Bitten by the burger bug

Singapore, May 7, 2013

Investment bankers do it, financial analysts do it, even musicians and radio DJs do it - run a burger joint, that is.

The business of gourmet burgers has become so meaty that even a greasy work environment and the occasional need to unclog a broken toilet or mop up spilt soda hasn't deterred entrepreneurs of various non-F&B backgrounds from trying to bite off a hunk.

The latest to join the fray is Kuik Shiao-Yin, of social enterprise Food for Thought, and Keith Tan, a guitarist for local band, the Obedient Wives Club.

Come next month, Ms Kuik will be launching fast Food for Thought (fFFT), a pop-up burger shack that will take over the premises of the Queen Street branch of Food for Thought until its lease runs out in September.

Mr Tan, meanwhile, recently left his full-time role in his father's freight forwarding company to personally flip burgers at Meatpacking District, his week-old burger stall in a Tanjong Pagar kopitiam.

"Burgers are something that I do well, and everyone likes to eat burgers," says the hobbyist cook, alluding to the growing interest in gourmet burgers to popular television shows like Man versus Food and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

Unlike fads over sweet treats like cupcakes or bubble tea, burgers have an everlasting appeal, believes Fatboys' Bernie Tay, who recently launched a quick-serve sister outlet, The Burger Bar, in Far East Plaza. He explains: "Burgers are a staple food, people eat them as a meal. They are also not expensive, and you don't need to gather three or four people to share a $40 pizza."

Gourmet burger revolution

But the recent burgeoning of the gourmet burger sector is not a sudden phenomenon. Rather, it is the result of a gradual evolution, he further observes.

First came mass-market fast-food joints such as McDonald's and Wendy's, which introduced to Singapore the notion of American fast food. Shortly after, American diners such as Hard Rock Cafe, Chili's and TGI Friday's set up offshoots on our shores, and locals slowly got accustomed to paying more than $10 a pop to have a burger in a restaurant setting.

"Singaporeans not only became educated on how to appreciate burgers, but the Singaporeans these restaurants employed also learnt how burgers should be cooked," adds Mr Tay, a former Hard Rock Cafe employee of 16 years.

The first inkling of a local burger movement roughly came about in late 2007, when Willin Low of the Wild Rocket Group set up Relish, a gourmet burger restaurant in Cluny Court that dished out local takes on the American classic.

That was quickly followed by a string of other burger openings in the next two years, from ones set up by burger-loving entrepreneurs making a switch from other F&B occupations like Fatboy's Mr Tay and De Burg's Andrew Sim; to existing food businesses launching burger offshoots like Island Creamery's Burger Shack, the Soup Spoon's Handburger and Awfully Chocolate's Everything with Fries.

Somewhere in between, overseas burger chains such as California's Carl's Junior, Tokyo's Freshness Burger and R Burger, Canada's Triple O's, Australia's Charlie & Co and Kraze burger from Seoul all got the memo, and were swiftly brought in by enterprising local franchisees to feed the by-now burger-craving masses.

Handmade freshness

Faced with an increasingly saturated market and in keeping with the global movement towards artisanal, made-to-order meals, new independents trying to get a foot in have to bank on the extra attention they pay to the sourcing, prepping and cooking process to give them an edge over more commercial burger chains.

Meatpacking District's Mr Tan spends his mornings packing burger patties by hand, while Fatboy's burgers are all separately made fresh at each outlet rather than fanned out from a mass-production central kitchen.

Over at Omakase Burger, investment banker-turned-burger entrepreneur Cheng Hsin Yao puts in extra effort to source different premium steak cuts of fresh beef, which are then ground and blended - according to recipes custom-calibrated via an Excel spreadsheet - in-store every morning.

"We're essentially a fine-dining quality restaurant set in a casual, counter-service environment, which translates to much higher food costs," says Mr Cheng.

"Doing everything on par with the best fine-dining restaurants eats heavily into our margins...but the outstanding response we've received indicates that local diners can appreciate the quality that we deliver."

Dollars and burgers

Just how attractive are the profits on a burger? Anthony Koh of burger-specialist Two Blur Guys in Tanjong Pagar estimates that margins on a burger average 50 per cent.

The 10-month-old eatery currently sells about 80 burgers a day and is expected to break even by the 18-month mark at this pace, he says.

Even in its infancy, Meatpacking District sells about 50 burgers a day, and requests for corporate orders have already started to build up.

Most of Veganburg's outlets have already broken even, according to its co-founder Alex Tan, and business has exceeded his expectations.

Though ingredient cost is high - his 100 per cent vegan patties have to be made in-house due to the lack of vegan suppliers - his profits come from catering to bulk orders for their burgers made with specially home-crafted vegan patties and organic wholegrain buns, most often placed by the CSR or corporate social responsibility arms of companies.

Challenges ahead

But the rosy picture may not be a permanent one. Besides the manpower shortage, which almost all local burger restaurant operators regard as a stumbling block, another key challenge is the limited Singapore market relative to the increasing number of players on the scene.

"Singapore is not a burger country, majority of the people here feed on chicken rice and char kway teow," says Veganburg's Mr Tan. Two Blur Guys' Mr Koh, too, admits that with the slow revenue and exhaustive resources, "it is challenging to start a restaurant based on burgers alone."

Technological aids can only go so far, as burgers need to be hand-crafted and cooked to order to retain that rustic, home-made appeal that most indie businesses pivot upon, adds Food for Thought's Ms Kuik.

Singaporeans also tend to be more price-sensitive for what is still viewed as convenience junk food. "The hamburger doesn't hold the same historical and cultural significance that it has in the US, so there's more of an education process that needs to be done for customers to justify paying a premium for a burger," says Yale Sheen, a former financial analyst and co-owner of Triple O's Singapore.

"Old habits die hard, so quite a few of those preconceived notions of fast food carry over to gourmet burgers," says Omakase's Mr Cheng, who gets customers unaccustomed to waiting for their burgers to be cooked a la minute or to being asked what doneness they would like for their burger patty.

But while there have been a few casualties in the form of outlet closures, mainly due to high rent, there hasn't yet been a local burger brand that has shut down completely yet, Fatboy's Mr Tay points out as an indicator of a still-growing demand.

Future outlook

Most local burger businesses say they are still building up momentum and, with the exception of Mr Tay, rule out a rapid expansion through a franchise model to achieve the cult status of gourmet burger chains like Shack Shack or In-N-Out Burger in the US.

Instead, both Burger Shack's Mr Kwok and Handburger's Anna Lim believe that independent gourmet burger joints should tap on their greatest advantage - their flexbility - in adapting to changing tastes by constantly crafting new, local-inspired flavours.

Handburger has a monthly changing Chef Special menu with flavours such as Kong Ba Pau burger and a Kpop-inspired Korean Fried Chicken burger. Burger Shack has the Ramli, its take on the popular Malaysian Ramly burger.

Veganburg's Mr Tan wants to see it taken a step further: He hopes local burger joints will turn to making their burgers from locally and regionally sourced ingredients rather than imported ones, in keeping with the growing locavore movement worldwide.

"We're not asking everyone to drop their beef burgers. We're here to prove that burgers can be as exciting, tasty and made with more sustainable ingredients," he says.

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