The recent street food boom has encouraged a wave of enthusiasts to make food the way they want it to be. Usually concentrating on a single specialism – fried chicken, hot dogs, tacos – the model typically centres around extreme devotion to ingredients, cooking method and flavours to create an ‘ultimate’ version of a staple.
Though many of those involved have been food professionals, these pop-ups, residencies and market stalls also allow motivated individuals from other walks of life to indulge their passions in likeminded, supportive communities. This is the story of one such individual who went from being a journalist – on this here title, no less – to running a much-loved burger joint and becoming a consultant to some of the world’s biggest food brands.
In 2011, Gavin Lucas was Staff Writer at Creative Review. He mainly covered graphic design and illustration and had thus developed a network of contacts in that community. At the same time, Lucas was also eating his way around London’s nascent ‘hipster’ burger scene. From chains such as Byron to one-offs, burgers were starting to be taken seriously and food bloggers such as Daniel Young (of the Young & Foodish blog) were turning their attention to the scene. Young’s Burger Mondays became a major draw for London foodies. Here, top chefs would create three-course dinners with a spectacular burger at their centre for enthusiasts gathered at a central London greasy spoon for the night.
As a keen follower of the scene, Lucas found himself regaling friends with his tips for where to find the best burgers in town. Somewhat tired of repeating the same information, he decided a more efficient way to share his knowledge would be to start a blog. “Ultimately it was a way of dumping a load of information I’d found myself repeating in pubs to my friends in one place,” he says.
Lucas’s time at CR had made him aware of the importance not just of content but also the way in which it is packaged – of creating a persona or a brand around his blog.
“I didn’t think that anyone other than friends would look at it, but I wanted it to look good, to feel like a ‘thing’,” he says. Lucas had spotted a burger character drawn by Jon Boam which he thought would make an ideal Twitter avatar and so approached Boam for permission to ‘adopt’ it. Then came a name. Various punning ideas were considered for the idea of a travelling burger reviewer, including ‘Burger He Wrote’. Unfortunately this name was already taken by another blog but CR’s art director Paul Pensom suggested Burgerac – the burger detective.
Burgerac would visit a restaurant and leave his calling card – literally a printed card with the web address and Twitter handle on it – before reviewing his meal and giving it a star rating. Lucas says the latter was important to give people a reason to engage with the site.
Lucas discovered a small but devoted burger community on Twitter. “Burgerac was my way into Twitter,” he says. “There was a group of people who all knew each other and met up at the Burger Monday events: a really nice bunch of people who you would see at every new burger joint opening. Some had blogs too, some were just on Twitter, but collectively their power on social media was quite something.”
With the blog attracting a growing audience, Lucas used his CR contacts to curate a burger-related art show. Burgermat would feature the work of 24 designers and illustrators who were each given a standard paper placemat to work with. The work was shown at one of Young’s Burger Monday events and later developed into a book with independent publisher Nobrow featuring two copies of each mat which could be torn out to use on the table or framed. As we reported in the case of Laurence King in our October 2016 issue, publishers in the graphic arts sector now see such ‘gift’ ideas as a central part of their business, but this idea of an art book with a dual functionality was a precursor to much of that.
By now, Lucas says, Burgerac-related activities were taking up around 12 hours a week of his time, what with physically visiting a restaurant, then writing his review, working on the accompanying photographs and dealing with all the admin involved with running a fledgling publication.
In 2013, Lucas left CR to go freelance but also to pursue an intriguing new opportunity for Burgerac. As well as writing about burgers, he had been experimenting at home with creating the ultimate burger recipe. Now he had a chance to put that into practice.
An old friend, Leo Walton, was part of a small start-up pub group, Golden Age Public Houses. Initially Golden Age invited Lucas to help them create a ‘manifesto’ for their food offering, but when the group took over the Royal Oak, a small pub in a quiet corner of Marylebone, another opportunity arose.
