The burger ‘n’ ribs revolution is well established in the UK now. Chris Orr takes a look at the move from cordon bleu to blue collar to find out what it means for the world of booze
Every single drinks marketing executive goes slightly doe-eyed at the mere mention of key millennials. Why? Well, because they are young (generally in their mid-20s to early 30s), affluent and don’t know how to boil an egg, let alone cater for a dinner party – hence they eat and drink out all the time. Oh, and they don’t have those annoying impediments called kids.
But what constitutes eating out in your average millennial’s mind? Increasingly it seems that ‘blue collar’ food – the food of the American masses – is their bag. And not a sloppy McDonald’s version or slightly cheesy Ed’s Easy Diner experience. Nope. They want authentic and fine versions – preferably with plenty of cocktails. Hence the blue collar food explosion that’s been going on in London for the last few years that only seems to be getting larger.
‘I ran 10 or 12 pretty successful pubs before we started Meatliquor,’ says Scott Collins, one half of the duo behind the eponymous brand that now has branches across London, Leeds and Brighton, is soon to go international in Singapore, and is often seen as one of the original blue collar establishments.
‘Not poncy gastropubs, but just decent, well-run pubs and the burger in all of them was a staple – so it’s not like it’s not been around. But what’s happened over the last couple of years, with Meatliquor and other similar restaurants, is phenomenal. As is people’s desire to eat proper, well-made, well-sourced versions of traditional US food.’
‘I think part of it is a progression towards quality ingredients,’ agrees Jamie Berger of Pitt Cue Co, the restaurant he started with his friend, chef Tom Adams in the summer of 2012. ‘That combined with the fact that there is an increasing disgust with waste, so we now tend to use every part of an animal if possible.’
It’s fingers rather than knives and forks. And that’s cocktails, rather than wine lists
Berger should know. Pitt Cue Co raises its own pigs in Cornwall – the woolly sheep-like Mangalitsa breed – and cures and ages the meat in a room partially filled with Himalayan salt bricks. Oh yes, this is right up a millennial’s street.
‘It’s not what you would call healthy food, necessarily,’ says Polpo’s Russell Norman, ‘but it is comfort food, and it can be brilliant. If you look at the effort that [a venue] like Pitt Cue Co puts into its ingredients and cooking methods, it may be simple food, but it is expertly prepared and bloody delicious.’
Norman was at the vanguard of the blue collar revolution when he launched Spuntino four years ago, with its slider and mac ‘n’ cheese dominated menu. ‘We’re coming up to our anniversary and it’s still packed all the time. I also think blue collar food – or blue collar food-inspired restaurants – are something we’re going to see more of as time goes on.
‘Meatliquor is already spreading out to the suburbs and beyond London, which is great, because it means that people can get really good, well-made, well thought out classics in their own neighbourhood without spending a fortune or heading into central London,’ he concludes.
Porky’s is a perfect example of this. Simon and Joy Brigg ran the original site in Camden as Fogg’s for around 10 years. ‘It was based loosely on Phileas Fogg, but it wasn’t overly original. The food was decent, it was fun, and we enjoyed it, but eventually we got bored and it was too weak a concept to extend. Then we went touring around the US, tasting this amazing food in rib shacks and when we came back we thought we’d give it a go.’
To begin with they didn’t want to change the name.
‘We’d put 10 years into Fogg’s and didn’t want to alienate customers.’ But then Simon sat down and analysed what was selling best. ‘It was burgers. They were our staple, so we thought why not go for it. The demand was there already, they just needed it packaged differently.’ So Fogg’s became Porky’s and the third branch has just opened.
‘The demand for well-made blue collar food has meant we’re storming away,’ says Simon.
One key challenge that is presented to all these restaurants is what to drink with your triple stack of slow-roasted food. Nearly all mainline cocktails and spirits, it seems. ‘I think there’s something about the style of food that just suits spirits, rather than wine,’ says Berger. ‘Plus there’s definitely a reaction to the starchy, white linen tablecloth type of traditional restaurant. This style of food is relaxed, it’s fun. It’s fingers rather than knives and forks. And cocktails, rather than wine lists.’
‘I think when you look at the flavours – the smokiness, the sweetness, the fieriness – it just suits cocktails better,’ says Polpo’s Norman. ‘There’s a marrying of flavours. And truthfully it’s difficult for many wines to stand up to that. This is over-indulgent, frankly pretty unhealthy food packed with fat and flavour, and cocktails just work better with it. ’We tried wine at the beginning at Spuntino and we still have a small, compact list but the cocktails dominate,’ he adds.
‘We found a stunning Pinot Noir from Domaine Drouhin in Oregon. And I put it on at a ridiculous price with just a small cash margin, because I wanted people to try it. It sat there for months. We only sold a couple of bottles and I think that was mainly me drinking it to be honest. Meanwhile we serve a ridiculous number of Sazeracs everyday, at better margin.’
Blue collar food-inspired restaurants are something we’re going to see more of as time goes on
What we’ve found is it’s a younger crowd out for fun,’ agrees Collins. ‘They don’t necessarily want to linger. People grub crawl these days, so they’re happy if they can come in to have a couple of cocktails, a beer and a burger, and walk away with change from £30. Then they’re on to the next place on their list for the evening. We have a house red and white, but it’s the cocktails that sell.’
Damian Carrington, Fields, Morris and Verdin’s managing director, tends to agree. ‘It’s a challenge,’ he admits. ‘And I think it’s very much fashion-led, which is why at the moment it’s difficult for wine to compete.
‘We tend to match the small batch mentality of a lot of these restaurants. So we’ll pitch wines that have pedigree but are made in tiny quantities by funky, interesting guys. That, and keeping the list small and tight is really the best way to get into the blue collar restaurant guys.
‘That said, you can do really concentrated sales on a few wines, which is better than having a long,complicated list that sells only a bottle or two,’ he suggests.
For Matt Sullivan, business development manager for London at Alliance Wine, it’s a similar story. ‘The main challenge is that there are often very short lists with a focus on a larger spirit range. That tends to lead to a sole supplier which can provide wine, beer and spirits, especially if there is an aggressive growth plan.’
In other words, venues like a one stop shop because the focus is on the food – not necessarily the liquid.
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Jamie Berger, Pitt Cue Co
‘We are doing a lot with mezcal at the moment. There seems to be a real interest in the spirit and the quality of top expressions. We have one small batch mezcal that is aged in ex-Pappy Van Winkle casks. It’s superb.’
Favourite combo: A Megroni – mezcal, Mondino Amaro, sweet vermouth, paired with smoked ox cheek and pickled walnuts.
Russell Norman, Spuntino, Polpo, Polpetto and Mishkin’s
‘There’s a good reason that cocktails are popular with this type of food – there are lots of intense flavours going on, sometimes fiery, usually fatty and rich and actually that’s quite a struggle for a lot of wines.’
Favourite combo: A rye-based Sazerac paired with ground beef and bone marrow with truffle egg toast.
Simon Brigg, Porky’s
‘We find cocktails and beers seem to fit the vibe better – but not because the customers are younger. It’s just that kind of food.’
Favourite combo: A Speak No Americano – bourbon, Aperol, Campari, Martini Rosso and Maraschino liqueur – with a Home Dog hotdog.
Scott Collins, Meatliquor
‘There was a time when New York and the US was where you had to go to get something good, authentic and original when it came to this style of food. Now it’s difficult to find anything that beats London for it.’ Favourite combo: Hobo beer with a buffalo chicken burger.