It may have started out as a joke but Russian restaurateur George Bukhov has carved out a new business model by opening a chain of restaurants that specialise in only two dishesBy Ben Flanagan
It may have started out as a joke but Russian restaurateur George Bukhov has carved out a new business model by opening a chain of restaurants that specialise in only two dishes
For a man who never had a business plan, George Bukhov is surprisingly sure of what’s on the menu in his quirky restaurant chain. The Russian entrepreneur is cofounder of Burger & Lobster – a name he readily admits is a bit silly – which serves, you guessed it, burgers and lobsters.
If there was a printed food menu – which there isn’t – it would be a short one, listing just three mains: a burger, lobster, and lobster roll. Each is priced at £20 in London, and Dh127 at the branch in Dubai, which opened in February.
If the London-born Burger & Lobster concept sounds simple, that’s because it is. But Bukhov, who lives in the UK capital, is embarking on a somewhat more complex expansion drive, in which he sees room for as many as 50 or 60 branches. That’s to meet demand for a restaurant concept that has been so successful it has reportedly attracted the most dubious of accolades: a copycat branch in China.
Still, it’s not bad for a business that started life on the back of a napkin, rather than a spreadsheet.
“We asked ourselves how many people we need to break even,” says Bukhov. “That was the business plan – on a napkin, nowhere near Excel.” While spreadsheets and risk assessments were not key ingredients in founding Burger & Lobster, that’s partly because such things are not a great formula for the food business, Bukhov says.
The 38-year-old is sipping a glass of white wine in the basement floor of Burger & Lobster Bond Street, one of ten outlets in London.
“It’s all about emotions,” he says. “Consumer choices are 100 per cent emotional… The only thing that matters really is what people feel when they come to a restaurant.”
It certainly feels quiet as we meet this sunny afternoon, but then it is midway between the lunch and dinner rush. The London restaurant, which features a large tank for crustaceans and an even bigger bar, has a much livelier vibe later on, with diners often staying on for drinks late into the night.
With his clipped beard and dark sunglasses hanging from his white T-shirt, Bukhov – who is married with two children – very much resembles the cool but casual clientele his restaurant aims to attract.
He grew up in Moscow, where he trained as a lawyer, working for media companies and then as a director of MTV Russia and VH1 Russia. Bukhov says without any hint of boastfulness that he had made it as a lawyer aged just 28 – “in Russia it was possible, back then” – but wanted more.
“If you’re a successful lawyer, and you sit in your office and you have a nice salary, and everyone respects you, then so what?” he says. “I had success in certain fields, and I just wanted something else.”
So Bukhov teamed up with Ilya Demichev and Misha Zelman, with whom he went to school in Russia, and who had earlier founded the upmarket steakhouse group Goodman. After launching Goodman in London, the friends opened the first Burger & Lobster in 2011. It was almost a side-project, but you could hardly call it that now.
Bukhov is refreshingly honest about the birth of the brand. “The name was very stupid,” he says. “Now, because it’s already a brand and people know it, it doesn’t sound as stupid… I’m sure that when Rolls-Royce started, people were like ‘What kind of name is that? Who are these people?’”
But there was some rationale behind it. Calling the restaurant “Bukhov, Demichev and Zelman” would have been both wordy and overblown, given that the three are not full-time chefs and, even if they were, their job would be to prepare just three dishes (along with the fries and salad that come with each order). Instead of coming up with some highfalutin name, they just told it straight.
The restaurant received a positive reaction from visitors to London from the UAE, leading Burger & Lobster to open its doors at the Dubai International Financial Centre, in conjunction with local partner Global Hospitality Asset Management. Bukhov says a branch in Jeddah is opening imminently, joining other international branches in Kuwait, the US and Sweden.
There are now 17 Burger & Lobster outlets globally, including a “pop up sports bar” in London, as well as restaurants in Manchester, Bath and Cardiff. Bukhov says a new lease has just been signed in One Bryant Park in New York’s Midtown, with branches in Malaysia and Thailand also on the cards this year. But there won’t be a Burger & Lobster “in every petrol station”, he adds.
“First of all we have to be careful with lobsters,” says Bukhov. “There is no problem with overfishing or anything like that. But obviously we definitely cannot become a McDonalds, or a Starbucks, just because of supply. But I think we can easily get to 50 to 60 units without putting the lobster market in danger.”
Bukhov’s restaurant already buys a lot of lobsters, the rising price of which he says makes his business a little vulnerable. Burger & Lobster has its own crustacean tank at London’s Heathrow airport, and – given that the business hauls about 18 tonnes of the creatures into the UK per week – it stands as Europe’s biggest lobster importer.
It’s an impressive feat – especially for a company that’s just five years old, and given Bukhov’s acknowledgment that it all almost happened by accident. In fact, he makes it all sound so effortless, it’s easy to wonder if it’s all an affectation, and the restaurant was actually the product of a branding agency charging millions of dollars. But Bukhov promises it’s not and – with his open manner, and glass of wine now drained – it is easy to believe.
“We went with what we thought and felt was right. We didn’t listen to experts, consultants, we didn’t do any research,” says Bukhov. “Imagine in 2011, you do the research that asked people ‘Will you go to a restaurant that only sells burgers and lobsters for $27?’. People will be like, ‘Are you crazy? Why would I go?’”
But go, they did – as will many more diners as this restaurant chain, which was started almost as a joke, expands further. It’s all part of the plan.