Burger chain entrepreneur ‘hopes to do a Richard Branson’
PUBLISHED: 07:22 24 January 2020 | UPDATED: 14:35 24 January 2020
Rave reviews and a hunger for success have led a Suffolk food entrepreneur to dream big for his expanding burger chain empire.
London-based Honest Burgers has managed to buck the trend by growing its business while other well-known restaurant brands are cutting back.
The £31m turnover business now has 750 staff and 37 restaurants, mainly in London, but spreading to cities including Cambridge. This year, the brand will be rolled out to six new sites.
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Philip Eeles - who grew up around Ixworth and Thurston, near Bury St Edmunds - was about 27 when he and business co-founder and friend Tom Barton came up with their business idea.
It was based on the simple concept of making top quality burgers and chips and keeping to a straightforward food format, while treating staff and customers well. The pair were later joined by managing director Dorian White and since then, the brand has gone from strength to strength.
Phil, now aged 36 - whose parents still live around Bury St Edmunds - said he would love one day to bring the concept to Suffolk - but only if and when the business case stacks up.
He left the county at the age of 19 to study philosophy at Kent university - a subject he loved, he says - and doesn't feel he would have been anywhere near as good with people without his philosophy degree.
Around 2008, he was working in a restaurant part-time and studying to be a journalist on a National Council for the Training of Journalists course in Brighton. With his 100 word a minute shorthand under his belt, he looked set for a career in newspapers, but getting into the industry was tough, and in the meantime, his career took a different turn.
He met Tom while working at the restaurant and together they came up with the idea of setting up their own catering business. "I liked being around people - I just got sucked in really," says Phil.
They felt restaurants often didn't treat their staff well - and could be "sneaky" with the methods they employed.
They both sank £2,500 into buying a marquee in Brighton, bought a fryer and catered at events and festivals, with Phil working the business around his full-time job at a restaurant.
After about a busy year not really making any money, they met Dorian. He had worked in restaurants in London, and felt they had a good name and a good idea. He proposed they should jointly open a restaurant in the capital.
"He basically wanted to join us on equal terms and we opened up in Brixton market. It was like a shoebox with 10 tables - it was tiny," recalls Phil.
Within a couple of weeks, there were queues around the block, and as word spread, so did the restaurant's popularity.
"I was telling people they would have to wait two hours for a burger. You get that momentum from an underground following," he says. "We just exploded onto this London burger scene and kind of led the way for a while - we were at the front of this burger revolution."
With Veganuary in full swing, one might have expected the business to take a hit. Not so. They've added plant burger to the menu - the first in the UK to launch them a year and a half ago, says Phil, and have now added vegan bacon. Vegan burgers now account for about 15% of sales.
"I don't think we get a lot of out-and-out hard-core vegans in our restaurants," admits Phil. "The truth is, we aren't precious about it."
In fact, Phil can envisage a time when customers will be asked whether they want a plant burger or a meat one. They have, though, set up their own butchery in Sutton, south London, so that they can be secure about where their meat is coming from and ensure quality - their meat is chopped, rather than minced. The site has been specially accredited for 'less than thoroughly cooked meat' to ensure they can make their burgers medium rare if required. They also make their own relishes and sauces.
The restaurant trade beyond London is tough, admits Phil, although he would love to bring the brand to his home county of Suffolk.
"You can't just rock up to Bury St Edmunds and think: 'We'll make loads of money." he says. But he adds: "I think one day we could open a little unit in Bury - I would love that."
The price of an Honest Burger is around £12 with chips, and some top reviewers have given it a big thumbs up. Phil's ambition is to one day straddle the sectors - Richard Branson-style - with their 'Honest' brand - perhaps even straying into such diverse areas as trains - or even newspapers.
Nicknamed 'grenade launcher' by his workmates, he sees his role as ensuring staff are on board with the Honest ethos, in a sector which he admits is "tough" and "relentless".
"It's a 24-7 business. It's full-on, but it's fun. It's a live, living, breathing animal," he says.
He adds: "I'm very ambitious. You can do anything - anything is worth a go. So many people talk themselves out of something. My advice to people is just get on with it."
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