Friday 2 May 2014

[Burger Business] GBK launches the 15-minute burger lunch

I make no secret of the fact that I've had mixed experiences of Gourmet Burger Kitchen over the years. Back in the early naughties, GBK was the only burger joint doing anything like a decent burger on the high street. Then came the copy-cats like Ultimate Burger and other generics, and burgers became more mainstream, then the copy-cats started to drop like flies in the face of a new wave of bodacious competition. Somehow GBK has resolutely hung on in there.
Back in 2012, GBK began a programme titled 'upping the game' to respond to the threat of other, more popular, burger joints that were in their ascendancy (I'm looking at you, Byron) and riding the wave of burger fever that gripped London. Joints which made GBK's large, complicated menus and cookie-cutter restaurant design look deeply uncool.

So they stripped back their restaurants to give them a more 'industrial' feel, drastically reduced their menu choices (from over 40 to just 23 burgers); instigated a loyalty program; and an app; and pared back their relentless and value-destroying offers. No more 'buy-one-burger-get-one-for-a-pound' or 2-for-1 deals that characterised their bums on seats strategy. Discount promotions are straight from the brand manager's handbook to increase volume sales, but in my view it's a sure fire way to reduce the perceived value of your product for customers - and inevitably eats into margins.

Of course it's not all bad. Their social media team, in my view, inject some much needed life into the brand. Their banter, competitions, and contests are quite fun and garner wide engagement from diners across the country, but in spite of it all, I haven't had a GBK since January 2012 (which wasn't bad) - but it has become somewhat irrelevant to me - and not just because it's cool to wrinkle your nose up at GBK. It sits low down (ok, close to the bottom) in the list in foodie circles who deride the tourists and people who don't know there are better burgers out there. They shake their heads and judge...and to some extent they're right.

"This burger has its problems."

I was invited by GBK to try out a new concept they're rolling out across some of their busiest restaurants - 15-minute lunch - the campaign is accompanied by a flyer that highlights all the extra things you can do in your lunch hour when you're not waiting for service it's quite nice, if a little patronising. I was confirmed for lunch at St. Paul's and booked in, but when I arrived, the FOH had no record of my booking. Touché, GBK, touché.

The burgers themselves contain 4oz patties, rather than the usual 6oz version, and sell for £5.95 for a basic hamburger, or £6.95 for a cheeseburger. They're accompanied by sides, including shoestring fries, or skin-on chips.

The burger was delivered in just 9 minutes from ordering. However it took me about 10 minutes to actually order. Not being a regular, once I'd sat down and read the (shorter!) menu for a bit, I tried to catch someone's attention to be served. Once I had, they told me I had to order at the counter. Fine, it's a bit like Nando's then. I went to the counter where I was asked my table number. I went back to my table to find my table number. I went back to the counter to order. I received some water glasses and was told to help myself to nuts. This I duly did (remember they're empty calories, people). I sat back down and started the stopwatch.
9 minutes later our burgers arrived.
As I previously mentioned, the burger has some issues.

Let's work top to bottom. First of all, the unglazed sesame seed bun looks a bit...solid, which is backed up when you chomp through it. It's firm and unyeilding, and that makes it slightly dry and dense. It is toasted, but so lightly that you'd barely know about it.

Easily the most terrible topping is the sickly-sweet onion/tomato relish that's smeared inside the top bun. It's WAY too sweet for my palate and leaves a lingering taste that only some severe mayo chip-dunking can take away. The sweet onion ring works well, and adds a great texture and crunch to the burger.  However the tomato and lettuce, in my view, are completely redundant - watery and tasteless. The cheese has a great melt on but, for cheddar, is too mild to give that moreish umami that great melted cheese can bring.

The beef is inoffensive. It's nicely seasoned, but doesn't really taste of anything. A bit like a supermarket steak. I'm also very out of touch as I didn't realise GBK served their burgers med-rare to order.
Pure, unadulterated joy, however, is the wholegrain mustard mayo burger sauce that's slathered on the bottom bun. I could eat that all day. And I mopped up a load with my chips.

Chips, both shoestring and skin on, were nice and crispy, and pretty generous given cost of the meal.

These aren't BAD burgers, not by a long stretch, and certainly not on the joy-killingly cynical scale of Giraffe Burgers & Cocktails, for instance. They just don't stand out.

Burger ambivalence aside, I feel the reason GBK has such a challenge on its hands has more do with image than food. You see, the adoption of American fast and comfort food is riding an exponential wave, and core to this trend is the burger - we love the idea of a messy, cheesy white-bunned comfort hit; a beautifully sourced burger with artisan bun and rare breed ingredients; a £5 street food offering, devoured in under a minute. But GBK is none of these. It's a burger that shouts about its New Zealand heritage which, when I last looked had an egg and beetroot thrown in for good luck. It's had years of discounting to drive footfall, which has destroyed its value proposition, even the website and in spite of an engaging social media team

I realise this is less a review of the 15-minute lunch menu burger, and more a wide-ranging analysis of Gourmet Burger Kitchen's business model and response to the competitive environment. It may seem glib at times, and I'm sure people will disagree with the analysis. The truth is I sure as hell couldn't run a chain of 52 restaurants, and while the burger doesn't stand out for me, I do expect the 15-minute lunch will go down well for punters in the City, Waterloo, and Canary Wharf, where it's currently being piloted.

Btw, GBK, I do charge a very reasonable daily rate for burger consultancy if you're interested. Just sayin'.


  1. Jan McCourt03 May, 2014

    Interesting article. Have you heard about Northfield=Meat Pop Up @boroughmarket?

  2. hattyhats08 May, 2014

    e's attention to be served. Once I had, they told me I had to order at the counter. Fine, it's a bit like Nando's then. I went to the counter where I was asked my table number. I went back to my table to find my table number. I went back to the counter to order. "

    I don't go to GBK very often, so I forget how it works, and this happens to me every time I go. It drives me crazy, I hate it, and I think that horrible service experience that prevents me from visiting more often (the staff are nice enough but I've encountered a patronising tone when explaining the system - as though it's my fault they somehow have a totally different system than any other other place I've eaten).

    So, I walk into the joint. Do I grab a table, or do I go to the counter? Well, apparently it's both, and neither. If I go in when the place is moderately busy, how do grab a table before I go to the counter without having to leave one of my possessions on the table to claim it? I don't want to have to leave my jacket or bag or scarf (if I'm wearing one) on the table so I can go round the corner and order - just so I have a table number at the time of ordering! Either let me order from my table - or let me order at the counter, wait at the counter, and then collect my food from the counter to take it to a table of my choice.

    Seriously, I HAAAATE their system. It's so broken - I shouldn't feel pissed off before I've even given someone my money.

  3. Ripsnorter11 May, 2014

    Out of interest, since I have not been to GBK, do they add a "discretionary 12.5% service charge" as well, even though the customer is doing the work here?


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