Behind the fast-expanding Burger & Lobster dining chain is a slick operation that appears to have nailed the tricky business of lobster logistics.
20 Feb 2016
Originally conceived by restaurateur George Bukhov as a low-key experiment from the London-based Goodman group back in 2011, Burger & Lobster has since surpassed all expectations. Although it wasn’t without some concern in the early stages; the founders initially worried that this foray into casual dining would dent Goodman’s high-end reputation.
That’s long been forgotten with queues still snaking around the block as Burger & Lobster continues to open new sites at a rapid rate. Its ninth London outlet opened last year in addition to three further locations in the UK, one in Stockholm and one in Kuwait. It has also launched – with some chutzpah – in New York, succeeding in selling the surf-and-turf concept back to the country that conceived it.
The idea is a simple one: a menu that pairs preposterously luxurious burgers with accessibly priced lobsters. With just three options to choose from (burger, lobster or lobster roll), the restaurant only needs to buy a limited range of ingredients, which results in almost zero food wastage.
Yet while importing high-grade beef from Nebraska has been easy, bringing in huge volumes of live lobsters from Canada has called on a complex logistical operation. So how exactly do you bring tonnes of the clawed creatures to the table?
‘The best lobsters are live lobsters’
‘You don’t spend long looking at the business model of selling lobsters at scale before it becomes painfully apparent that you need to invest in a massive tank,’ says Bukhov on his decision to create his own enormous lobster storage tank by Heathrow Airport. ‘We spent a lot of time looking at tanks and tank technology in Boston and across Canada, having to learn everything very quickly. We took the decision early that we were in this for the long term and decided to build our own custom-designed tank at Heathrow, capable of supporting 15 restaurants.’
According to Bukhov, the tank is the most complex part of the business. ‘We’re overseeing a complicated biological system where we have to recreate the ocean and constantly have to manage saltiness, temperatures, pH levels and other variables,’ he says. ‘I won’t say how much it costs us but it’s significantly more than we envisaged – even a simple display tank costs over £25,000.’
The tank at Heathrow can store 35 tonnes of lobster but with it rarely full, there’s still some capacity. ‘We’re at 20,000 lobsters per week at the moment,’ says Bukhov. ‘We’re not at the stage when we have to upgrade the tank quite yet but we never imagined we would get to this stage so fast.’
Trading in live lobsters
Although the Burger & Lobster name suggests equal billing for two dishes, it’s the shellfish that are undoubtedly the stars of the show, overwhelmingly what most customers order.
Presenting lobsters, which are traditionally a byword for high luxury, in a casual context and priced as an alternative to a big night out at Nando’s has propelled the business. Both a lobster roll and a standard lobster will set you back £20, served with chips and salad.
Asked about the sustainability impact of importing lobsters on this scale, Bukhov insists lobster populations were growing for decades despite the prices and cites various studies as proof that concerns of over-fishing of lobsters are ill-founded. In fact, he says, the availability of lobster was part of the appeal when setting up the business.
However, prices have shot up by around 45 per cent in the past two years, blamed on the surge in demand from an increasingly affluent Chinese middle class. Bukhov warns he will be increasing prices in line with what he says are the higher costs he pays to his Canadian suppliers.
This story is taken from Courier Feb/Mar 2016.