Thursday, 8 December 2011

Tom Byng, Founder of Byron, on Burgers, Business, and Innovation

Tom cuts an inconspicuous figure picking his way across his crowded restaurant at One New Change, as he makes his way to where I'm sitting. I'm meeting Tom Byng, founder of Byron, to find out a little bit more about what makes Byron, and him, tick and we've arranged to meet on a Friday lunchtime in Byron's Cheapside outpost.

I've wanted to start getting more in-depth information on the thought process and personalities who are driving London's burger restaurants, and scene, and having bumped into Tom on several other occasions, he's very kindly agreed to meet and talk about some of the things he's most passionate about. Byron and burgers.


Hamburger Me:
Could you tell me a little bit about your background before Byron?

Tom: 
Ever since my mid-twenties I've worked in restaurants. Before Byron, I had two restaurants in Notting Hill - Zucca and 192 - and then Byron was born.

Hamburger Me:
So the story on your website goes you had a favourite burger joint you used to eat at, the Silver Top, and that's the style and concept that inspired Byron.

Tom:
That's right, I lived in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1990s and used to eat simple, classic hamburgers at a diner called the the Silver Top. Sadly it closed a few years back but they used to sell a hamburger, a cheeseburger, and a bacon cheeseburger and they’d been in business for 50-60 years.  You could find hamburgers like that at countless burger joints in the States, but it seemed to me four years ago that there was nowhere in London doing them that way so the idea for Byron was born. Hamburgers the way they should be.

Hamburger Me:
So that's the thought process behind the simple Byron menu.

Tom:
Absolutely. It's simple, confident and classic. We aim to do a few things and do them really well. There's no point in trying to cover everything on a menu, you'll just end up with everything being average.

We order.  I go for the 'Byron', their classic burger with dry cure bacon and cheddar, with a portion of skin on fries. Tom has the same, but also orders mac 'n' cheese, coleslaw, an iceberg wedge, and french fries. Clearly running Byron is hungry business!

Hamburger Me:
As founder, what do you find your main role is on a day to day basis?

Tom:
Simply put, my role is to ensure we keep delivering on the original vision. That means keeping the team on the right track, being uncompromising about standards and ensuring we look after our customers. At the beginning I was heavily involved, as you can imagine, in the day to day running of the restaurants, but over time my role has evolved into ensuring logistics run smoothly across the expanding number of restaurants we have, ensuring consistency in food and service, and keeping an eye on what our customers are saying about us. I also do a lot of planning for the future. 

Hamburger Me:
More on your future plans a bit later. How many restaurants do you have at the moment?

Tom:
We've now got 18 restaurants in London. Each one is designed individually...

Hamburger Me:
Every restaurant is designed individually? That must mean a lot of work...

Tom:
It is. But we have a lot of fun with the design when we open a new restaurant. It ensures our customers get a unique experience in whichever Byron branch they eat in, giving some character, and empowers our General Managers (GMs). Our GMs are fantastic, they are really passionate about what they do, and about Byron, and they are really focused on the customer experience. We have feedback cards in all our restaurants, and our GMs monitor these to make sure their local diners are happy, and where there are problems they are able to go ahead and deal with these.

Hamburger Me:
Sounds like a good system. How about Twitter, I know you Tweet from @byronhamburgers, does anyone else have access to that account, or are any of the GMs using it?

Tom:
No. I run the twitter feed. I think it’s important for people to know they communicate directly with the founder and I tweet as a human being not with a corporate hat on. I dip in to our customer service inbox as I like to keep a finger on the pulse of what our customers are saying about us. Some of the team are keen to get more involved in the twitter side of things, so we're looking into it how we can do that.

Hamburger Me:
You monitor the customer service inbox? Wow. I bet people don't realise they're getting through to Byron's founder when they email.

Tom:
Well, I don't deal with every email that comes in, but I do have access to the email inbox and dip in and out - as a business we're really focused on customer service and that comes from the top down. I care about the things that are going well. I take it personally when things don’t go to plan and we try to instill that philosophy in everyone in the business.  And I think that's part of the reason Byron is where it is today.

Our meal arrives, and takes up all our free space on the small, round table we're sat at. Tom proceeds to take a mouthful of each of the sides, masticating carefully and making a judgement on how well the chefs have cooked each dish.

Hamburger Me:
So let's talk a bit about innovation. Over the last year you've had a number of different 'special' burgers, the Big D, Royale with Cheese, Uncle Sam, and most recently the Gizz-Mo to name but a few, as well as your Byron Shack.

Tom:
That's right, I'd say we have a deep culture of innovation at Byron. You can see it from the individually designed restaurants, to the specials we put on, to the t-shirts our staff wear. Obviously we want to keep some things consistent - the quality and cooking of our burgers and fanatical attention to customer service - and with that it gives us a foundation upon which to do something a bit different. The Big D was a really popular burger using O'Shea’s beef. The Royale with Cheese was a fun promotion around the Royal Wedding in April 2011. The Uncle Sam was a proper comfort cheeseburger, the way I used to have them in the US. Actually, there's been such overwhelming feedback on that one that we've had some long discussions about adding it to the menu permanently...

Hamburger Me:
I think it's a no-brainer, it was a bloody good cheeseburger (read my Byron Uncle Sam burger review here).

Tom:
Yes it was. We have to trade it off with the fact that the more you add to a menu, the more difficult it becomes to ensure consistency across our restaurants. There are more specials coming up so keep an eye out for those.

Hamburger Me:
How did the Byron Shack go down this summer?

Tom:
It went really well. It was very successful, but working festivals are tough. I wanted to offer an alternative to the usual fare you get at festivals, but you know the organisers, they see a name like Byron and they really want their pound of flesh. It was great though, and I've had some great feedback on it.

We finish munching, and ask for coffee. Tom has a quick word with our waitress, telling her everything was good, but the Mac 'n' Cheese needed to be under the salamander for another minute to make the cheese a little more crisp. He mentions that as he travels around the restaurants he ensures consistency by taste testing. I note that he has a great relationship with his staff.

Hamburger Me:
Looking to the future then, what are your plans for Byron - are we going to see reviews popping up on out-of-London burger blog Midsomer Burgers?

Tom:
We obviously continue to look for sites in London, and without giving specific details, in the next 12 months or so you may see the first Byron hamburger restaurant open outside London.

Hamburger Me:
Sounds exciting! Good luck with the planning and hope to catch up with you over a burger soon.


Big thanks to Tom Byng for his time and talking so candidly about Byron. Byron have 18 restaurants across London, all of which can be found on their website: http://www.byronhamburgers.com.

2 comments:

  1. As usual Nick, a well written, well thought out piece. A very enjoyable read. Thanks to you and Tom

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great questions, interesting read.

    ReplyDelete

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