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Building a burger empire: Mimi Gilmour on the next evolution of Burger Burger

Hospitality is one of the oldest industries in the game, so how do you keep evolving? Burger Burger was co-founded by Adrian Chilton and Mimi Gilmour five years ago, but the beloved burger brand is facing new challenges in present day: the rise of Uber Eats and dining in, an increasingly digitised world, a rapid national expansion plan, cheap and cheerful burger chains looking to encroach on its market share, and more. Mimi Gilmour talks with Elly Strang about the constant evolvement of Burger Burger, her aspirations to be the Google of hospitality and her mission to get people away from screens and sitting down face-to-face at a table. 

When Burger Burger first opened its doors to the public in 2014, it was a bit like the infamous Lewis Road Creamery chocolate milk frenzy. The locally sourced, high quality ingredient burgers and savvy digital marketing (the burger emoji is a key staple in its posts) proved an irresistible recipe to the public, seeing as its trendy Ponsonby central location served an eye-opening 160,000 customers in its first year. It then expanded to a second location in Newmarket, where it served a further 200,000 customers in its first year.

Since then, Burger Burger’s growth trajectory has accelerated. It now has three stores across Auckland and as of 2019, it raised $2 million to fund their national expansion and are launching 12 new Burger Burger restaurants across New Zealand. Burger Burger Mount Maunganui and Christchurch are now open, and a store in Wanaka is opening in the new year.

Behind the scenes of this all is Gilmour, creative mastermind behind Burger Burger and her co-founder Adrian Wilton, who is the chef mastermind. Gilmour previously co-founded and sold the Mexico restaurant chain. Meeting with her for this interview at Burger Burger HQ, she is heavily pregnant with her daughter Octavia. She then proceeds to tell me, “I worked on the floor [at one of the restaurants] last Saturday and I fucking loved it”.

Mimi Gilmour and Adrian Chilton.

Gilmour’s passion for working in the hospitality sector can be credited to her upbringing. Emerald Gilmour, Mimi’s mother, is an industry legend who ran Auckland’s Club Mirage in the 1980s and certainly played a part in passing on the entrepreneurial bug. Meanwhile, Mimi’s sister, Sophie, was a co-founder of Bird on a Wire and now runs a hospitality consulting business called Delicious Business.

This is why part of Gilmour’s overall vision for Burger Burger is working to change the perception of hospitality not being a legitimate career choice.

“Kids in schools aren’t going, ‘Yeah, I want to go into the service industry’,” Gilmour says. “If I hear one more young person tell me they want to be a digital marketer, I want to shoot myself in the head. If you can work at a restaurant, earn good money and live what you feel is a balanced lifestyle, I would rather do this any day rather than sit in front of a computer.”

She says ultimately, what is driving her work in this space is protecting the sacredness of what the face-to-face experience of hospitality has to offer – which is more important than ever today in this technology-saturated world.

“The reason I love what we do is I was brought up in a family where we always sat around a table and had conversations – challenging ones, fun ones, upsetting ones – but our door was always open, and that’s how I learn and grew and was built into a better human: over a table. I just think it’s such an essential part of life to protect,” Gilmour says.

“It’s what we’re here for. Sure, we have delicious beers and wines and make a good burger, but what we set out to achieve is to house occasions and bring people together. So, I’m a little bit petrified about the changing world, but it’s almost made me want to dig my heels in more and make more occasions to bring people away from digital and back into a restaurant.”

More face-to-face, please

Gilmour is someone who has unabashedly operated at the intersection between technology and hospitality by looking at where it can increase efficiencies in her business – an advantage for any restauranteur in this era.

 Burger Burger gained notoriety for its no reservations policy early on, which meant often there’d be queues snaking out the doors of its Ponsonby and Newmarket stores. To counteract this, in 2015 the company developed an app called Waitless which declared “Screw the queue”. Customers could log in, check wait times for stores and get in the queue without having to physically stand outside the store.

