George Bukhov has a plan to make Burger & Lobster an internationally recognised brand, despite being only four years old. But in fact, it is already well on its way, as Neil Gerrard discovers
If the news that there's already a Burger & Lobster restaurant in China comes as a surprise, then imagine how co-founder and director George Bukhov felt when he found out.
It isn't a real one, of course, but one of a number of imitations of the idiosyncratic brand, where there are just three items on the menu - a burger, lobster, or a lobster roll, each priced at £20 - to have sprung up since it was founded just four years ago.
"I don't know where it is exactly, but it actually is branded Burger & Lobster and it is a tiny corner shop of about 10 sq m, so it is quite funny," says Bukhov of the Chinese impostor.
It's not alone - there are others operators in Amsterdam, Munich, Spain, Hong Kong and even London who, while they have not been so brazen as to take the Burger & Lobster brand wholesale, are certainly paying homage to the original concept with their own efforts.
You might think Bukhov would feel a little aggrieved that the idea has been "borrowed" by so many others, but he is remarkably relaxed about these too, and if you follow his logic then you can see why - what better sign that the concept has enduring appeal?
"It's like fake Louis Vuitton bags," he says. "It means it is a big brand now. We realised that Burger & Lobster had become a very popular place and a unique concept that everyone was talking about. We knew it was going to happen."
It's a remarkable story, considering that Burger & Lobster only started life in 2011, born as an offshoot - although you could hardly call it that now - of steakhouse restaurant group Goodman.
Bukhov, now 37, is close friends with Goodman founders Ilya Demichev and Misha Zelman and has been since they were at school together in Russia. While Demichev and Zelman started building their restaurant business in Moscow in 2000, Bukhov forged a career first as a lawyer for media companies and then as a director of MTV Russia and VH1 Russia.
Nonetheless, he still found time to have fun drinking in his friends' restaurants and, at the beginning of 2007, they asked him to become a partner in the business. He went to London and helped to open Goodman there in 2008.
Burger & Lobster, when it started life a couple of years later, was something of a side project, and not one in which many people saw a great deal of promise.
"When I first told people that I was planning to start a restaurant called Burger & Lobster - including Scott [Collins] and Yianni [Papoutsis] from MEATliquor - they laughed at me. I remember the reaction was predominantly: 'what kind of a name is that?' Burger & Lobster sounds really stupid, but now it has become a brand," he says.
So much so, in fact, that Bukhov now runs Burger & Lobster full time, leaving Zelman and Demichev to handle Goodman as well as the Rex & Mariano and Beast brands.
Burger & Lobster has already grown to seven UK sites, including the gargantuan new 300-cover restaurant on London's Threadneedle Street, which opened in late May.
Then there's the New York venue, which launched at 39 West, 19th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues last year, and its two Smack Lobster Roll takeaway sites in London, which sell lobster rolls and lobster salads for £10.
"I really mean this - we had never been planning such a big success," claims Bukhov. "We just focused on one restaurant and then another. If you start by telling yourself that you want to make money, then you are not going to make money. I think the key is not to think about becoming big and successful but just to do what you love and do it really well."
It is perhaps this philosophy that explains some of the unusual decisions the business has made. There can't be many London-based restaurant operators, for example, who, when looking to expand outside the capital, make a 240-cover restaurant in Cardiff their first port of call. As a general rule, it's the likes of Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Bath that seem to be more common testing grounds.
"It just happened that we found an amazing property in a very good location and we decided to do it," Bukhov says. "We are actually not very strategical or logical. We just try to be different. I have had some great nights in the Cardiff bars. It is beautiful - the bay, the architecture and the people."
It's difficult to believe that someone who runs such a successful business - one that now sells so much lobster (around 15 tonnes a week), that it has a dedicated lobster tank near Heathrow and is reckoned to be the biggest importer of live lobster in Europe - could be so casual in their approach.
And yet, Bukhov places a major emphasis on having fun while running the business. When The Caterer visits him in the group's vibrant Soho outpost, he is discussing plansto launch a "naked calendar" featuring the staff working at the restaurants. New York is apparently planning its own.
He also harbours an ambition - and it will be interesting to see if this one takes off - to serve lobster in the style of Canadian fishermen, who either boil them in seawater or eat them raw, accompanied by vodka.
Then there's the hope that at some point the group will have an app that can allow customers to buy a burger or lobster and then claim it at any restaurant, or from the Burger & Lobster food van that is appearing at all major festivals this year.
