How one Hong Kong chef has big plans for burgers and the aesthetic of slow fast food
In just three years, Butchers Club co-founder Jonathan Glover has set up a slow-aged Australian beef business for high-end diners, opened four Hong Kong restaurants, has an Asia expansion plan, and a small business award under his belt
Setting up a restaurant is like making a burger – there are many ingredients that go into it. You need top quality produce, a great taste, and spot-on presentation.
Then, as managing director and co-founder of Butchers Club Jonathan Glover knows full well,
you need to tell people about the product.
But in his case, that last bit proved easier than the winner of this year’s SME Award at the DHL/SCMP Hong Kong Business Awards might have hoped.
Throughout his career, Glover’s noticed a correlation between media coverage and lines stretching out the door. On a Thursday lunchtime in October, there are very few spare seats in the Butchers Club in Tsim Sha Tsui. Locals and expats alike chow into burgers, something Glover prides himself on.
“As soon as there’s a little sniff of the economy taking a hit, the bankers are gone … If you rely on them, it’s going to hurt you eventually.”
Glover hails from Yorkshire in the north of England, but has built a brand that depends on Australian produce, and his company most definitely has its roots in Hong Kong.
Two decades ago, Glover was a recruiter, bringing a lot of Australian chefs into the city. They asked him where to source Australian produce, so Glover set up Pacific Gourmet to import seafood, vegetables and meat.
After selling the company a few years ago, he was looking for his next big thing, and he happened upon a fitted out space in Tin Wan, Aberdeen, three years ago.
He took it on, turning the area into a dry ageing room for Australian beef.
“It was perfect. To have built that from scratch would have been $1 million - I got it for free.”
His business idea was simple: an online butcher’s shop and a chef’s table, where customers would buy a piece of beef in advance to eat later.
Unbeknown to him, a member of the Chinese media came to his first event, and “the phones just rang and rang and rang, and within a week, we were fully reserved for six months”.
“I knew on that first night there was something special about this experience. And I thought maybe this might take off. But I didn’t expect it to have a six-month waiting list.”
No-one had been doing dry-aged beef at the time, but there was also a part of it that was “right place, right time”.
“Hong Kong was all about being new and modern – everything had to be stainless steel and flashing lights. But right at that time, I put this into the equation,” he said of the Butchers Club.
“I set myself a task to see if I could build a brand, and thought that brand out, from start to finish – it was old, traditional, artisan,” he said.
“It was almost like a movement. It had happened in the UK, but to do it in Hong Kong – we were the first to do that.”
It seems like a strange move, from high-end private dining costing HK$1,500 a head, to HK$100 burgers, but again, it happened almost by accident.
Glover was under pressure from his beef supplier to use more of the cow, so he dry-aged chops, brisket and rump, and mixed them into a burger.
The high-end concept had got a lot of media attention first time around so when they opened a burger joint (formerly a Sichuan restaurant in Wan Chai), the media again jumped on it. The rest is food and beverage folk law history: the fit out costs were recouped within 13 days of opening.
“We just did one burger and fries and three drinks. It was good, we couldn’t mess it up. It took about two days and there were queues. We did about 1,000 burgers in one day.”
And it’s not exactly fast food. His favourite hamburger, the Butchers Club’s Hogtown Burger, created by head chef Matt Dick, takes just short of 2000 hours to make: dry ageing the beef for 45 days, curing the bacon, slow cooking the pulled pork.
Three years on, he’s got four Hong Kong burger restaurants, another two in Singapore and Bali, and plans to expand further. There’s more options in the pipeline, too: such as chicken wings (“they will be the best in Hong Kong”) and a craft brewery.
Oh, and a just-announced partnership with FWM Group, which runs Morton’s Chicago outlets in Taiwan, Shanghai and Beijing.
Glover’s a huge believer in the old adage “there’s no such thing as bad press”.
For Japan, for instance, he has a dream to have “western buff guys with tattoos working behind the counter being rude to everyone”.
“I just think that would be enough to get the media talking, get the people talking, and get the lines out the door.”
He used negative buzz to great effect when he first opened. “Everyone was talking about it - and a lot of it was negative. But that negativity turns positive.”
As he reflects back on the changes over his two decades in Hong Kong, Glover paints a bleak picture of the city’s food and beverage sector: rising rents and labour costs, shrinking kitchen sizes, and worsening ingredient quality. He admits during his time here he’s almost gone bust.
So what makes a Butchers Club burger that much better than its competitors?
The story, the branding and the marketing - and a mention in the Michelin guide for the classic burger, which he considers his proudest moment. Because, at the end of the day, he says, it’s about the food.
“What makes it horrible is when you don’t fulfilled someone’s expectations – I take that personal, and I guess that drives me to strive to make it better.
“But when someone turns around and says they’ve had an amazing experience it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
As we sit in the window of his restaurant, a group of foreign diners come up to him. They’re full of praise: “the duck fat fries were amazing, the burger was delicious.”
That’s the kind of public relations he likes.