Interview with an Innovator

Meatliquor’s Scott Collins: ‘The burger and barbecue markets are currently being cleansed’

The co-founder of the fast-food chain chats to Sarah Sharples about the success of his vegan hotdog, chef collaborations, the terror of opening in today’s market and how innovation needs to come into marketing.

12 April 2019
burgerchainsfast foodmeatvegan

Collins on Paper – CV

  • Worked in bars and restaurants in Los Angeles and France before buying his first pub, The Castle in Camberwell
  • Formed Meatliquor with co-founder Yianni Papoutsis, opening the first permanent location in 2011
  • Now oversees 12 outlets of the brand, as well as appearing as a judge on Million Pound Menu

Scott Collins has a cheeky air about him – a quality that seems to be reflected in the 12 Meatliquor sites across London, Leeds and Brighton.

“I swapped grammar schools when I was 14 to go from an all-boys school to a mixed so I could do home economics, which was 30 years ago, and I was the only boy in a class of 32 girls, so that was one of my better decisions,” he declares.

Despite the early introduction to cooking, he got slightly waylaid after school, setting off on a career in sales, before ditching that to work in restaurants and cocktail bars. He then ended up buying pubs, before the power of social media led to the birth of Meatliquor.

Collins met Yianni Papoutsis after hearing about him on Twitter, when he was popping up at different locations in a burger van called the Meatwagon. When the vehicle was later vandalised, Collins invested to keep Papoutsis on the road – only for that second van to get stolen. The pair decided to create a pop-up for Papoutsis’ burgers in a run-down pub that Collins had purchased, before launching the first bricks-and-mortar Meatliquor in 2011.

After all these years, The Dead Hippie, a burger consisting of two French’s mustard-fried beef patties, signature Dead Hippie sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and minced white onions, is still Meatliquor’s bestseller, says Collins. It’s a happy problem for the chain – trying to get diners to try new items is a hard task as they are stuck on their favourites.

Here, Collins talks about his obsession with tweaking dishes, regrets surrounding the name Meatliquor and why it’s not a burger chain.

 

I can cook, but I don’t cook. I eat out two or three times a day, every day. If it’s not in my place, it’s elsewhere. I just frustrate myself cooking as there is too much out there for me to be learning and looking at. It’s everything from the way something is served, cut, garnished – it’s not necessarily a whole dish – and it’s a good paying hobby.

We are lucky to have enough top chefs and great chefs that are massive fans of Meatliquor, as they want that unsophisticated food done well, like Sat Bains. We’ve had the whole crew from Noma in twice after various award ceremonies as they just want our burgers. That’s very flattering.

We did a little collaboration with Tom Kerridge with The Shed in Marlow where eight guests paid £350 for food and booze cooked by Tom and my chef Dan, and that was a weird one because I didn’t think anyone was going to pay that money to eat a mixture of Meatliquor’s and Tom’s food. But the eight people that paid, because it was all informal and lots of talk, they knew just as much about Meatliquor as they did Tom, so that was quite humbling and a lot of fun.

We don’t tend to follow trends. Obviously everyone is jumping on vegan and vegetarian at the moment, but we have always tended to have veggie and vegan offerings on.

I actually went to the States last year to try the Impossible burger and Beyond burger before they came over here. And the Impossible burger was brilliant, but that would never be allowed over here as it involves GM-modified meat, and the Beyond burger is now everywhere.

I took a step back and slapped myself because we weren’t doing a vegan hotdog. So it’s now a build your own hotdog. It’s a great vegan frank, even as a meat eater it’s delicious, and you can choose 15 different toppings or sauces, all of which we use anyway in the restaurant.So you can have, in terms of combinations, about 30,000 different vegan hotdogs. That’s gone down really well.

Everyone is doing vegan burgers now, which we do anyway with a chickpea patty, our Burgaloo. The vegan hotdog, that’s the kind of thing that meat eaters are having as well. It’s got the same texture and snap as meat, so that was a really pleasing one.

The name Meatliquor doesn’t scream kid-friendly or vegan or veggie-friendly, but we are stuck with that stupid name. We came up with it very quickly and it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it is difficult for people who don’t know the brand to understand we are a bit more varied and not so one dimensional.

