I DIDN’T WAKE up one day and decide to open a burger restaurant to make some money. My journey started when I got an elbow in the ribs at 4:30 am on 26 May, 2014.
My wife was in labour and said, “Let’s go.” 57 minutes later I was holding my baby girl. That night I thought that when my daughter grows up, I want her to know her dad stood for something good. So I said, “I’m going to change my life to mark this occasion.”
I hadn’t a clue if I was going to open a hotel, a magazine, an undertaker, a bookies, a website – but I knew I was doing something. I wanted to make my daughter proud.
My background was largely hospitality, I studied hotel management in Shannon and went on to work with the Hilton, Sheraton and Four Seasons. So I figured it would be best to play to my strengths. That meant the business was going to be about food.
But I didn’t know if I was going to be a distributor, farmer, wholesaler or open a restaurant. So I went over to America and did a couple of trips to see where food was at.
I visited Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, southern California, Tennessee, Scandinavia and UK.
Weeks were spent looking at everything from three-star Michelin restaurants to food trucks, and I came back after visiting hundreds of different businesses and distributors.
I created this huge mind map of everything I noticed, everything from interior design through to technology and supply-chain logistics to customer behaviours. I jumbled all that up, which helped me move towards the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the business.
I noticed that customers have a desire for the elements of quick-service food. People don’t have the time, they don’t want to sit down at a table, get their order taken after 20 minutes and then the food takes another 45 minutes.
But at the same time, they don’t want the bad quality that’s associated with fast food. They want a Michelin-star approach to sourcing and sustainability, and there was a disconnect.
We reckoned if we worked with a leading chefs on the attention to detail that a Michelin-star restaurant would focus on creating a burger, while also investing in recruitment and an operational model that could deliver on speed and convenience, we would be onto a winner.
Making our burger
I figured out what our ‘what’ was – a counter-service burger restaurant. Then we needed to figure out what was going to make us different.
You can have a burger in thousands of restaurants around Ireland. Anybody can make a burger. You go to the supermarket, get mince, pat it together and put it on the grill.
We approached Gráinne O’Keefe – now the head chef at Clanbrassil House – who was the head chef in Bib Gourmand restaurant Pichet in Dublin at the time. She’s a fine-dining chef and worked with us for two years full-time.
I told her the brief was, “We don’t just want you to just make a burger, I want you to talk to farmers about animal welfare standards, grassland management, sustainability and apply the same rigour you put into a Michelin-star restaurant.”
Our menu is designed to be very simple. We only do one piece of beef, that’s it. There’s no chicken or lamb, it’s really simple. But we worked on it for two years to get it right. We figured if we can do this all right, the rest will follow.
It’s really difficult to have that holistic approach though, because there is no support. The Origin Green sustainability scheme is only available for farmers, producers and manufacturers, it’s not at restaurant level. So I found this UK organisation called the Sustainable Restaurants Association.
They provided us with a framework to follow, and we spent two years putting all the structures in place to follow their guidelines.
That means that how we source our produce, where we get produce from and how we operate in society is all for the good of the environment. It’s not about getting a compostable cup and say, “That’s me being good.” It doesn’t work like that.
We were honoured to receive the highest rating possible from the Sustainable Restaurants Association.
To put that in context, only one other restaurant in Ireland has that three-star rating, and it’s a Michelin-star restaurant in Galway. We’re the only burger restaurant in Ireland and the UK with a three-star rating.
After all that preparation, when it got to opening day, it actually felt anticlimactic. We had already invested so much time in it.
For example, I had a huge labour bill before I sold a burger because we did our recruitment unusually. Every person was on our payroll between four months to four weeks before we opened the door.
For us, our team are the most important. All too often, restaurants are not quite ready when they open and that can leave a negative impression for guests. But that situation is also really tough on the people you hired.
So we avoided falling into the trap of a panic-open on a Friday because everyone was hired on the Wednesday before. We were sure we were ready.
We’re very slow to look at trends to follow in the restaurant sector – we don’t want to be followers. We’ll work out our own approach.
Our focus is on our guests in the restaurant right now. And I believe all food in restaurants needs to be enjoyed as soon as it’s ready for the guests, not 40 or 50 minutes later. We’ve invested so much in this that outsourcing delivery is a risk for us.
We will probably keep it as a restaurant-only service for the moment until the time is right for us to look at delivery.
I don’t dismiss it, delivery is really important to the industry. Dominos are the world’s best at doing what they do – they’re amazing.
In our situation, there are three people involved in the food delivery relationship – you have the restaurant, the delivery partner and the person on the couch.
Two of those people do really well out of it and then there’s the restaurant. I would just like to see a more equitable share in the relationship. I could easily do a lot more sales by doing delivery, but I would lose the direct relationship with my guests.
Our focus is on the qualitative approach right now. That’s not to say there won’t come a time we can comfortably do delivery. When that time comes, we will look at it.
That might mean we create our own app down the road, or if other delivery partners want to co-invest in my business, that could work. But it can’t cost the relationship with our guest.
Going for it
Far be it for me to give people advice for following their passions or dreams. But what I do know is understanding the reason you’re going to set up a business is the most important element.
I could talk about finance and locations, but the most important thing to me is the ‘why’. If you’ve worked that out, the ‘what’ and ‘how’ will come later.
If you just decide one day you’re going to open a falafel restaurant, fine, go do that. But understanding why you’re setting it up will keep you on the straight and narrow and is what will keep you driven.
I knew from the start my goal was to open a sustainable business that was good for the environment. Knowing that has made it easier to follow a set path and helps drives our decision making.
You will probably need to get on your bike to start understanding why you’re setting up a business. Get a cheap flight to Berlin, London, Manchester or New York and take notes. That’s what I did.
Now my aim is to reinvest month to month in our business, and a lot of that is around upskilling our staff, which will make everything better. We want to make Sandymount great.
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t other opportunities on the horizon. But to stay true to our sustainable approach, we will make decisions to expand only if we are able to stick to our values.
It would be easy for me to open five new restaurants in the next 12 months. Not a week goes by without some property developer saying, “Will you put BuJo in here?” But it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, so we’re going to take our time.
We were reviewed in all of the broadsheets in the first few months of opening, and its flattering, but at the same time I don’t get carried away.
A pat on the back is six inches from a kick in the arse, so we’re planning to take it one customer at a time, one burger at a time, for now.
Michael Sheary is the co-owner of BuJo. This piece was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on overcoming obstacles when launching a startup.