Thursday 12 February 2015

[Interview] Zan Kaufman, Bleecker St. Burger Boss

Zan loves the street. It's what's drawn her to serve her burgers from the now familiar black Bleecker St. Burger truck for so long. But things are changing...
I'm sitting opposite Zan in a newly opened restaurant and bar on the corner of Old Spitalfields Market, just around the corner from the brand new permanent home for Bleecker St. Burger in the city. which has been a long time coming...but more on that later. I'm talking to Zan in the latest in a series of interviews with the people behind the best burgers in London, so say hi to straight-talking New Yorker Zan Kaufman who talks to me about beginnings, burgers, beef and taking things back to basics.

As an antidote to corporate law, setting up a burger truck is the foodie equivalent of opening a second hand bookshop - the aim is to drop out of the rat race and do something you love. Zan's epiphany was taking a second job in a high end burger restaurant in East Village, Manhattan - this was her tonic to the hours pumped into contract reviews in windowless basements - and in her words, "it's where burgers found me." - working alongside her friend's mother, a matriarch figure who takes massive pride in the burgers she served, and the ingredients she uses to make them (sometimes to the detriment of her margins) - it was this experience that sewed the seeds of what has become one of London's most popular burgers.

Hamburger Me: Why burgers?

Zan Kaufman: I love the street. For me it's all about the interaction with people. It doesn't matter if they're trying their first Bleecker St. Burger, are a regular customer, or are a tourist just passing by - I love to chat, interact and see people enjoying the burgers we've served them.

HM: You've been serving burgers in London since the summer of 2012, how did it all begin?

ZK: After moving to London I attended a Kerb street food conference, it must have been one of the first, and at the end I chatted to Petra (Barran - Kerb's founder) about setting up a burger truck to which she simply said "You've just got to go for it." So I went and bought a truck, ripped the back off and replaced it with the serving box that's on there now, and went in search of a pitch.

HM: You didn't have a pitch already?

ZK: Not many people do when they first start out, but normally you'd scale up slowly - maybe outlay £2-£3k on equipment and a stall, that's pretty normal - I needed something quickly as I'd spent close to £40k!

HM: So where was your first gig?

ZK: Red Market

HM: Ah, the Old St. food incubator...

ZK: I started on the same day as Burger Bear in Red Market, and had a few days there, then I was on Exhibition Road over the summer during the Olympics which helped us get used to serving at volume, our big break though was the Kerb King's Cross launch party.

HM: That was my first Bleecker Burger...and my second.

My first and second Bleecker burgers
ZK: That event really put Bleecker on the map and we had some great buzz and engagement from our customers on social media, and from bloggers,

HM: I remember. So how influential was social media and the foodie community in helping you grow?

ZK: It really helped us build a platform for growth, but importantly it also gave us some great feedback on how consistent we were being - you know, if we were doing six burgers out of ten well - then frankly that's shit. I want everyone to get the same amazing product. It's something we work really hard at.

HM: Tell us a bit more about your burger philosophy.

ZK: We have some of the best beef in the UK from The Butchery in Bermondsey. It has phenomenal flavour, texture and fat content, and so that's the platform for our burger. Everything else that goes in HAS to complement and enhance the beef - anything that overpowers it is out.

HM: You do have an exceptionally small menu - cheese burger, bacon cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, and of course the Bleecker Black. How did that last one come about?

ZK: You can credit Liam with that [Liam O'Keefe is sitting between me and Zan in the bar, grinning. He's a partner in Bleecker Burger, and formerly ran the burger blog The Burger Addict]. The idea came from a burger he created at home and then bugged me for months about until I tried it. My fear was the black pudding would mask the beef. I was wrong. It took the burger to a whole new level, so we took a risk and launched it at the London Burger Bash in 2013. It was supposed to be on as a special, but now it's a full time menu item.
The Bleecker Black (photo from Bleecker website)
HM: There were a lot of happy people when that went on the menu. How has business been since you started?

ZK: I'm really happy to say that business is growing, year on year. In December 2012 I had a low - street food in the winter is a tough gig and I was in negative figures wondering whether I could carry on...but we've had a strong 2014 and so we'll shortly be opening a permanent home for Bleecker in Old Spitalfields Market, which is our first expansion beyond the truck. We're really excited about it.

HM: That's super exciting. What's your proposition going to be there?

ZK: It's a very similar set up to the truck (except ironically we have less space - with a truck, you can generally spread out around your pitch). We'll have the same menu, the same beef and buns, the same attention to detail - but just in a shop rather than a truck. We'll still be roaming in that, though.

The one thing we are going to add to the menu is a range of milkshakes. We're making our own soft serve ice cream as a base and then blending in different flavours. We're going to do a classic New York Black & White Shake (1/2 chocolate, 1/2 vanilla), a coffee shake, and some other flavours. It's going to be awesome.

HM: So when do you open?

ZK: We'll be opening the hatch this month, serving from 11:30am to 9pm to start with - in fact we're being innundated with messages daily asking when we're opening as we haven't been serving from the truck this year which we've focused on getting this unit up and running.
Bleecker in Old Spitalfields Market - under construction
HM: Let us know when you're open - my readers and I are really excited. Ok, so now for some quick fire questions. Other than Bleecker (obvs) what's your favourite London burger?

ZK: I'm a big fan of Tommi's, they keep their burgers pretty simple, too. Lucky Chip is also great and I think Shake Shack are definitely one of the most underated burgers in London.

HM: I agree. Bacon or Cheese?

ZK: Cheese.

HM: Toasted or untoasted bun?

ZK: Toasted.

HM: Med-rare or well done?

ZK: Med-rare. It pains me when people ask for their burgers well done.

HM: Ketchup or mayo?

ZK: Ketchup.

HM: Chips or fries?

ZK: Come on. Fries.

HM: Zan, it's been an absolute pleasure talking to you - just one final question. Have you had anyone famous turn up for burgers at the Bleecker truck?

ZK: Good question. We did a private catering event for 200 people where Elton John was performing - we sold out all the burgers so were able to listen to the show - that was awesome. Actually another time Lorde came by and ordered a load of double cheeseburgers - we didn't know that it was her at the time, but her stylist tweeted afterwards - trust me, we're better at recognising our regulars than celebs!

Bleecker St. Burger opens in Old Spitalfields Market in February 2015 and I very strongly advise you to go and get your fix as soon as humanly possible.

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