Originally known as Café 51, Melbourne-based #burgerlove is a burger chain that’s quite unlike any other.
Operating with a focus on offering customers ‘love on a plate’, #burgerlove brought its tech-forward mindset further into play this year and took the customer experience to the next level by becoming the first quick-service restaurant (QSR) in Australia to accept cryptocurrency.
We spoke to Steve Agi, hospitality veteran and co-founder of #burgerlove, to hear his take on some of the trends that have hit the hospitality industry, as well as their plans for growth.
Tell us how #burgerlove started
Hospitality has been my life for over 30 years. Besides working in restaurants, I’ve also had a long career in media for hospitality, and used to publish a number of industry-focussed digital magazines for about a decade, including Bean Scene, Melbourne Café Review, World of Coffee and a few others.
We established the business in 2011, and originally called it Café 51 – after the location of our first store at 51 Buckhurst Street, South Melbourne. We’ve opened a total of three stores in the last two and a half years, but only decided to rebrand the business and change its name to #burgerlove in 2015.
The reason for the new name is simple – our focus is on burgers, so we wanted something ubiquitous that gives people an immediate understanding of what the business is about.
We’re also a digitally-forward company, so it made sense to include the hashtag in the name of the brand. It’s helped to cement the impression we want to give others.
The business tripled in two years. Can you tell us a little about your plans for growth?
From our inception in 2011, the plan has always been to grow the brand to a multi-unit QSR. While the first three stores are all company-owned, we’re about to license the brand to partners and open an additional three stores soon, doubling our presence in 2018.
From there we’ll be looking at a full franchise model, and then hopefully within the next 18 months we’ll be able to expand nationally, and then internationally if all goes well.
To bring all these plans to life, we’ve brought on board Jim Vass, who was formerly the Director of Operations for McDonald’s Australia for 25 years. We’re definitely at a growth stage right now and it’s all very exciting.
What are some of the issues facing business owners and operators who want to go down the franchising route?
There’s a lot of pressure at the moment in the franchising landscape. Instances like the recent debacle with Retail Food Group (the franchisor of iconic brands like Donut King and Gloria Jean’s ) have brought to light how many franchisees have suffered from a lack of support, and this has undoubtedly hurt the industry to a certain degree.
We’re really careful to work with partners and develop relationships that mutually benefit all parties involved. It’s all about creating a win-win situation for our franchisees and us. It’s a codependent relationship after all.
The wealth of experience someone like Jim brings to the table is invaluable, and helps us take a lot of the guesswork out of our growth plan. He’s worked with McDonald’s in several regions – including Australia, Europe and the Middle East – and also introduced McCafé as a whole separate business to the brand in Australia.
As our Director of Operations, Jim is helping us to take #burgerlove to the next level in an organised and systematic way that doesn’t compromise any of the relationships we’ve built, or the quality of our product.
We’re planning to secure probably 8–10 stores in Victoria before rolling out nationally. Having said that, we won’t open anything interstate until we’re comfortably operating in Vic – our home base – and have ensured that the model, systems and the operational aspects work well.
This ensures that we don’t overstretch ourselves, that we don’t put unnecessary pressure on our interstate partners, and we avoid a situation where they can’t cope and we can’t support them the way we want to.
In your opinion, how have things changed in the hospitality industry since you first started, and how have you adapted to them?
To me, the biggest gamechanger (apart from employment laws, workplace safety and other legislative changes) in the last few years, has been the rise of third-party delivery services like Uber Eats and Deliveroo.
The [highly] advancing integration of mobile technology with foodservice has given consumers the ability to attain easy and fast access to quality food without leaving their homes, and that’s greatly changed the way people interact with restaurants.
The end users’ (diners) expectations are higher than ever, and I think a lot of hospitality businesses are struggling to understand, adapt to and profit from it in a sustainable way.
Additionally, the companies enabling the deliveries are also facing issues that will more than likely trickle down to the hospitality businesses using their services, as well as the diners that order the food.
For example, we’re seeing that workers unions are campaigning to raise the minimum wage of delivery drivers. That added cost could be passed on to the restaurants and cafés who would then have to charge customers a higher price for delivery items.
The proliferation of the third-party delivery service model is a very different beast compared to anything else that has ever happened in hospitality, and it’s honestly challenging on all fronts.
There are plenty of factors to think about if you want to get on board, including your cost of goods, the extra resources you need, your trading hours and handling customer complaints. I know a number of operators who are closing down because they haven’t managed the whole delivery model well.
