there has been a shift in the production method, which has resulted in a new approach towards equipment positioning and kitchen planning.
“Fundamentally our kitchens are now at the heart of our restaurants — and we’ve tried to change the way we operate our kitchens as well — including the technique and how we make and serve our burgers. In terms of layout, we tend to have a run of our equipment now, so the kitchens are all very visible to our customers.”
With a menu that cites its New Zealand roots as a major inspiration, GBK doesn’t just stop at classic beef burgers. As well as favourites such as The Don and the Kiwi Burger, the company offers cod, lamb, falafel and buffalo burgers.
The recent £3m refurbishment programme it rolled out coincided with the launch of a new 15-minute lunch menu, guaranteeing customers a speedy lunch with the added perk that if their order takes longer than 15 minutes to arrive the cost will be waived.
All of this puts a huge amount of pressure on its chefs to know how to get the best out of its equipment and for the equipment itself to prove its resilience when it is pushed hard. A key focus for the brand’s procurement team has been upgrading the grill technology it uses to create a healthier product.
“In all our new restaurants we now have salamanders, whereas historically we didn’t have these,” reveals Murdoch. “We believe that this will help make our cheeseburgers healthier and better quality. The grills will melt the cheese onto the burgers, which just improves the quality.
“Fundamentally the enhancements have been designed around trying to make it better for the customers and one of the ways to do that is to make it operationally simple. Every time we open a new restaurant, our head of food sits down with our operations manager and they figure out the best layout for our kitchens and work with the design team so we get something that looks great, but is also very practical and pragmatic from a work perspective. Flow and speed is very important for us — the equipment that we put in will all be around driving that quality and that is one of the main factors we think about when it comes to the kitchens.”
Sourcing new items requires careful consideration for GBK and investing in the right equipment to power the kitchens is a closely-managed process. Murdoch says the company will typically go to the parties that it has existing relationships with first to try and find the best piece of equipment that will help it deliver the best burger.
And he insists its buying criteria won’t change: “We’re not driven by price, but by quality. Quality and reliability are key; each piece of equipment needs to be durable. When you spend a lot of money upgrading restaurants like ours, extraction is vital and you have got to get everything right. Our chargrills produce a lot of smoke, so we need it to be really good quality. We’ve invested a lot of money in that.”
Quality and reliability are key; each piece of equipment needs to be durable”
That investment is only set to continue following the announcement that GBK has set itself the target of reaching almost 100 British restaurants within the next three years. From an operational perspective, the company is receptive to exploring new equipment if it meets the needs of its customers. “We are constantly evolving our existing concept,” acknowledges Murdoch. “That means reaching into different food types or areas and trying to give our customers more variety, while giving ourselves a more simplistic way of cooking. We want to continue to open successful restaurants, so it is set to be a busy time.”
GBK ultimately has to open 10 restaurants a year to meets its three-year expansion target, so the decision to hire a second acquisition manager last year was one that was made without any hesitation. They are constantly on the road — one in the south and one in the north — looking for suitable sites.
And as they find the right location, another kitchen will follow.
‘Fundamentally we know the order of how we want our kitchens and how we want to cook’
A major store renovation programme and roll-out schedule embarked on by Gourmet Burger Kitchen over the past 18 months has led to the brand embracing theatre-style kitchens amongst other things.
The open-plan kitchens seen in its newest locations are considered critical to driving the improved custmer experience that GBK believes its long-term success hinges on. The challenge for the business lies in executing the model to ensure optimal kitchen flow regardless of the space or size of the building.
CEO Alasdair Murdoch says the company is confident it has developed a template that it can scale: “I think now we have developed what we believe is the right way of cooking and the right flow — fundamentally we know the order of how we want our kitchens and how we want our chefs to cook. Obviously the buildings we go into are all different, so that’s the difficult part.
“As an example, our new branch in Glasgow had much more space than our Watford restaurant; it was much easier to lay out the perfect configuration in Glasgow, whereas Watford was a difficult shape split over two levels, so it was much harder to get the equipment in the order we wanted. Space will always be a key concern. We try to make each new kitchen as space efficient as possible to create lots of available room for our customers.”
GBK at a glance
– Founded in 2001
– 60 restaurants in the UK
– Four new sites in 2014
– Aims to open 30 new restaurants by 2018
– £3m investment made in recent refurbishments