“The original plan was that I would curate a series of kitchen residencies and bring in street food people – market stall-based and representing the exciting stuff that was happening in London,” Lucas says. “But the timescale just didn’t work – street food guys’ lives are planned out six to eight months in advance and we needed something in place for the launch.”
So Walton suggested that Lucas do something himself. “It wasn’t necessarily going to be burgers,” Lucas says. “But it made sense for it to piggy back on the ‘success’ of Burgerac. It was a very collaborative thing – a case of ‘We’ve got a pub, you’ve got Burgerac, let’s plug the two things together and we’ll support you to make that happen’.”
Burgerac’s Burgershack opened in 2014 as a pop-up burger joint within the Royal Oak. From being a journalist, Lucas now found himself sourcing suppliers, devising a menu and running a kitchen team while also juggling the freelance writing work that remained his main source of income. With b regular collaborators design studio Crispin Finn and illustrator Rob Flowers, he was also creating a brand.
“I knew I wanted to work with Rob and have a heavily illustrated brand,” he says. “For me and my generation, burgers were something you first experienced aged five at a mate’s party at McDonald’s where your meal came in a brightly coloured illustrated box (which included a toy) and you had your photo taken with a plastic clown who seemed to be in charge. It was garish, fun, surreal, even and, in my case, life-changing. Since Rob contributed to the Burgermat Show in 2011 I knew he felt exactly the same – only Rob’s been collecting old McDonald’s toys and posters for years and that stuff has influenced his work and I really wanted to bring some of the madness (he’ll allow me to say that!) of his style to the Burgershack table.”
Lucas drew the logo himself but later asked Crispin Finn “to draw a new (more professional) logo”. For the menus, Lucas showed Crispin Finn “a bunch of historic 1950s American diner menus that I really liked the look and feel of and they went away and created the most fantastic logo and design identity including a menu and other brand collateral that incorporated Rob’s illustrations. I remember overhearing someone at The Royal Oak saying – upon receipt of his burger-in-a-basket lined with Rob’s brand illustrations – ‘It’s like being a kid again’. The tone of his comment actually had a distinctly derogatory vibe, but I remember thinking ‘That’s exactly the point!’ Nostalgia is a really powerful thing and it’s something I’ve tried to harness in the brand as much as the food itself,” Lucas says.
Lucas was spending around three days a week at Burgershack. In April 2016 it expanded to a second site – the Social, a bar on London’s Little Portland Street. Lucas now found himself juggling responsibility for two kitchens. “I was doing this thing for fun and a new experience outside of my usual work – it was interesting and I was learning new things, plus it was the chance to work with someone I’ve known for a long time, that was the joy of it,” he says. “But all the things I really enjoyed – building a brand, the graphic design, the bits of ephemera, and pushing the food development side of things – I couldn’t do because I was running between two sites.”
At the end of 2016, after two and a half years, Lucas and the team at the Royal Oak decided to call time on Burgershack. “Basically, Burgerac’s Burgershack started as an experiment, a really positive collaboration with no real business agenda or plan – just a desire to have fun, bring skills and circumstances together to make something cool happen,” Lucas says. Through it, he has learned how to run a food business and how to build a brand.
Now he’s back with a new pop-up, this time in partnership with another friend, David Henckel, and based at The Social. Sonic Sandwich is offering a limited menu of classic sandwiches. Again, Rob Flowers has provided the illustrations with a parade of food-based characters.
As well as running Sonic Sandwich, Lucas now regularly consults for major food brands. “If you create a brand,” Lucas says, “other people will become interested in you.”
Certainly it has appeared to work for him: finding something he felt passionate about, conveying that passion with humour and inviting others to share in it, building a brand around it and finding likeminded collaborators prepared to have a go and see what happens. It’s not all been plain sailing by any means and it’s not been a route to riches but Lucas’s example is a great case study for any creative individual with a passion and the enthusiasm to make something happen.
Sonic Sandwich has teamed up with Print Social to create T-shirts and sweatshirts featuring Rob Flowers’ illustration be sold in aid of Action Against Hunger.