The fast casual and fine dining segments have more in common than most would think, co-owner and executive chef of Rockpool Group, Neil Perry, told Hospitality.
“When I saw places like Shake Shack and Smash Burger, or Huxtaburger here in Melbourne, I realised that people were actually willing to pay a premium for quality. I said to my business partner Trish, ‘we can play in this space and carry the DNA from our restaurants over: sustainability, ethical treatment of animals, and our connection to community,’” said Perry.
These qualities are in the Rockpool Group’s DNA; and now they’re also inherent at Burger Project – a fast casual concept, but with fine dining’s slow food philosophy.
“I’ve loved burgers my whole life, and for the last 10 years we’ve been doing a gourmet burger at Rockpool Bar & Grill, so it’s really part of our make up. The tipping point was when I saw that we could have the same quality of meat as we do at Rockpool and hit a price point that people associate with everyday food.”
Fast food with slow food values
Perry said there are two things to keep in mind when playing the fast casual space.
“We looked at what makes fast food efficient and affordable. There’s the efficiency of the line, where you need to produce and sell significant volumes per hour. And secondly, there’s the cost of the ingredients. At a lot of fast food joints the cost of the ingredients is really minimal.
“We decided to take one part of it – the process – and look at how all these fast causal restaurants around the world were performing point of sale: queue, order, production of food within five minutes, order filled, move on. I think that we’ve come up with a really fantastic kitchen and packing scenario that works really well, so we can do 400-500 burgers an hour, which is incredible.”
Quality of ingredients is where Perry saw a niche that Burger Project could fill.
“We have beautiful lettuces grown for us, and tomatoes, we make our own secret sauce, we pickle our own cucumbers, we get whole muscle meat, not trim, from Cape Grim. We hand cut the muscle meat, grind it and hand form it on the premises of each individual Burger Project. All we add is the Murray River Salt. That keeps us in complete control from the farm gate to the grill, which is unlike any other burger place in the whole world that I know of.”
Perry’s love of burgers is part of deeper nostalgia for the milk bars of old, which served true thick shakes, and the same DNA goes into Burger Project shakes as goes into the burgers.
“The big thing is that we do soft serve but we make it with whole milk and proper flavourings, so valrhona chocolate, real vanilla, strawberries, and dulce de leche. The syrups are made on premise,” said Perry.
With a store just opened in Melbourne and another in Sydney’s North Ryde, Burger Project will be expanding rapidly over the next sixth to 12 months, but Perry isn’t concerned about maintaining consistency.
“We work with the same suppliers as we do in our restaurants so we have great relationships in place,” he said. “We learn from our restaurants. The restaurants are very structured and Burger Project needs to be very structured too.
“Our expansion strategies are really driven by location, location, location. We’re very lucky because it’s the Rockpool Group that does Burger Project. Landlords have been incredibly embracing of the fact that we’re doing something of a great quality in a space that’s growing. So we’re getting lots of offers for great sites around Australia. We intend to choose wisely site by site, build partnerships with development groups and obviously build relationships with the communities we go into.”
At a Glance:
When was the business established? October 2014
Number of locations? Four; three in Sydney and one in Melbourne
Number of staff members? 150 and growing!
Most valuable asset in the business? The team, as a whole
Plans for 2016? Burger Project is set to expand in the next six months with two confirmed openings in Sydney (Gateway Centre Circular Quay on September 1 and Parramatta in November); two in Melbourne (Chadstone on September 30 and Melbourne Central early next year), and one in Brisbane (South Bank in February 2017). Another six yet-to-be-announced venues in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane will open in the first half of 2017.