FEATURE: 25,000 burgers a week and still going strong
It was the day his boss refused him time off to do a shift on a Sunday paper, and the agency that got him the job dropped him like a hot potato.
He used to dream of being paid to watch Premier League football.
Now his pitch is selling burgers as co-founder of a hugely-successful restaurant chain.
That’s around 25,000 burgers and 10 tonnes of chips a week, served to a devoted and ever-growing clientele including David Walliams, Lily Allen, Ed Sheeran and the England rugby squad.
Honest Burgers has become the go-to place in London for people who like their meals with no frills, no fuss, just brilliant quality.
In five years it has gone from one tiny food stop to 12 restaurants, with the latest just opened in Covent Garden and more on the cards this year.
Suffolk-born Philip, 32, grew up and went to school in Ixworth and Thurston.
His parents were both teachers. Mum Judith taught at Horringer Court in Bury and All Saints, Stowmarket, while dad Martin’s posts included Ixworth Middle and St Benedict’s in Bury.
Philip, who has a brother Alex, planned a career in journalism but first studied philosophy at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
While there he met his girlfriend Helen Skinner, and after university they took time out to travel. He also worked for a time at Greene King in Bury.
Then, deciding it was time to get his career on track, he took a post-graduate journalism course in Brighton. To earn some cash he got a part-time job in Riddle and Finns Champagne and Oyster Bar.
“I suppose Honest Burgers wouldn’t exist if I had made a different decision on one particular day,” he says.
“I’d been doing work experience as a journalist and signed up with a sports reporting agency in London.
“They rang and said go to the Sunday People the next day. I was meant to be working a shift in the restaurant, and asked if I could change it.
“The manager kicked off. I was naive and told the agency I couldn’t do the job. Of course, they never rang me again.
“I should have walked out of that restaurant there and then. If I had, I imagine I’d be a sports journalist now, and really enjoying it.
“It was a real ‘Sliding Doors’ moment,” he adds, as in the film where Gwyneth Paltrow’s life pans out in two different directions depending on whether or not she catches a train.
As it was, he took a full time job at Riddle and Finns, where he met his future business partner Tom Barton.
Working together they soon realised they would rather be doing something for themselves than for an employer.
Meanwhile Philip had another brief foray into journalism. But with still no prospect of a paid job he took himself off to work as a ski instructor.
“I wanted to clear my head, and I made my decision on a chair lift in Switzerland.
“When I got back Tom and me went for a beer and we agreed “let’s do it”.
“We clubbed together £3,000 each, bought a marquee, griddle and fryer and set up catering for parties and events.
“Neither of us had any cooking experience. That’s one of the reasons we did burgers.
“The market was ripe for the taking. They are such an iconic thing but so often done badly – rubbish frozen meat and a bit of lettuce.”
Their rapidly-expanding empire is a world away from their first attempts to feed the public.
Philip cheerfully admits they didn’t really know what they were doing ... but no matter how chaotic their organisation people loved the food.
They battled to cook at Lewes fireworks night in rain and gale-force winds for the handful of spectators who had braved the weather.
Having hired a van and spent all their money on meat there was no way they were giving up and going home.
Brighton Food Festival was another challenge. The chips they spent a week pre-frying sold out in one day and they – and their girlfriends – had to stay up all night cooking more.
But a couple of things haven’t really changed since the early days ... the philosophy, and the menu.
“I always felt we should keep it honest,” says Philip. “It had to be about quality and the ingredients, and core values.
“Tom must take most of the credit for the recipe. Our burgers are just meat – the best we can get – 28 day minimum dry-aged grass fed beef.
“No onion, no crumbs, the meat minced only once so it keeps a good texture, and salt and pepper.
“And the chips have to be just as good, triple fried, skin on, with our own rosemary salt.
“Our restaurants serve no starters, desserts or coffee. Just burgers and chips. And we use really standard buns, no herb-crusted focaccia, you need to taste the beef.”
They also do a spiced vegetable fritter for vegetarians, and offered gluten-free buns from day one.
“We’re not trying to be clever, or tricky. And that goes for the service as well, our staff say hello when you come in, and thank-you when you leave.”
It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy exotic food or admire experimental chefs like Heston Blumenthal.
“That kind of restaurant’s great for a one-off celebration meal,” he says. “But most of the time if I’m eating out I’d sooner have pie and chips in a pub.”
Honest Burgers’ milestone move into permanent premises came when they joined up with restaurant trade high-flyer Dorian Waite.
He had worked for big chains including Cote and Strada but was looking to strike out on his own.
“Dorian was a friend of a friend of Tom’s, he heard about us, and invited us to his house to cook and talk.
“We loaded all our equipment into my little Cinquecento and went and cooked burgers in his garden.
“He felt we had a concept not just a brand, and joined us with an equal share of the business.
“That got us into Brixton Market where they were offering rent-free premises for start-up restaurants.
“Within a couple of weeks we had queues out the door. We got this kind of underground following of people who thought they’d found a hidden gem and were saying this is the best burger in London.
“That’s where Dorian was key. He realised we needed to capitalise on our success and get another site.
“There’s no way me and Tom would have had the guts or know-how or contacts to do that.
“Now we had two restaurants with queues out the door and realised there was no reason why we shouldn’t have five, six, seven.”
Their runaway success meant little time for anything but work. “Helen didn’t really see me for six months.
“We didn’t want to compromise on quality. People were saying you’re going to have to buy in frozen chips and we were like ‘no’...”
But in the end they did have to admit hand-cutting the chips was just too much work.
“We got ourselves a chipper and found where it took a person 40 minutes to do 20 kilos of potatoes, the machine did it in two minutes and they still looked good.”
With a dozen London restaurants now open and five more planned in the next year the rise of Honest Burgers has been meteoric. But they are not letting it go to their heads.
“We haven’t made it yet,” says Philip. “We still make loads of mistakes. We’re a really young team taking it on and seeing how far we can go.”