The hamburger has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last five years or so. Once regarded as an unhealthy binge food, chains like Byron Burger, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Honest Burgers, and more recently the American imports Five Guys and Shake Shack, have elevated the burger to something that should be savoured and appreciated.
With that in mind, it's easy to wonder if Britain has reached 'peak burger' – the point where the market becomes too saturated to allow any new entrants to thrive. One man who doesn't think so is Tim Lowther, a 30-year veteran of the burger industry, who's launching the UK franchise of a new chain, Smashburger.
'Smashburger is about the next generation of burger lovers,' Lowther told MT. 'We take a ball of fresh Angus meat, we drop it onto a hot buttered grill. And then we literally smash it, with a tool called the smasher, which is specifically developed to put the right amount of pressure on the pattie to pat it down onto the grill. It creates a caramelisation of the bottom of the burger.' MT didn't get to sample a burger, but while it sounds tasty it's not exactly revolutionary.
That's not been an impediment so far though. Founded in 2009 by the colourful American entrepreneur Tom Ryan, it's expanded rapidly and now has 315 restaurants in five countries, including Saudi Arabia and El Salvador. Now Lowther is planning to launch 35 restaurants in the UK in the next few years, beginning with two before the end of 2015. Lowther, who began his career as a McDonald's crew member in 1986, says he doesn't buy the argument that there is an excess of burger joints in Britain.
'The press articles going around at the time [in 1986] said there’s too many burger restaurants, the market’s getting saturated, there’s not enough space for them to grow,' he said. 'If we go forward 30 years there’s 1200 McDonald's, 800 KFCs and 500 Burger King's. In the premium burger market, there’s 150 in the UK, that tells me there’s plenty of room for us all and plenty of room for us to grow.'
In London in particular it seems like you can't move for burgers topped with blue cheese, pulled pork or pancetta, but it's fair to say that's not a phenomenom that's spread to the rest of the UK yet. That explains Lowther's agnosticism towards launching the brand in the capital first.
'We are looking nationwide, not just in London,' he said. 'We’re looking for the right place in London to launch the business here but we’re not going to let that stop our growth. If the first site happens to be out of London then we’ll do that.'
Introducing a new burger chain to Britain is a bold move in a very competitive space, but if anyone can do it then Lowther, who helped launched Shake Shack in Covent Garden and Five Guys in the north of England, has a pretty good shot.