The man who helped American better burger chains Shake Shack and Five Guys beef up on these shores, Tim Lowther, is now leading the UK expansion of another: Smashburger
It seems fitting that the man who describes himself as the “burger guy” began his career in McDonald’s, nearly 30 years ago. Tim Lowther left school at 16, having decided not to do A-levels and go to university. “I wanted to start earning my millions straight away, so I went to work at McDonald’s in Bognor Regis as a crew member.”
Lowther was propelled through the management ranks and nine years later he was running his own store. His next career move was to TGI Friday’s, where he spent three years. “McDonald’s taught me all I knew about how to run a business and how to serve people quickly in a fast-food environment. McDonald’s was, ‘bring ‘em in, serve ‘em food, take ‘em out and bring some more people in,’” he explains. “Friday’s showed me how to go from looking after people in a quick turnaround business to spending time giving great service to those people. It was, ‘bring people in, give them a great experience and make them want to come back for more’. Friday’s was really how I learned how restaurants were run.”
Next stop on the burger belt was SSP and then Compass Group, where he worked for Burger King. “That’s where my career took off,” he says. “I went from looking after one Burger King to two, to ten, to 30. I moved to Germany and helped set up the Burger King business for SSP in the German train stations for a couple of years.” He lived in Frankfurt for nearly two years but his job took him to every corner of the country. The travel and hard graft paid off. “When I joined, there were two Burger Kings that weren’t doing very well and when I left it just under two years later there were 18 very successful Burger Kings across the German market.” And that wasn’t the only feather in Lowther’s cap: “I could finally speak German when I left.”
In 2006, he took a break from burgers, becoming international brand development manager for coffee chain Caffe Ritazza. His globetrotting adventures began again in earnest as he took on responsibility for 200 cafes in 20 countries. “I did a lot of travelling and it was great. I don’t do so much now and that’s great too. People always say that travelling is great fun and I would endorse that. It opens your horizons, going round to all different countries and understanding how different people work,” says Lowther. “We live in a very multicultural society; having been to a lot of countries has certainly helped me and will continue to help me in the future with the teams I work with.”
After a year and eight months, he went back to the grill – or at least back to burgers. He joined Burger King on the franchise side, helping the company find new franchisees across Europe, in countries including the UK, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
It was four years ago that Lowther's journey into the ‘better burger’ market began, when he was approached to help launch US burger sensation Shake Shack in Covent Garden. It was a fast-food chain launch like no other: it saw hungry punters queue outside on the square’s cobbled streets to await a taste of its meaty treats and infamous cheese fries. His oeuvre caught the eye of the bigwigs at Five Guys, who invited him to assist in their launch into the north of England. Which just about brings us up-to-date.
“Now I find myself where I am,” says Lowther. And that's spearheading the UK launch of Smashburger, a US better burger franchise, after the rights were acquired by MSG Group. “I met with Tom Ryan, the founder of Smashburger, at the end of last year. Tom was the most inspirational guy,” says Lowther. “Within five minutes of meeting him in Denver, I was in the kitchen smashing burgers. I’ve met many founders and many creators of businesses but Tom was the first one to say, ‘come on Tim, let’s go smash a burger in the kitchen.’”
Smashburger’s USP is the way it prepares and cooks its burgers – it even has a patented tool called a Smasher. “We take a fresh ball of British beef, 100% fresh, never frozen, and we ball it in-house. As somebody orders at the counter, we take our tennis ball of burger and we place it onto a hot buttered grill and then we smash that patty straight down onto the grill. When the Smasher creates that patty it’s the first time that burger has been turned into a patty,” Lowther explains. “It’s not been squashed or forced or formed or stacked on top of anything else. The meat is all loose and nice and by smashing it onto the grill you create a caramelisation of the bottom of the patty, which creates a seal and keeps all of the delicious juices and everything inside the burger. We then flip it over and it’s good to go.”
The first two stores will open before Christmas, “four or five” in the early part of 2016 and then 30-35 outlets in the next few years. “The reality is that’s probably just the first dot on the horizon; that’s the first target and there’s plenty more space for the brand as we go forward.”