It also uses social media to crowdsource new uniform ideas or menu items that people are after. A particularly vocal direct message on social media lamenting the removal of its beloved potato skins from the menu led to Gilmour bringing them back.

But like many industries that have been revolutionised by technology, there is also friction.

“The reason I love what we do is I was brought up in a family where we always sat around a table and had conversations – challenging ones, fun ones, upsetting ones – but our door was always open, and that’s how I learn and grew and was built into a better human: over a table. I just think it’s such an essential part of life to protect.”

Gilmour has come to see the perils of technology when it comes to eroding the modern-day dining experience. Case in point: the most recent disruption of her industry has been the rise of Uber Eats and people opting to dine in and watch Netflix instead of getting out and about, face-to-face.

In an Instagram post to her 3000-strong following, she spoke of Uber’s 35 percent commission rate for businesses not being sustainable to uphold the standard of its high-quality ingredients and implored people to come see them in-store, instead.

“Uber Eats has heavily influenced our industry,” Gilmour says. “It’s affected our early week sales a lot. I also think people aren’t going out to dine now as much, which I understand as I’m heavily pregnant and one of those people right now, but where is this going and what is it going to do to our industry?”

She says its 35 percent commission rate a challenging model, as they don’t have 35 percent to spare due to the high-quality nature of Burger Burger’s ingredients.

“We make decisions around products we purchase that I refuse to back down on – free-range meat, all of our packaging, it costs money. People say, businesses need to take more responsibility around consumables and packaging? And I’m like, ‘Sure, but at the moment it’s so much more expensive so there is a material cost associated with making that stance. We just moved our fish supplier to a family run fishery in Gisborne because we wanted to provide the best quality possible and that costs money. It all costs money and margins are so tight.”

Emerald Gilmour, Mimi’s mother, raises a few counter points in terms of the challenges hospitality businesses are facing in 2019, alongside digital disruptions.

“Certainly, the rise of the food delivery companies is a problem, but I consider the main two issues are that the rents are now too high for a business to thrive and that the whole industry, per se, is saturated,” she said. “Somehow a lot of people, on a wing and a prayer, have launched themselves into restaurants with no real idea of what is involved, either from a financial, practical, or business point of view and sadly, a very high proportion lose their shirts.

“I consider that the foreign-owned food delivery business being allowed to operate here, paying practically no tax and giving their employees no security, is an outrage and benefits no one in New Zealand.”

One way Burger Burger has been counteracting people’s tendency to stay home is organising more experiential activations at its stores. A blind date event held at its stores on Valentine’s day this year had 300 people come along to be set up with a stranger – over a burger, of course.

Gilmour says she’s looking to up the ante on what can encourage more face-to-face interactions, be it beer tastings, book clubs or bingo. Overall, she says she wants there to be opportunities for people to experience Burger Burger in a different way.

“I think that it’s getting harder for people to meet because we don’t go out so much anymore – we all go home and watch Netflix and sit on our phones and prejudge everybody through going and stalking them on Facebook and overthink it, when we should just get drunk and pash them in a bar,” she says. “People are like, ‘How did you meet your husband?’ I was drunk in a bar. Bring those days back.”

It’s all about perspective

While Gilmour often demonstrates fearlessness in business, she’s also had to call on that bravery in her personal life, too. Her first daughter, Olympia, experienced a massive brain trauma before birth. There is still no medical explanation for what caused this, but it means she requires around-the-clock care from a dedicated team of helpers while her parents run the operations of Burger Burger.

Gilmour says what’s happened has given her an enlightened perspective on what really matters, especially in business.

“I think what massively changed in me has come from my personal circumstances that has allowed me to have the freedom to not really carry the burdens that I used to,” Gilmour says.

“I used to really get so heavily emotionally taxed by things like financial challenges, for example. But now I see them as part of business, and think, ‘How do we fix it?’”

While Gilmour and her husband Stephen are in a position where they can support Olympia both financially and flexibility-wise when it comes to their work by organising a team of carers for her, many families are not. This has led to them using Burger Burger as a fundraising vehicle for causes and events for families facing the same challenges as them.

