If you get to know me, you will realise that proper use of apostrophes is one of those things I go a bit OCD about. The above heading, where I chose to use a possessive apostrophe with the word “Grill’d” which does not exactly need a contraction, is something which almost sent me a little haywire for a moment.
Which is perhaps less than an ideal segue into one of my more serious interests – good quality hamburgers and the market for such.
The gourmet burger chain Grill’d has, since it opened in Camberwell or Hawthorn in 2004, grown to become a giant of approximately 140 stores around Australia (it is, by a factor of almost ten, bigger than Burger Urge, the next largest gourmet burger chain in Australia). At the time when it was a new brand, some food reviewers were rating it (wrongly in my opinion) as the best burger in Melbourne. I welcomed it, because anything which lifts the standard of burgers several notches above our beloved Scottish named behemoth Maccas is good news. It was one of several gourmet burger chains emerging at that time – the other two of note being Port Melbourne’s Urban Burger, which did not last very long, and Yarraville’s Burger Edge, which at one point had about two dozen stores, including some interstate, but which now seems to be consigned to a few freeway co-locations with service stations, a business model which does not augur well for it’s long term brand re-growth.
I will note that my home economics class in 1982 had a lesson on the evils of McDonalds, in which it noted that there were 103 McDonalds stores in Australia by then. (I believe the number now is around a thousand, give or take.) Grill’d has gotten to the point now where it could quite possibly come to rival McDonalds in Australia if it does not put a foot wrong too often.
But it does have a few controversies. A few years ago, there was a very well publicised wage dispute, which caused it some reputational damage. Since then, the main founder has had separate and highly acrimonious fallings out with his two original business partners. These issues, if you are familiar with the foundation myths behind McDonalds (I did watch The Founder a couple of years ago, as well as reading a book about Roy Kroc in my teenage years), are not exactly unique. In some ways, Simon Crowe, with his marketing genius, eye for prime real estate, and dealings with his partners, seems to parallel Roy Kroc in some ways.
This past week, a much larger dispute has flared up, surrounding a traineeship program, funded by the Commonwealth, which seems to have been set up to run at less than optimal efficiency. Consequently this has caused several disgruntled employees of Grill’d to complain that they are being paid the lower traineeship rates when there is no good faith endeavour to enable them to complete the traineeship in a reasonable timeframe.
It got to the point where a protest outside the Lygon Street Grill’d yesterday delayed it’s opening by an hour, according to media reports. (FYI, McDonalds briefly had a restaurant in Lygon Street in the 1980s – it did not last long.)
This story has the potential to cause a lot more reputational damage to Grill’d than the other controversies. After all, who really cares if a few rich blokes who are former private schoolboys have a quarrel over their business arrangements? That is not exactly UFC trash talking entertainment to yak about over a beer on a Friday afternoon. And the pay dispute a few years ago was supposedly confined to one franchise store. That could be blamed on a rogue franchisee. But where 75% of stores are owned by the main company rather than franchisees, and the traineeship is a company wide initiative, this has, at the very least, a very bad look.
And at the same time, the Fairfax media is running parallel stories about food safety issues identified at several stores.
I think burger chains, like many businesses, rely on a superior business model to make them successful. If the business model is not up to scratch, then the business will fold, regardless of the quality of the food. (Quiznos made superior subs to Subway, yet got wiped from Australia about 14 years ago.) To this point in time, Grill’d has been able to grow because of it’s business model. Along the way, many other burger joints have fallen by the wayside – the Burger Bistro in Perth no longer exists, and the store in Shafto Lane did not long survive after Grill’d set up nearby, even though Burger Bistro made one of the best burgers I have ever had.
Which gets me to another point. I do not really like the taste of the burgers at Grill’d. There are many smaller burger businesses out there which are currently putting out better quality burgers than what you get at Grill’d. And you can get the Mighty Melbourne Burger in any Grill’d in Australia, but it will be renamed to something more compatible with whatever state you happen to be in.
Ultimately, if Grill’d is in a major spot of bother, I am not exactly sorry. They are not competing with McDonalds and other junk food standard burgers like Hungry Jacks. They are directly competing with all the smaller burger joints and chains. Those places, with their more unique and interesting burgers, are the ones who are more at risk from the continuing rise of Grill’d than McDonalds.