My pub: Annie's Burger Shack & Freehouse, Nottingham

By Sheila McWattie

- Last updated on GMT

My pub: Annie's Burger Shack & Freehouse, Nottingham

Related tags: Burger shack

American Annie Spaziano tells Sheila McWattie about the challenges and rewards of taking on her own Burger Shack & Freehouse in Nottingham’s Lace Market

How I got here

I was born in Rhode Island, New England, USA, home of the diner, and moved to Nottingham in 1994 with just a guitar and a suitcase.

I started Annie’s Burger Shack at the Old Angel music venue in 2009, and in 2011 moved my burger business to Marston’s managed pub, the Navigation, also in Nottingham, for another two years. By September 2013 I was ready for the challenge of taking on my own freehold and Burger Shack.

How we turned our pub around

Demand for my high quality burgers was so strong that I could see enormous potential – the reality of running my Burger Shack in a building I chose myself was a bit scary, but I was up for the challenge. Nottingham’s historic Lace Market, with its beautiful architecture, reminds me of home, and it’s the ideal location to help our freehouse stand out. There are about 30 flats above, owned separately from our freehold.

Our pub is in the original lace factory, which eventually became a late-night R&B club. But having been empty for eight months, it was in terrible condition – a bathtub had fallen through the ceiling.

We spent £470,000 on our refurb, lasting from September 2013 to mid-January 2014. I spent several months project-managing, covered in sawdust, while overseeing the last months of our Navigation burger kitchen.

How we grew the business

When you realise you’re hitting the spot for your customers, it’s worth looking at how you can grow. The major trend for burgers hadn’t quite started, but I knew from our positive experience at the original Burger Shack that it wasn’t a passing phase for us. So it was worth investing lots of time and energy in opening my own pub. It’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced, but among the most exhilarating.

There’s nothing like doing what you love, realising your customers love it too, and having the space to become even more creative. But it’s also about the practicalities: being organised, paying attention to detail, careful recruitment and thorough staff training are all vital components of our success. You can’t be complacent – people make a choice to come to your pub and you owe them the best you can possibly offer.

We’re learning all the time, and feedback is vital to our growth. We’ve been packed from the start, and can sell an average of at least 1,000 burgers in a weekend.We expect turnover to rise, judging from the acclaim our newly launched Rhode Island-themed snack bar, the Ocean State Tavern, is receiving.

Five best ideas

  • Creating our Ocean State Tavern, selling Rhode Island-inspired snacks matched with great ales and other drinks, in our basement
  • Menu competitions for customers to devise new burger recipes
  • Ordering bespoke desserts from local baker who reflects our style
  • I’m a strong believer in the power of business partnerships. I met my excellent dessert-maker, Catherine Howe of Sweet Surrender, through our local business forum and am sometimes asked to present awards to other businesses, especially those run by successful women.
  • Staff party twice a year to reward their tremendous efforts and achievements

How we stand out from the crowd

I aim to offer the perfect combination of our choice of real, high quality cask ales and hand-crafted traditional American burgers to make the Burger Shack dining experience special and accessible to everyone.

Having won an award for my vegan burgers and Sunday roasts from animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in 2011 and had a positive mention in The Guardian​, I’ve built on that success and am well-known for catering imaginatively for vegans, vegetarians and people with special dietary needs, as well as carnivores. Our demographic has widened with our new location as the Lace Market is more central and our reputation has spread across the city and beyond.

Best piece of business advice we’ve received

Don’t copy anyone: you can only be 80% as good as the person you’re trying to imitate.

Our biggest mistake, and what we learned

Finding, installing and running an effective booking system to match our huge demand have been tricky. If I could do it over again, I’d make that one of my top priorities – we learned the hard way.

Teamwork

With almost 70 staff, there’s always a lot going on and people need to rely on each other, especially at extra-busy periods such as Christmas, so motivation is key. I bring everyone together twice a year for a fun team-building day, encouraging joint problem-solving, and pay them to attend. Attending training courses is encouraged, while getting to know our menu and providing a warm welcome are essential.

Bar talk

All our drinks products pair well with our food; our cask ales are guests and we enjoy working with breweries such as Magic Rock, Thornebridge, Marble, Blue Monkey and Freedom Brewery. We stocked 76 ales in our first four months and only use craft lagers such as Adnams Dry Hopped. Recent additions include gluten-free and wheat-free bottled ale. We stock our own wine – Chilean Merlot and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, and our rosé is Côte de Gascogne – alongside selected others, in partnership with our local merchant Weavers. Our extensive spirits range includes whiskeys and Bourbons.

Smart marketing

Word of mouth is most effective for us. We didn’t have to do much opening publicity as we received so much local coverage. Loyal followers have given us good reviews and local radio broadcasts are fun. Social media, flyers and posters help to boost our profile, especially when we post burger-naming competitions on Facebook and Twitter.

Couldn’t live without:

Lincat or Parry grills have always been among my favourite pieces of kit.

Aims for the next year

To perfect our booking system, which still has many frustrating glitches, and find ways of cooking 1/2lb of meat faster.

Menu philosophy

We are not about fast food – we focus on the experience, including our great Lace Market location and making the most of our Ocean State Tavern snack bar with authentic, eye-catching food that is ahead of the curve. Our range of 30 burgers reflects authentic American tradition: fresh and seasoned on the grill, combined with a modern, ethically inclusive twist. Influences include Latin American, Tex-Mex and Mexican, Caribbean, Chinese, British, French, German, Italian and Greek. For meat versions we only use award-winning locally sourced beef; all burgers come with curly or skinny fries, home-made Cajun potato wedges or sweet potato chips. Our Rhode Island snacks include baked stuffed clams, known as stuffies, and Wieners - small hot dogs in meat sauce with fresh chopped onions & mustard.

Best-selling dishes:

Most popular burger​: The North Carolina, topped with pulled pork, cheese & crunchy onions (£11.90)

Dessert:​ Classic American cherry lattice pie (£3.90)

Best new dish:​ Halloween burger with jalapeño cream cheese, topped with spiced pumpkin purée, satay bacon ‘earthworms’ & crunchy ‘graveyard’ biscuit, served with curly or skinny fries, or home-made Cajun or salted wedges, sweet potatoes, or beer-battered onion rings (£11.20)

Most profitable dish​:  Bacon & Cheddar burger with fries (£8.90)

Pub facts ’n’ stats:

  • Wet:dry split: 35/65
  • Staff: 70
  • Meals: average 1,000 burgers per weekend
  • Covers: 135 upstairs; 74 downstairs
  • Best-selling drink: Adnams Dry Hopped Lager (£3.30)

Related topics: Menu Ideas

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