Bukhov is clearly brimming with ideas, but how does he end up deciding which ones to go with, and which ones are too difficult to bring to fruition, or indeed a little too left of field?
"First of all, whatever it is has to be real," he says. "It has to have some real fun or evoke some real emotion. There's lots of crazy stuff. It's just that sometimes because we are a small team it is difficult to execute the ideas."
That team does look set to grow in size relatively quickly though. Next up is a site in Manchester on King Street, although it has been delayed because the listed building in which it is to sit has thrown up some complications. Beyond that, there are plans for a site in Bath, in Milsom Place. "There'll be a secret bar downstairs - don't tell anyone," Bukhov jokes.
Then next year comes a restaurant in Leeds, and franchised sites in Stockholm, Sweden and Dubai are also in the offing. The group is also looking at Birmingham, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
Is there perhaps a point where Burger & Lobster reaches saturation point in the UK? Bukhov thinks so - and he reckons that could come as early as 2017. "I think by then we will have a presence in the major cities and I am thinking we will shift our focus to the US," he says, adding, in a way that is difficult to tell if he is joking or serious, "I suggested to everyone we will move offices to California."
Another New York restaurant, perhaps in the financial district or another part of Manhattan, seems like a likely target for the next US opening, following on from the "big, scary project" of the first New York site.
Despite the opening nerves, the American market seems to have embraced the Russian restaurant operator selling one of their national foods to them, and Bukhov can see the possibility of restaurants in Miami, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"In America, it is easier to roll out restaurants because it has been done so many times, whereas in the UK it is a bit more difficult," he says, before checking himself and adding: "But maybe I am wrong - we will find out."
The other interesting fact to note is that Burger & Lobster has been doing some research on China because it has a major following in that country, as can be seen at lunchtime in the Soho site, where plenty of Chinese tourists have sought the restaurant out.
"We know Burger & Lobster is in a lot of Chinese guidebooks for London. Lobster is one of the success symbols in food and is a very important dish there. We have also found that they eat lobster at weddings, so I think one day we will have an app where not only can you order and pay for your food, but you can also book your Chinese wedding ceremony," he says. At this rate, who knows, perhaps a Burger & Lobster restaurant in China - a genuine one - isn't such a remote possibility.
George Bukhov onâ¦
…the price of lobster
"The price of lobster fluctuates but, generally speaking, it will never go down to the levels of four or five years ago. There is a global trend with meat. Meat is growing. We haven't increased the price of our lobster or burgers from when we opened. We are trying to be efficient in all other possible areas and it will be like a last resort for us to increase the price. The problem is the lobster industry is quite complicated and also the demand for lobsters is very big and growing in China, so that is driving the price up."
â¦Goodman compared to Burger & Lobster
"Burger & Lobster gets double or triple the amount of customers because the table turnover is much higher. Goodman is a totally different experience. It is a classic steakhouse and the average spend is around double.
I think Goodman is a great brand and a great restaurant, but it is much more difficult to grow the business in Goodman compared to Burger & Lobster because of the lower spend and wider clientele. But in terms of the turnover, Goodman is making good money and it is as strong as ever.
When Burger & Lobster started, it was like a little brother of Goodman and everyone was joking about it. Now, it is kind of the other way around. Burger & Lobster has become a big, big lobster and Goodman is a smaller, older brother."
Burger & Lobster's restaurants
- 29 Clarges Street, Mayfair W1J 7EF
- 36-38 Dean Street, Soho W1D 4PS
- 40 St John Street, Smithfield EC1M 4AY
- 1 Bread Street, EC4M 9BE
- Fifth Floor, Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge SW1X 7RJ
- 6 Little Portland Street, Fitzrovia W1W 7JE
- 52 Threadneedle Street, EC2R 8AY
- Unit 2, The Hayes CF10 1AH
- 98 King Street, Ship Canal House M2 4WB (Opening August 2015)
- 39 West 19th Street, Flatiron, New York City
What sells more - burger or lobster?
Bukhov won't be drawn into specifics, but as a general rule, lobster is the best-selling dish at Burger & Lobster restaurants. After that, the burgers and lobster rolls compete for second and third spot, depending on the site. However, Bukhov points out that in New York, the burger sometimes outsells the lobster. There is also a seasonal variation to the sales mix - in winter more burgers are sold, and in summer the lobster orders increase.
Facts and figures
Best-performing site (Before the opening of Threadneedle Street) Soho, with £140,000-£150,000 in takings each week
Turnover £27m (2014 calendar year)
Founders George Bukhov, Misha Zelman and Ilya Demichev
Average spend per head £25-£27