Burger chains are all the same, right? An overcooked beef patty in a soggy bun with some limp lettuce, served with lukewarm greasy fries by a minimum wage teenager who really couldn’t care less if you “have a nice day”.
Let me introduce you to Honest Burgers. Founded by two friends who started out cooking some amazing burgers for their friends in a tent in a field in Somerset, in less than 10 years they’ve grown to a size which could easily be identified as a chain restaurant. But if anything, Honest are fast becoming the anti-chain.
I first tried Honest Burgers a few years ago in London. They served a great burger, accompanied by rosemary salted chips which Jay Rayner described as “edible crystal meth” when he visited their first restaurant in Brixton Market. They opened their 34th site in Liverpool in 2019 and I had the pleasure of meeting co-founders Tom Barton and Philip Eeles at their Bold Street site – two men who are passionate about a good burger, and who are completely obsessed with potatoes. They told their story and talked about their food, and at that point I realised that this was not your average burger chain.
Their food tastes homemade, largely because it is homemade. They have their own butchery and make all their own burgers from scratch. Their facility has obtained the LTTC accreditation meaning they can serve their burgers the perfect balance of medium-rare, something which other chains are unable to do. Their potatoes come from a farm who have been growing spuds for six generations, and they’re always fresh – never frozen – with frying times and temperatures adjusted slightly every day to take into account seasonal changes in the potato harvest. Their pickles, relish and sauces are all made by hand in their own kitchens. All of this is incredibly time-consuming, but the choice of people over machines is an insight into Honest’s way of doing business.
Like most in hospitality Honest have been affected by the recent Covid-19 crisis, with all restaurants closing fully back in April. They could have gone to ground, furloughed their teams and waited for the storm to pass. But that wouldn’t have been the Honest way.
Their proactivity and transparency flourished in the face of Covid-19. At the start of lockdown, they provided frontline support by cooking for the NHS and emergency services creating over 8,000 ready meals with ingredients which would otherwise have gone to waste. They developed a chatbot which helped their staff to identify other job opportunities in essential services to earn an income. They also launched Honest at Home, a cook-at-home burger kit available for nationwide delivery which could be purchased only by making a donation to their “Honesty Box” with all proceeds from the first 250 kits going to charity.
In a bid to keep their furloughed people engaged and entertained during lockdown they ran an impressive staff engagement programme called Home Front. Activities included healthy eating talks, live seed planting demonstrations and online yoga classes. Honest co-founder Tom Barton even hosted a weekly online HIT exercise class in full 80’s workout gear. Sessions were available to watch live and at any time after and use of the platform was entirely optional for staff, but 100% of employees engaged with their content during lockdown.
Their most recent initiative is the Honest Craft Exchange, where their own people can be upskilled in crafts such as signwriting and can then pick up a real living wage for doing the jobs that external companies would previously have carried out. They’re still supporting frontline workers and offering a 20% discount for emergency services on production of an ID card.
I returned to Honest Burgers on National Burger Day, and they did not disappoint. We tried their current special the ‘Steak Frites’ which is a beautiful stack of Honest beef, smoked bacon, Boursin cheese, shoestring fries, steak sauce, red onion and pickles, all served with those famous homemade rosemary salted chips. Honest change their menu’s special offering regularly, keeping their menu fresh and giving their customers with a reason to return time and time again.
Just for Liverpool, Honest Burgers created a specialty burger in collaboration with local indie Hafla Hafla which they named the ‘Liverpool Special’. It features Honest beef, British halloumi, Hafla Hafla’s famous salt and pepper, spring onion, sriracha mayo and lettuce, and it’s truly a delicious taste of the city. You’ll also find a different beer from a local brewery in every Honest site – in Liverpool it’s Bold Street Pale Ale made by local brewery Black Lodge.
These partnerships with local independents are what make Honest different from any other burger chain. They have a real desire to support their community and share their success with local businesses. If the hospitality industry has learned anything this year it’s that we’re always better together, and there’s no doubt that Honest’s passion for collaboration will fuel their future success.