The better burger market has seen many new market entrants in the last few years: few high streets or shopping centres are without a Byron, Gourmet Burger Kitchen or one of the cooler and edgier Meat Liquor or Red True Barbecue restaurants. But Lowther is not afraid of a little competition – he says there’s plenty of space for a plethora of better burger brands to thrive. “The better burger revolution that started two or three years ago is really just in its infancy. When I joined McDonald’s as a crew member in 1986, people were saying, ‘there are too many of these restaurants; there’s no space for it to develop any further,’ and if you fast forward nearly 30 years later there are 1,200 or 1,300 McDonald’s, 500-600 Burger Kings and 800 KFCs. There are still only 200-300 better burger [outlets] in the UK at the moment and that tells me there’s massive room for growth,” says a bullish Lowther.
He’ll be relying on the expertise of his team to help offer customers the best possible service. “You have to listen to the team you’ve got in front of you. I started as a crew member at McDonald’s and that gives me unique insight into my business today at Smashburger. The first people I speak to when I walk into my restaurant are the guys in the kitchen or the guys cleaning the floor because they’ll tell me how my business is running,” he says.
“Of course the managers are important to my business, it’s essential to keep the business running smoothly but actually it’s the guy who’s just finished his eight-hour shift on dish duty who will really tell you what’s happening in my business. I will frequently walk in and roll my sleeves up and start putting plates through the dishwasher because by spending 20 minutes with Brian on dish I’m going to know more about my business than half a day sat looking at the numbers of dealing with the management team.”
And partnerships aren’t only important on this side of the Atlantic. Lowther says a strong relationship with franchise owner Ryan is critical to the success of the brand on these shores. “As a franchisor, it’s important that you find a partner that you can trust with your business and we’re delighted that Tom and his team think that’s me and mine,” he comments.
“Today I’ve been looking at reams of operations manuals and training manuals and guidelines, all of which we’ll be able to use to deliver this fantastic brand the way we want. Tom and I speak virtually daily now as we talk about how we can work together to make this brand perfect. It’s the opportunity to work together within that framework in a two-way dialogue. Good franchisors are the ones that enable and engage with that two-way dialogue and those franchises that don’t struggle, in my experience.”
Lowther isn’t giving anything away about location. He admits that he’d love to have a flagship store in the capital – but only if the price is right. “We’ll do that if it makes sense. We’re looking across the UK in all locations and if we find that flagship site at the right price, we’ll do it. What I won’t do is spend £5m on a premium location in central London just to make a loss but to say we’ve arrived.”
He has nothing to prove, he says. “I’ll look across the country and open in those sites that make sense for the brand, for the business, and more importantly, for the customers around us.”
If the first UK Smashburger store opens in a town near you, what should you be ordering? Lowther’s favourite is the truffle mushroom swiss burger. Not your average Big Mac, then. “We were in our development kitchen recently sampling the truffle oils and the mayonnaise and we’ve got it absolutely bang-on. And I have to say the kitchen did smell of truffles for a few hours after we’d finished.”
Considering Lowther reckons he’s eaten a burger “more or less every day for the last 30 years” he’s looking incredibly trim. What’s his secret? “I run once or twice a week if I get the time but I also have a very balanced, healthy diet. I don’t have burgers for three meals a day,” he jokes. He also has two children, Jake, seven, and Rosie, five, who keep him on his toes. “They love the fact their dad works in a burger restaurant. And it’s also a good way to keep slim: running around after them is hard work,” he says.
Like many a high-flier, he admits it’s tough to strike the right balance between work and home life. He considers himself lucky to have been able to take a year out to spend time with his wife and children before he joined Shake Shack in 2012. “Everybody always has a demand on your time but it’s a case of prioritising the important things and making sure they get the time they need,” he says. “Delivering a new burger restaurant into the UK is going to be a lot of hard work but it’s going to be incredible fun. And my family will be joining me for the ride.”