One of these initiatives was 22 artists producing a piece of art around the idea of a conversation, which was auctioned off at the end of 2019 and all proceeds given a charity that supports families with children with brain injuries. 

Emerald Gilmour says the strength her daughter shows in both areas of her life is inspiring.

“I am in awe of the care and love Mimi puts into every aspect of her life. Mimi’s first baby was born with a severe brain injury. How she rose above that grief to give her family and her business her constant love and encouragement is astonishing to me,” Emerald Gilmour says.

The Google of hospitality

Gilmour says in current days, there is no settling into a rhythm with Burger Burger because there’s always the next evolution of business. Recently, she has completely remodelled the way it is run.

She says she wants Burger Burger to be the “Google of hospitality”, which means there has to be efficiencies made in the business through streamlining all of its processes.

The teams and the types of people they want to attract for job applications have changed, the menus have been rejigged, and the restaurants have been redesigned. In the new Tauranga and Christchurch stores, Gilmour says Burger Burger is moving towards more of a gastro-pub feel, so the focus is weighted both on the food and increasing their beverage sales.

“If I hear one more young person tell me they want to be a digital marketer, I want to shoot myself in the head. If you can work at a restaurant, earn good money and live what you feel is a balanced lifestyle, I would rather do this any day rather than sit in front of a computer.”

The company is also converting data it gathers into actionable dashboards, which means they can pick up mistakes in restaurants when they’re happening, or even possibly before they happen.

“A big focus for us also has been to profit share to the team that’s in the restaurant, and we’ve finally got to a place where we can do that in these new restaurants because of the level of information we have,” Gilmour says.

“Now. we’re trying to teach them to run the business as if it were their own and share that profit with them. In order to do that we need transparency over numbers and to be able to teach them and allow them to pull levers in order to effect outcome.”

As well as this, it’s moved a lot of its beverage stock onto taps to try reduce the packaging and partnered with environmentally friendly beer brand Sawmill.

“We’ve just chipped away at everything from all different angles through remodelling,” Gilmour says. “It’s five years down the track and thank god we’re still here, but there’s a lot of other burger joints and hospitality offerings that around the same sort of price point as us that have opened. It’s just insane how many food eatery locations are popping up.”

In the spirit of fostering careers in hospitality, Burger Burger is developing and building a staff training programme called ‘BB University’. This profiles the type of people they want working for them in various roles down to the granular details, but Gilmour says she’s also been thinking about how the different factors that impact on their staff, like how the hours of hospitality workers can impact on relationships.

“We recognise that for senior management roles, a lot of the time their partners a lot of the time don’t work in hospitality. What does that mean for them? It means they need every second weekend off. We look at what it means for their life, and how can we make it work for them.”

Finding the next gap

As for Burger Burger’s national expansion, the Wanaka store is due to open in 2020, and more stores are on the horizon. Gilmour says whatever happens next, a break might be on the cards.

She recently gave birth to a beautiful baby named Octavia and by her own admission, the last time she had a break from the industry was quite some time ago.

“I’ve worked since I was 14 and I think ultimately, what I’d love to do is help other people in their businesses, but not necessarily full time, maybe be a little bit of a Mum, but not full time. I could probably come up with 10 new hospitality businesses overnight, which is a problem,” she says.           

“We talk about it a lot, what we’d do next. A food business, social enterprise? I would love for Burger Burger to not need me in the next few years because I feel like I’m not even getting used for my best assets right now, I’m just jumping all around the place.”

Gilmour says her cousin recently asked her what success looks like to her.

“I said, it’s never been about money. It’s been about money in terms of providing security for my family, but I’ve never wanted to be a multimillionaire. That’s not been my thing. I’ve always chased how can I solve problems, like what’s the gap? How can we become better?”

With Mexico and Burger Burger ticked off the list, who knows what the next gap will be that Gilmour seeks out. Watch this space.

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