They said in New York City and London that it wouldn’t work: A restaurant serving only three entrée dishes, all at the same price. But a U.K.–based restaurant company, Burger & Lobster, is rocking the Big Apple with a minimalized menu that features upscale proteins.
Burger & Lobster offers a 10-ounce hamburger, a 6-ounce lobster roll, and a one-and-half pound grilled or steamed lobster, each with a salad and fries, and each for $20. “In London they said you couldn’t get lobster for this price, that lobster is seasonal, and that it wouldn’t work in Mayfair, which has a lot of high-end restaurants,” says co-owner Vladimir Borodin. “In fact, they said it didn’t make any sense at all.”
But it does work, and the Burger & Lobster chain opened its first U.S. location in New York City in January 2015, with another coming later this year. The concept is the brainchild of four Russians who launched their first restaurant in London in 2011, and now operate 12 in the U.K.—nine in London and three elsewhere. They also opened a location in Dubai, one in Sweden, and one in Kuwait. More are on the horizon for this side of the Atlantic, too. Although the Burger & Lobster owners are concentrating on the New York City market for now, expanding around the country—through corporate and franchised stores—is certainly in the offing.
The concept is working quite nicely in New York City, with that restaurant on track to gross $10 to $11 million this year, serving an average of 1,000 covers per night and half as many again on the weekend. New York City seemed natural for expansion, as Borodin explains: “Zagat in London told us this was the best American concept for 2012, and all three dishes are very New York food items. So we thought if we can have success in New York, this concept can work anywhere.”
Perfected Prix Fixe Proteins
The secret to the success of this nascent chain is that initially debated diminutive menu. It was a very deliberate move, Borodin notes. “It’s our recipe for perfection.”
Before launching the chain, he and his partners discovered that “with the mono-product approach—when you can focus on one thing and eliminate the rest—you can work on food quality and speed of service.”
It’s also about creating an enhanced experience for diners, he continues. “When I go to restaurants with a big menu, I’m stressed. And when I ask waiters what their favorite item is, they mention two or three dishes, so we decided to do just two or three and eliminate the rest.”
Burger & Lobster restaurants don’t even have a printed menu, so there’s nothing to read, and servers are hired for their personality, not their experience.
The byproduct of a limited menu is that Burger & Lobster realizes significant operational efficiencies—in the kitchen, in storage, with waste, and through purchasing. Serving time is short, leading to more table turns (they turn five or six times a night in New York City, though in London it can be up to eight times), and labor costs are lower because each server can handle more tables since everything is simplified and fast.
The limited menu extends to the appetizers—there are none—and the desserts—there’s just one in New York, cheesecake mousse, plus two or three gelatos. The bar menu, however, is more extensive.
The New York Burger & Lobster offers four cocktails on tap, five or six bottled beers and two draft options (from local brewery Sixpoint), and four wines on tap, as well as a reserve list. The drinks menu isn’t as limited as the food menu, because Borodin explains, “We are craftsmen of our few food items, but the distilleries, wineries, and breweries are craftsmen of their products.”
Despite the beverage options outnumbering the food choices, food constitutes 70 percent of sales (75 percent in London). Business skews heavier at night, split one-third at lunch and two-thirds for dinner.
Customers in New York City are ordering less of the big lobster than their U.K. counterparts, with Big Apple sales split pretty evenly between the three menu items. The lobster roll accounts for 40 percent of sales, while the burger and lobster each account for 30 percent. In London, 60 percent of sales is the large lobster, and the roll and burger are each 20 percent. “Lobster used to be a super luxury item in the U.K.,” Borodin says.
The American restaurant also has another significant differentiating factor: With 13,000 square feet across two levels, it’s twice as big as the largest U.K. restaurant, and the New York restaurant accommodates a full floor of private-dining space and a large bar.
“One of our problems in London is the waiting time, which can be an hour, and the line stretches outside,” Borodin says. “In New York we have a big bar area for waiting.”
Succinct But Stellar
Coming up with the perfect menu doesn’t just happen overnight: The food quality has to be second to none. Burger & Lobster’s seafood all comes from Southwest Nova Scotia.
“Our model of buying lobsters is similar to buying futures,” Borodin says. “We fix the price before the season starts and are committed to buy a lot. So we prepay for tons of lobsters. For most buyers, the lobster price can change weekly or sometimes daily.”
The beef is from three cuts of high-grade beef from corn-fed Hereford cows, exclusively from Nebraska, and ground by Pat LaFrieda, a meat purveyor in New Jersey. “We spent a very long time selecting the right blend of chuck, brisket, and tri-tip—in the perfect ratio to make a burger that stands out from the rest,” Borodin says.
But you can’t produce perfect food without dedicated chefs. After personality, what the Burger & Lobster owners look for in hiring staff is “tremendous attention to detail and an eye for quality,” Borodin says. “Replicating the perfection of a few products hundreds of times daily takes tremendous focus—consistency is key to our concept. Our chefs have to be interested in perfecting these few items.”
Stress-Free Assisted Living
To serve as many lobsters as Burger & Lobster does, a very special lobster tank was required to store them.
The New York restaurant’s “lobster condo” was custom-built and holds more than 4,000 live lobsters in an environment that mimics the ocean. This ensures the lobsters live stress-free, which in turn ensures they are tender and sweet.
It’s the largest live-lobster storage system ever built for a restaurant, and it has two parts—the downstairs storage, and the upstairs “Big Boy” tank.
The company makes its own salt water and constantly monitors the temperature and pH levels. A drop-down system means water splashes from the top through bio filters to the top tank, then down farther, so lobsters are constantly taking showers—sans soap.