Friday, 15 August 2014
Ham Holy Burger, John Lewis Oxford Street
So, you're a restaurateur and you want to open a burger bar. Well, of course you do - everyone does; even the really useless ones are making a fortune, and the good ones have them queueing down the street. You could just pick a name off the shelf like "burger bones" or "dirty patty", put together a selection of craft beer and salads for the non-meat-eaters, sit back and watch the money roll in.
But where's the fun in that? No, what you need is a USP, a reason for people to talk about your burger bar over any other. You could try and make the best burger in London, but let's face it, you're never going to beat MeatLiquor or Patty & Bun on the food front so that's a non-starter.
"I know!" said the Rossopomodoro managers, who are bankrolling this new burger operation because, well, they can - "How about we have people order off iPads placed on each table? It'll mean we'll need fewer staff, any wrong items will be the customers' fault, and it'll give the kiddies something to play with between screaming and throwing their food on the floor".
"Brilliant! Let's do it."
And so it came to pass that I and a friend were sat in the corner of the kitchen department of the Oxford Street John Lewis, having the operation of the Ham Holy Burger iPad app explained to us at great length by a member of staff who, had he not been saddled with such a task, may have been making himself useful with such old-fashioned pursuits as, oh, I don't know, asking us what we wanted to eat then bringing it.
Eventually he left us to it, and we half-heartedly browsed the list of house burgers. The standard "Holyburger" comes with cucumber, no pickles, and no cheese, but would have to do as a control variable. We also ordered a "Youthburger", in which, to test the "substitutions" option on the app, we had swapped out the dreaded rocket for lettuce. A glass of wine, a bottle of Italian craft beer, all fairly straightforward to add to the bill as well. Until we realised we'd like a couple of glasses of tapwater, at which point the shortcomings of a fully electronic ordering system became apparent - water wasn't on the menu.
Staff weren't hard to get hold of, and we didn't stay waterless for long, but it does beg the question, if the iPad doesn't solve any problem that needs solving, in fact if in most cases it made the ordering process more long-winded, what's the bloody point? What are you really achieving?
Anyway, the food. "Fries chips"[sic] were, in fact, what us British call crisps, something perhaps would have been clearer if we'd asked for "chips" from a human as opposed to an iPad app written by an Italian. They were OK, served with a watery tomato dip and some commodity mayonnaise, but not exactly a bargain for £4.
Burgers were, well, fine if you'd set your expecations sufficiently low, which by this point we very much had. The Holyburger was underseasoned, underpowered and desperately needed both pickles to cut through the sweet bun and some cheese to season the meat, but it was nicely pink and easy enough to eat even if once you had done it completely removed itself from the memory banks.
The Youthburger (I think that's what it was anyway; the menu exists in various different forms across the website, app and in print) was very slightly more flavoursome thanks to some salty slivers of fried parmesan and cured ham, but still suffered from that same problem of being a collection of "gourmet" Italian ingredients coerced into a format that didn't do any of them justice. I can sort of see what they were trying to do; the crispy cheese trying to add texture as well as flavour; the ham standing in for bacon; but it just didn't work. Attempting to re-invent the burger from the top down with silly rustic ingredients is what got us into this whole horrible "gourmet burger" mess in the first place. The most successful burgers, such as MeatLiquor or Patty & Bun, work because they stick with what makes a good burger (seared beef, melty cheese, pickles, ketchup, mustard) and try and make the best version of that they possibly can. Simply emptying the contents of an Italian deli into a brioche bun is somehow simultaneously an insult to Italian and American food cultures.
You can't pay the bill via the iPad app. Perhaps that's the idea eventually but for now we had to do it the old fashioned, tried and tested way, and were presented with a piece of paper with what we'd ordered listed on it (just over £40). You wonder whether whoever's idea it was to do away with the nice, friendly human touch really had the customer's best interests in mind - service is just as much a part of any dining experience as the food; having a room full of iPads with the stated intention of making Ham Holy Burger as impersonal and depressing as possible says very worrying things about your attitude to hospitality.
So I protested in the most obvious way I could think of. I took a photo of myself, set it as the background wallpaper, and then password protected the iPad so they couldn't change it. That'll teach them.