Surviving the Armageddon of covid the Honest way
I imagine I speak for our industry when I say, the year Covid came to town was a year we bared our souls more than we, even as a brand with Honest above the door and in our nature, thought possible. We’ll all remember where we were when the realisation we’d actually have to shut up shop took hold, how we felt when the chancellor uttered that life-raft of a word ‘furlough’ (followed by rapid googling) and the speed with which common barriers gave way to the warmth, humility and support within our teams and across the nation in a show of collective empathy. We all tore up what we were doing yesterday and the rubber hit the road trying to decode guidance, keep communication lines with our people and customers wide open and figure out how to keep the business running in an uncharted and ever changing context. It has of course, been terrifying and extraordinary in equal measure. We’re very aware how fortunate we are to have our battle scars but still be standing.
I was asked to write down how we’ve evolved and how this may continue to influence our future…..maybe it’s indulgent, maybe it’s useful, but if nothing else - it's cathartic!
POWERED BY OUR PEOPLE
We’ve, since Honest began (almost a decade ago now), always let our team bring themselves to work and make their own natural judgements about what customers need. To just be good humans. When the norms dissolved last spring they stood up of their own accord, and showed us that they’d got this. Shackles not required. We saw some epic leadership, decision making, customer experience creation and kindness. For some time before the pandemic we’d discussed this being the way around we’d like to work things at Honest, so we call last year our covid accelerator. Since then we have been working hard to change the infrastructure of our business to power up true autonomy for our restaurateurs and position our subject matter experts in the wings to be pulled on as and when. There is plenty still to do - but as a place to work and the customer experiences it seems to create - it feels like one of the most exciting and important pieces of work we’ll do at Honest for a good while.
In the thick of it, our brilliant internal community tool ‘workplace’ enabled us to reassure, update, keep together, have fun and plan with our team. Honest’s ops and people team were on fire ensuring we did the right thing every step of the way. An innovation at the time that remains part of Honest life was our ‘craft exchange’ where we advertise internally for skills needed through the business from signwriters to gardeners, electricians to tech support - using our own and protecting jobs.
KEEPING CLOSE FROM FAR AWAY
As the country retreated our natural trigger was to adapt what we had to say and to do whatever it took to not abandon the human connection we thrive off in hospitality. We went into a whirlygig world sharing all sorts that we thought customers might enjoy in their new context at home, from recipes, to throw backs, and taking the the time to tell some of our longer stories and ‘meet’ more of our team. It was a great relief to not find ourselves in our own echo chamber as we did this. The ‘conversation’ with our customers gave us energy to carry on and we saw a greater affinity develop for Honest over that period and hit a couple of significant growth milestones in our online world along the way. Silver linings.
MAKING COMMERCIAL SENSE
Once we’d understood what was allowed and how to conduct ourselves safely we fired up any sales channel we could, powered by the mission to protect our people’s jobs and offer a bit of burger joy. Somewhat against our happy place of human connection, delivery became our main artery in lockdown and our partners were open and flexible which allowed us to cast the net as wide as our tolerance on product quality would allow. We opened up some new ‘dark’ kitchens in neighbourhoods we weren’t in and developed a virtual brand in Honest Chicken that championed the best of our fried chicken specials over the years. Chicken meant we could open up a bit more Honest choice for customers tiring of sourdough and their own recipe ruts. Click and collect became more important, so we got to know a new tech partner to make that more seamless for customers. We pop’d up in a couple of new locations - low commitment, but a chance to offer more burgers and keep more folks in jobs. And we also had a bit of fun getting burgers to people outdoors once allowed, by delivering burgers to a 3m patch of grass in the park using What 3 Words geo-location tech.
We’ve had a crack at being retailers too, developing our Honest at Home DIY burger kits, a ‘Butcher’s Dozen’ (burgers for a year) membership and digital gift vouchers. Almost a year on we’re still trading these things, keeping the interest with special edition kits and limited time monthly specials and getting them on sale with actual, proper, grown up retailers Farmdrop.
SHOULDER TO SHOULDER
Like many, we made good use of all our fresh food stocks at the very beginning, and our founders Tom, Phil and the team made around 8,000 lasagnas and spaghetti bologneses using our beef, which went out to the NHS and various local food banks through the brilliant City Harvest. Almost a year ago to the week we broke the website by offering a limited run of our Honest at Home kits for a donation to food charities. Sharing what we could was happening in the restaurants too with one manager offering a donation for any local burger sold (each site has their own) to local theatre teams whose livelihoods had changed overnight. This was an idea that caught on in more than just his restaurant. And of course, our burger collaborations - these have been a part of Honest since the start, but we took the chance to deepen our commitment to any partners we worked with offering our time, skills and reach to support their mission. Internally we call this powered by Honest. It was a great moment when we felt able to invest again, safer in the knowledge our own teams were secure. We continue to do this, most recently with Handsome burger in Ireland, our first ever Paddy’s Day partner.
For so many of us time was well spent cooking and eating with whoever else was locked in our four walls with us - trying new food and, luckily for businesses like ours, giving ourselves a night off and ordering in now and then. We tried to keep pace with our menu innovation pulling out new burgers and, sure, we were on a limited team, so recycling some oldies but goodies too. It meant we could share the benefit with more of our suppliers, have good cause to keep in touch with customers through the blackouts and brought a bit of something new to our teams - who did brilliantly, but surely missed the feeling of seeing customers reactions when the plates hit the tables the other side of the pass.
HAPPIER AT HOME
Sometimes (often) (ok, always) it’s as simple as putting yourself in customer’s shoes. What did we feel might be useful, interesting or entertaining to customers locked down....? The team set about curating at home ‘events’, running things like live drink-alongs with our Honest Gin distiller, live cook-alongs with our founders and live Q&A sessions on social - opening up real connections as best we could. If you were too busy doing Joe Wicks or learning to dye your roots yourself, then we’d recorded (just using families or housemates phones) recipe videos for some of our homemade bits and pieces like our rosemary salt and bacon gravy. We’d long been wanting to do this so thank the covid-catalyst as the cameras still roll now.
To anyone from our industry lucky enough to have survived this ride so far, and to anyone who is still patient enough to be reading at this point, you will recognise much of what we did at Honest Burgers as things you have done in your own businesses. I hope you too have found some upsides in the armageddon of COVID and perhaps also have more dynamic and interesting businesses in places as a result. Can’t wait to come safely back out into the light this spring and would like to sign off with heartfelt thanks to our customers, partners and most of all … Team Honest. You made all that possible. Thank you.
Co-founded by friends Tom Barton and Philip Eeles in Brighton in 2009, Honest Burgers started out cooking great British burgers in a field at a local food festival. The following year they opened a tiny restaurant in Brixton Market (which is still there today), making everything from scratch and cycling eight miles everyday to pick up the best beef available.
Honest Burgers launched their own south London butchery in 2017, which enabled them to make their own patties rather than buying them in from a butcher. They are the only burger company in the UK to do this, ensuring every single patty is made using the perfect proportion of high-quality chuck and rib cap beef from native breed Gloucestershire cows. And nothing else. Next door to the butchery is the Honest Kitchen, where sauces, relishes, pickles, drinks and chips are made entirely from scratch.
Honest Burgers now operates 45 sites across the UK (a combination of eat-in restaurants, dark kitchens and pop-ups).
Meg Ellis is the Brand Growth Director for Honest Burgers who pride themselves onhomemade burger & chips with an uncompromising focus on quality & simplicity and an old school hospitality style for competitive advantage in a busy market.