In #burgerlove, we’ve adopted the practice of having an iPad which our staff use to either take orders at the table or for third-party delivery. We keep that away from the front counter so it doesn’t clog up our service area and slow us down.
I also think what we’re seeing is just the beginning, it’s still morphing and everyone’s still learning. Businesses that can adapt, learn from and understand it are the ones that will benefit and survive in the long run.
You’re the first QSR in Australia to accept cryptocurrency as payment. How did this development come about?
I’ve always been an early adopter when it comes to technology. The #burgerlove business is also largely built around customer experience and engagement, and technology is a big enabler of that.
Besides our interest in cryptocurrency and its potential applications in future, it’s more about giving customers the experience they expect, that is, giving them the option to pay the way they want to.
The response from our customers has been fantastic, they feel good paying with cryptocurrency because it doesn’t feel like they’re spending the physical cash they have in their wallets.
From a branding perspective, it gives us exposure to a whole different network of burger lovers we weren’t normally getting exposed to, so it’s been really good.
What’s your secret to hiring and retaining good employees?
Our business focuses on creating memorable experiences for our customers. We like to offer them a form of happiness and joy when they experience our food.
A large part of that comes from keeping our staff well-trained and happy, so they’re able to carry that across the food they make and the interactions they have with our customers.
The four pillars of our business are: happy, love, family and community. It’s all about being happy, it’s all about love on a plate and giving back.
We strive to create a family environment, both with our customers and with our staff, who we like to call our ‘Burger Family’. Whether they stay for a short a long time with us, we try to make sure they genuinely enjoy coming to work.
Our employees are challenged every day and they have to achieve goals just like everyone else, but we also want them to have fun. We can tell when they do too, because they’re working extremely hard but they’re high-fiving one another and laughing with our customers. It’s inspiring to watch.
We recognise that our staff become our salespeople, and they become our brand. We believe in encouraging our employees to take ownership, be responsible for themselves and proud of their work.
Rather than creating a culture where people are working in fear and scared of doing something wrong, we choose to reward them for doing things right.
#burgerlove is all about love on a plate. How do you source your ingredients?
We support local businesses, so absolutely everything is sourced locally. Our produce vendors supply only to us, our recipes are proprietary and we’ve also got a trademark on them.
Our beef patties are handmade and delivered daily to each store. The chicken breasts we use are hand-cut, have no preservatives, added-hormones, or go through any sort of processing.
That’s the key differentiator for us – because nothing is frozen, we never have to deal with issues like freezer-burn and excess dryness or moisture.
It’s really important that our buns complement the meat and the ingredients that go into each burger stack, so we get them from one of Australia’s most reputable bakeries, and they make them for us using a proprietary recipe.
We’ve managed to nail down the formula that gets them to caramelise really well when toasted, and they complete each burger we make really beautifully
Are there any tools or specialist equipment you can’t live without?
All the equipment we use is custom-made for us, from the toasters to the self-filtering deep fryers and the flat-press grill.
For our point of sale, I was really keen on a cloud-based solution rather than have a network in-store, so Lightspee was our choice when it was introduced to us by Unify Services, a Melbourne-based business services agency.
Once it was installed, it was a win-win to both the management (who need visibility into sales numbers and reporting) and the staff (who found it really easy to use).
The fact that we can access Lightspeed remotely is also fantastic – especially when we’re looking to expand nationally and can’t physically be everywhere at once – and the support has been great. It’s exactly what we looked for.
We have two touchscreens for orders at the counter, and as mentioned above, an iPad for table-side and delivery orders. We generally have three terminals in each store and set them up in a similar fashion.
Have you used any marketing tactics that have worked well?
We produced a magazine and published the first issue digitally last year. It got such a great response that we’re going to be releasing a print edition in-store soon on a quarterly basis.
The magazine is meant to be a feel-good publication, and it’s about giving our customers some interesting information in a way that connects them to our brand more personally.
Each issue includes things like vouchers, coupons, discounts, and interesting content like featured recipes from our chefs – who we called Burgerologists – events we’ve covered and any upcoming activities we’re planning.
We also feature stories about other hospitality businesses because we’d like to support the community – it’s a small industry and the more everyone helps each other the better.
Anyone who comes to our stores can pick up a copy for free, and we also include one in each delivery order that goes out the door.
What’s the future like for #burgerlove?
We’re working on expanding our brand, so a lot is happening at the moment. Our long-term goal is to successfully capture the gourmet burger market and offer people a delicious alternative to processed fast-food dining.
We definitely love what we do and will continue applying our passion and experience to continually improve our operations. Hopefully someday soon, we’ll get to where we want to be in a few more markets, nationally and globally.