Papoutsis (left) started the business with 'Meatings' in 2009
It’s been five years since Yianni Papoutsis spent £3,000 on a burger van which he nicknamed the Meatwagon, and started holding ‘burger parties’ (‘Meatings’, if you will), which lured revellers via a Twitter account.
‘People brought their own booze, we’d have a soundsystem and it would just be done via Twitter. This was in the days before Twitter was a thing for foodies. It was more in the style of the old raves, where you’d have to phone up a number to find out where it was.’
It was at one of the parties Papoutsis met Scott Collins, who owned various pubs in south London. When the Meatwagon was stolen, Collins suggested he set up in one of his latest acquisitions, a room above what was then known as the Goldsmiths Tavern (now New Cross House) in New Cross.
An ‘it’ restaurant was born: critics may have complained that the two-hour wait at #Meateasy (so called because it didn’t have a website, email address or even a logo - just a hashtag) was too much, but that didn’t stop the hordes from making the trek to south London to sample Papoutsis’ burgers, described variously as ‘excellent’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘monumentally succulent’.
Since then, the company has grown to three branches (called, variously, Meat Liquor, Meat Market and Meat Mission) in London and Brighton, with another four planned, including restaurants in Leeds and Bristol. The chain has a £12m turnover, numbers Pizza Express backer David Page among its investors, and has built up a reputation bigger than one of its famous queues. How did its founders do it? Here’s their step-by-step guide.
1. Meatwagon, not bandwagon
Meat Liquor may be classed as one of the pop-up movement’s great successes, but when Papoutsis started out he’d never heard of a pop-up. ‘I think we just hit the zeitgeist,’ he says.
‘Pretty much everything’s been done out of necessity,’ adds Collins. ‘It’s more by luck than judgement that we were there at the beginning.
‘Nowadays there are so many street food wagons and so many alleged pop-ups. There are corporates doing pop-ups, everyone’s trying to make it work. But the wagon popping up - that was a very, very rare beast.’
2. Ignore the critics
The chain is much maligned for its lengthy queues, but the pair say reservations would have ruined the atmosphere.
‘We were a burger van,’ says Patsousis. ‘We would have got as much stick from people saying "you’re a burger bar and you think you’re so good you have to take reservations". If you open a restaurant with a huge blizzard of publicity and you allow reservations, all you’re going to get for the first few months is foodies and people [with the contacts to] book a restaurant that hasn’t opened yet two months in advance.
‘We’re not exclusive, we’re inclusive. All we ask is that you’re able to queue.’
3. Choose locations wisely
Zero to £12m in five years may seem speedy to some - particularly considering Meat Liquor’s humble beginnings. But Papoutsis and Collins say they’ve been very selective about new locations.
‘We get a lot of offers for sites, but we probably turn down 20 for every one we take,’ says Papoutsis. ‘Every site we’ve taken, we’ve taken two steps into the door and gone, "yeah".’
Collins adds that the brand looks for the sorts of venues most others would turn down.
‘Our Leeds restaurant [due to open soon] was the only site left at [new Leeds shopping mall] the Trinity Centre. It was a 5,000 sq ft bunker underground, accessed only through an alley at the back of the Trinity Centre. At all our locations, people want to seek us out - they’re not going to walk past and see some glitzy menu.’
Using unusual locations has two functions: it keeps rents low, and it means people have to search for the restaurants, which creates hype.
The restaurant's graffiti has been targeted by copycats
4. If your customers love you, they’ll protect your IP
Meat Liquor’s arrival onto the London dining scene coincided neatly with the explosion of burgers as the capital’s trendiest meal. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but Papoutsis and Collins have found that some are more interested in cashing in on their brand’s success than stroking their egos. Fortunately, Meat Liquor has built up an army of followers, who keep an eye out for copycats.
‘I went to a place last week where they’ve totally ripped off all the Meat Liquor graffiti,’ says Collins. ‘A few weeks ago we got an email from an IP lawyer [about another restaurant that had copied its IP]. He said "I’ve been to Meat Liquor, I love it, I don’t know if you know about this". It’s great.’
5. Too many chefs spoil the burger
‘If you start a restaurant with two chefs, your business will fuck up,’ says Papoutsis. If you start a restaurant with two businessmen, the food will fuck up. You have to realise what you’re not good at, then team up with people or employ people who are good at stuff that a) you’re bad at and b) you don’t want to do.
‘One of the reasons our partnership has been so successful is that we have got totally complementary skills.’
6. Investors should bring more than just cash to the party
Unusually for a restaurant chain with big ambitions, Meat Liquor has no debt. Instead, it has relied on a small group of friends and relations to put in a bit of cash and a lot of expertise.
‘We pretty much hand-picked the small number of investors we have: there’s a lawyer, a property guy, our cocktail guru, and a couple of friends who’ve helped out,’ says Collins.
‘Nobody got to put in money and then just sit back,’ adds Papoutsis. ‘There’s a reason everyone is involved.’
It’s for that reason Collins says he’s nervous of trends like crowdfunding.
‘You have to deal with 500 random shareholders who all think they can own a part of your business. I’m a bit sceptical about that.’
So slow growth is preferable to handing out equity like sweets. ‘It’s not hard to find people,’ says Papoutsis. ‘The hard bit is to identify the one person out of thousands you can trust.’
7. Plan ahead - but not too far ahead
‘We’ve never had a strategic plan because, especially in today’s economy, if you strategise the next five years, it’s very hard to say what’s going to happen in the wider economy,’ says Papoutsis.
‘That leaves you unable to take advantage of some of the best offers, which come up at fairly short notice. We’ve been able to make the most of our resources by staying flexible.’