We are constantly tweaking the dishes, so they might look the same, but we changed all of our meat – which was a big deal – about a year ago now. The more volume we do, the meat becomes cheaper, but rather than taking the cheaper price we are then reinvesting that into better quality meat.

We changed all of the patties to double patties, so the same amount of meat in two patties, double the char on both sides, less chance of it being undercooked. It’s had a massive effect – all the burgers now look bigger, but it’s got a better mouthfeel. We changed that after seven or eight years and it involved a lot of retraining the kitchen, so it was quite a big step, but it has paid off.

Select do our meat and our chicken and it took a long time because we are so anal about the size of our chicken wings, the mix of meat, etc. Select has been arduous, but we have all gotten there in the end.

We are really anal about everything we do, as basic it all seems. It’s fast food, but we are constantly tweaking and obsessing over it. I think that is why we have remarkable like-for-likes at the moment.

We do have a central kitchen, which makes things like doing Jose [Pizarro’s] latest burger easier. We have done a collaboration for the second time – this central kitchen has been great because that’s where all our sauces are made. Jose’s is a mix of Iberian pork with six different ingredients that go in it, and that is all pre-mixed in the central kitchen for continuity.

We don’t put anything on the menu now unless it’s been tested in one site with customers, otherwise you print 10 different sets of menus thinking you’re delivering something great, and people just don’t want it.

What we have – it’s a good issue to have at Meatliquor – people just want their regular stuff. Getting them to try something different is really difficult and quite fun at the same time, as they might be obsessed with the Monkey Fingers or the Green Chilli Cheeseburger and they come in and don’t want to take a risk. I imagine that’s the same in McDonald’s as well, people just want what they want. So thinking of innovative ways to market new items, that’s the big deal.

We keep revisiting lots of the old stuff, so we’ve just put on a Pastrami Swiss burger, which was on three or four years ago, and sales of that have been epic. So we’re really not looking at inventing new burgers. We are just revolving the catalogue and doing the odd collaboration.

Fergus Henderson wanted to do a brain burger, which was deep-fried bread-crumbed calf’s brain with a sauce of gribiche. I loved it and thought it was a delicious. It got a lot of press, but it never sold a lot. It was always going to be a risky one.

The burger and barbecue markets are currently being cleansed – people are getting wiser.

There are a lot of people getting bigger and the standards are slipping. One notable big burger chain were great when they first started – well, two chains, which are much bigger than us, and they took the eye off the ball and let their standards drop. They got bought by VC and private equity and then had to start using cheaper ingredients to maintain their profit line. Everyone noticed and now they are desperately paddling and marketing to get back, so we are just maintaining standards.

Luckily, we never opened as a burger bar. We have always done burgers, cocktails, music, fun, hot dogs, so we are a bit more of a varied offering. Our new place, which opens at the end of May [near Oxford Circus], is going to be a late-night bar; it will do the same menu and we will be doing live music seven nights a week. It’s a 3am licence and we will be pushing liquor, so we see growth in liquor and the fact that we are a varied offering. We are not a burger chain.

Consumers want that all-round immersive experience, that’s why Dishoom does so well, to name but one. We have always done it without even realising, so now we are just capitalising on that and I think it’s paying dividends. People are choosing what they eat, drink, listen to. Also how they are served, as well as being price sensitive.

Anyone new coming into the market these days, it’s like magnesium sulphate, they explode and then fizzle out popularity-wise very quickly – this is the more the high-level restaurants – as there is so much competition.

We are already into the next generation of Meatliquor fans, as remarkable as it sounds, and we have a huge kid following. There are people who met at Meatliquor, who had their first dates at Meatliquor and now have kids, and their kids like Meatliquor, so that is something we never predicted and we are focusing on our kids’ menu.

I am quite enjoying all the katsu sandos at the moment that keep cropping up. Bright in Hackney do an extraordinary one… Good f*cking sandwichesthat’s what I think we lack.

I’m off to Australia for pretty much the whole of April. Australia and Melbourne in particular are brilliant, it’s a melting pot of so many different cuisines, and that will be a massive research trip for me.

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