Main image: Phillip Eeles and Tom Barton, co-founders of Honest Burgers.
Honest Burgers opens in Reading’s Market Place on Monday 18 December. Founded by two recent graduates, Tom Barton and Phillip Eeles, Honest was originally a street food brand set on delivering a simple burger menu from high-quality ingredients. In 2011 they jumped into restaurant life with a small spot in Brixton Market and since then they’ve opened 22 branches across London, most of which, based on my visits, are constantly busy and have a queue outside. Reading is their second restaurant outside of London, after a branch in Cambridge.
As they prepare to open in Reading, I speak to Honest Burgers co-founder Tom Barton about all the news on the restaurant opening, their exclusive Reading burger, what he thinks of Reading’s food scene and the dirtiest burger he’s ever eaten.
How did Honest Burgers get started?
Honest began with myself and my business partner Phil in Brighton. We’d worked in the restaurant industry for a long time, making money while we were students. After uni I had to decide, either I go to London and get a 9-5 job with a tie, or have a go at the only other thing I knew. So we saved up £3,000, bought a marquee, a griddle and a fryer and started serving up burgers. We use to turn up to events with only about £70 in our bank account and know that if it failed that would be the end of everything and we’d move on. But fortunately it didn’t.
A lot of the values that are still true to Honest today were set then, right back at the beginning. We thought, if we’re going to do burgers we need the best meat and then it’s going to taste delicious. We started trying frozen chips but they weren’t as good as the home cooked ones we used to make in the kitchen at my student house. So we decided to make chips from scratch.
There are a lot of burger restaurants now. What makes Honest Burgers different?
What we do that other people don’t is make a lot of items in house. We make our own relish and pickles. We make our vegetarian burger. The only thing we don’t do is bake bread.
We’ve always made our chips in house which is a huge undertaking and I can completely understand why no one else does it. It’s really tough. Early on, Tom Byng (founder of Byron Burgers) visited us. He was very kind to us and gave us some pointers. But I remember he said: “I commend you for making chips in house, but wait until you’ve opened five, ten restaurants, you won’t be making them in house then.” And that just pushed us even further to want to prove we could do it.
I’ve also been working on a project for the last six months which will see us make our own burger patties. It’s always been the goal for us to make our burgers ourselves but it was a large undertaking. But the time is now right for us to do it. The burger we’ve created is incredible. Unfortunately, it won’t be complete in time for the opening in Reading but we think that will be in our restaurant by January. We’re just going through the accreditation process and red tape.
Reading is only your second Honest Burgers outside of London, after Cambridge. What is it about Reading that made you want to bring Honest Burgers here now?
When we first decided to open outside of London, the building was really important to us and our Reading restaurant is similar to that. We really wanted to find the right kind of building to move into first. And from the minute we saw this space, we knew it could be a really cool restaurant, because it has that half Victorian, half Brutalist building. We thought it could be really impressive inside.
And of course Reading is so close to London, so we felt people in Reading would be familiar with our brand. It felt like quite an easy decision.
How are you transforming that building, what can we expect from the inside?
Well, that building is so cool, it’s got four to five metre high ceilings in the Brutalist side of it (facing King Street). In the Victorian side of it (overlooking Market Place) we’re going to have an all-day cafe style, with nice comfy seats, coffee, sandwiches and we’re trying to develop some pastries with Reading’s Nomad Bakery as well to serve there. We normally do weekend breakfast at our restaurants in London and we want to do the same over the week in Reading as well. There’ll be more a relaxed atmosphere, gearing up to burgers at lunch and then dinner later in the evening.
There’s also lots of lovely old features in there. In the basement there’s still a couple of old safes because the building used to be an old bank. They’ll be there for the rest of time, I don’t think they’ll ever be moved.
You’ve mentioned Nomad Bakery. You work with local suppliers at many of your restaurants, are you doing that in Reading as well?
As we did in Cambridge, we wanted to work with local suppliers outside of London. So we’ve found a local brewery, Wild Weather Ales, to brew a special beer for us. Those guys have been absolutely amazing, they were 100 percent in from the beginning. We’ll be serving up their special King Street pale ale in the restaurant and I think it’s going to be sold in a few pubs in Reading as well. If it goes down well, we might be rolling that beer out to our London restaurants as well.
We’re also working with Nomad Bakery who are providing us with a chutney for our special burger, that’s only going to be available in Reading. It’s got bacon, red onion, chutney and blue cheese.
We didn’t realise until we started looking into it, but you guys have got the most incredible blue cheese made near you, Barkham Blue. We buy that from Two Hoots Cheese and it’s made only six miles away from the Reading restaurant. I’ve got a massive wheel of it in my fridge right now, which I’m currently snacking on. We just think it makes a lot of sense to use some of the great food talent in the local area.
What do you think of Reading’s restaurant scene? Have you tried any of our restaurants?
When we first visited Reading we went to Seven Bone to check out their burgers. It was great. It’s great for the burger in general that they and so many restaurants now are raising the bar. Gone are the days of the frozen, rubbery patty.
Our restaurant is also on the doorstep of the Market Place and it was brilliant to see all your street food vendors that set up there. I think you can get some of the best food in the country on the pavement. Street food is awesome now, even five years ago that wasn’t happening. I hope it’s also opening many doors for entrepreneurs to get started in the food industry. We’ve also tried the goods at Nomad of course, who we’re working with. We’re really excited about how Reading takes us on and welcomes us.
A Byron Burger is set to open opposite you at Jackson’s Corner next year. Do you think that will be a challenge or do you relish the competition?
We’re very confident with what we do at Honest and I think our burger will come out victorious.
But I also think that the growth in restaurants is great for Reading. I’ve visited Reading around a dozen times now since we’ve been developing our restaurant and I feel like Reading is looking for decent, smaller restaurants to open up. There seems to be a lot of the big chains, and, not all of them, but some of them, charge a lot and they never really deliver. So more smaller restaurants like us, like Byron, like Franco Manca. will hopefully bring more to the area, and more jobs too.
Outside of Honest, what’s the best burger you’ve ever had?
There was a place we went to in Memphis. It’s really famous, a proper old school diner (Dyer’s Burgers). That served up the dirtiest, meatiest burger I’ve ever had in my life. They shallow fry the burger in beef fat, but they haven’t changed that beef fat since 1901, or something like that. They moved restaurants and the pan of beef fat got a police escort to keep it safe. That was a burger like nothing I’ve ever eaten before, in terms of richness. And simplicity, it was just beef and cheese. But it was incredible.
What ingredients would go in your perfect burger?
For me it’s all about the beef, so if money’s no option, we would go with a really dry-aged beef patty. I’d probably be a bit of a purist, to be honest. Just cheese, beef and a decent bun, heavily seasoned. I think for some of our competitors, a lot of the ingredients they put in their burgers are trying to cover up the fact that their beef doesn’t taste of much. If I eat a burger, I want the beef to be the thing I walk away talking about, saying: “that was amazing”.
There was recently a Twitter debate about the cheeseburger emoji. Apple have the cheese on top, Google’s is underneath the patty. Where should the cheese go?
100 percent on top of the burger. I don’t know anyone in their right mind who would put it under a burger!