Meet founder of Byron Tom Byng, one of the key players in London’s burger takeover
Tom Byng jokes that he has burgers running through his veins, and it’s probably almost true. The 44 year old super-fit, handsome Acton resident, who founded the phenomenonally successful bourgeois burger group Byron confesses he must have eaten more than 1,000 burgers in pursuit of perfection and never tires of them. Nor does London it seems. The capital is now well and truly burgered and Byron (named half after the vegetarian poet and half after the Old English for cowshed) is worth a fortune. With profits rumoured to be £8 million a year, Gondola (owners of Pizza Express too) sold Byron on for £100 million last year. Despite new investors, Tom remains very much at the helm, and insists it ‘remains my baby, I’m not going anywhere. Chains are seen as a dirty word, but we’re a proper chain that still treats each restaurant as an individual with soul, personality and really good service.’
Hence, we’re in Chiswick for Tom to scrutinise their 40th opening which he’s especially thrilled about. ‘I’ve wanted to be here for ages – I’d call Chiswick the heart of Byron country where customers know a decent burger.’ The former Cafe Rouge site is a beautiful building, and the architectural integrity hasn’t been touched. ‘Design-wise we’ve given it more of a nod to an independent French brasserie with vintage furniture and mirrors mostly bought from local gem The Old Cinema, yet the menu is strictly Byron with no faux French additions.’
Where did he get such an appetite for burgers? He grins: ‘There’s a real story there.’ It goes back to his student days studying Classics at Brown in the US, where late nights where defined by burgers; ‘robust enough to handle, yet squashy, incredibly delicious and satisfying. ‘I guess the idea started to from then that I wanted to bring such a classic to the UK and take the hamburger out of the territory of fast food. I got the entreprenurial bug then too and was exposed to the US service culture, a world apart from the UK.
However, first he pursued a career in advertising, before cutting his teeth as a restaurateur opening Zucca, a wonderful ‘wood-roast seabass kind of neighbourhood restaurant’ much missed, and taking on Notting Hill’s iconic 192 that he was ‘inordinately fond of.’ He recalls he learnt most of all that ‘restaurants are about being
a great host and wanting customers to have a good time.’
It was a chance coffee with a senior executive at Gondola that got Byron rolling and Tom has not looked back since opening the first Byron down the ‘wrong’ end of Kensington High Street in 2007. Though even Prince Harry dines there on occasion, and even Diana Ross and Richard E Grant are aficionados.
So the burgermania isn’t only about austerity, it’s about craving comfort food. I’m fascinated by Tom’s breakdown of why it works so effectively, not to mention his devotion to perfection. He’s been known to come back from the States with a whole suitcase of buns to taste. As he says, it’s all about craving authenticity. ‘There’s the hit of protein in the burger – an affordable alternative to steak, soft bread for carbohydrate and comfort, sweetness in the tomato, freshness in the salad, saltiness in the seasoning, a kick of savoury in the condiments and acidity in the pickles.’
Though Tom prefers to stick to classics, for the World Cup, Byron will be doing a special ‘ultimate football burger’ with soft fried onions, mustard and tomato ‘to evoke memories of match burgers but way better than ever tasted before – a definitive version.’
When I ask about health concerns driving burgers underground, he laughs. ‘It’s permissible pleasure. It’s all about balance. Look at the success of The Great British Bake Off.’
To keep fit himself, Tom has a personal trainer from The Park Club in Acton where he now lives with wife Annabel and children Rose, 9, Johnny, 7 and Harry, 5. And yes, the children do go to Byron a couple of times a fortnight when Tom is doing his inspections and invariably polish off everything on the plate, ‘though we never ever have burgers at home, that’s banned.’
Otherwise, their favourites are Franco Manca ‘for great classic pizza’ and Sam’s Brasserie as ‘Sam Harrison is the quintessential restaurateur as well as a mate and looks after us so well.’ For treats, Tom favours La Trompette: ‘it’s amazingly consistent’ and for birthdays and anniversaries ‘the iconic River Cafe. I so admire their obsessive attention to detail.’ He raves about Acton’s burgeoning food scene too, singling out Angela Malik’s Deli and CookerySchool for her ‘incredible butter chicken curry – the ultimate ready meal, exceptional chutneys and spiced brownies. Park + Bridge Wine Shop is praised too for stocking unusual wines from small producers and ‘the wonderful enthusiasm and knowledge of the owner.’ It’s clear that Tom reserves his greatest respect for those who live and breathe their business, just like him.
Chiswick High Road, Chiswick W4 2DW; 020 8994 2277; byronhamburgers.com