We meet Yianni and Scott in a car park in Peckham. It's grey, it's freezing and it feels like it's going to rain, but nobody seems put off. That's because this isn't just any car park, it's the birthplace of one of London's most famous food institutions – MEATliquor.
Yianni cut his burger-making teeth at Burning Man – the hippie Shangri-La in the heart of the Nevada desert – and came back to London with a dream. He shows us the spot where he started selling burgers to the first wave of social media savvy Londoners from a purpose-built burger van, then known as the MEATwagon. "We would pop up every couple of months or so, and Twitter was the only way to keep in contact with people. At that point it hadn't really been used for that kind of communication, but it seemed to really catch on, particularly with the nascent food blogosphere."
Word-of-mouth did the rest, and that's how Yianni met Scott, who turned up to the car park in a classic car with the top down, and ordered some burgers. He left, only to return shortly afterwards to order a dozen more, and bringing a case of beers in return. A burger bromance was born. (If you think it sounds like the stuff of movies, so did we… so we made a short one.)
"I opened the hatch and there were 200 people there in the queue."
The original MEATwagon was vandalised. Scott stepped in and offered to host a new MEATwagon in the car park behind a pub he was running for Capital Pubs, and the next stage of their journey began. "The first time we joined forces, it was just me sitting in the wagon, chopping onions… But when I opened the hatch, there were 200 people standing there in the queue," Yianni remembers.
After the second MEATwagon was stolen in December 2010, the pair opened a temporary burgers-and-party spot dubbed #MEATeasy. The cult following grew and grew, and #MEATeasy was the scene of many late nights, new friendships and above all, lots and lots of burgers. It was becoming obvious that a permanent home was needed – and MEATliquor was born.
"We decorated it as if we were squatters."
"Originally it was going to be a three-month project. We were lucky – we were gifted this site in the arse end of Oxford Street which had been empty for ages. We were told we'd have it for two years minimum, so we decorated it as if we were squatters, not spending money on hiding cables, things like that. That became part of our design ethos, and we're still there over five years later."
Picking out interesting sites that nobody else wanted is something that the guys are very passionate about. Brighton is a good example, "The site was empty and wasn't even a restaurant. In those days, that particular area was somewhat unappreciated. It's a bit off the tourist track, but we seem to have spurred a little revolution – it's now known colloquially as Meat Street."
They've gone on to open in Leeds, Bristol, Dulwich, Croydon and more. Yianni tells us that King's Cross is on the way too: "The site used to be a tram shed – it's a beautiful old building. That's part of the fun, tailoring each site to its needs and taking inspiration from its history – not just rolling out a cookie cutter format." Scott sums it up: "It's the idiotic, hard, expensive way to go, but that's what floats our boat."
Each site has its own character, even down to the names. MEATmarket blends seamlessly into one of London's historic marketplaces, Covent Garden. MEATmission takes its name from the building's past – once a Christian Mission in Hoxton. CHICKENliquor in Brixton serves up – you guessed it – a lot of chicken. Scott explains with a wry smile, "Early on, we didn't realise that MEATliquor would become such a well-known brand, so we thought we were being clever by giving all the sites different names. Now it's just a pain in the arse."
"I did have an entire fridge just for cheese."
The original philosophy endures, but how much of the menu has survived from the days of the MEATwagon? "Pretty much the core menu – fifteen or twenty dishes have stood the test of time. But over the five years we've been open, we've put over 200 dishes on the menu," says Yianni.
How do they decide what makes the cut? The level of dedication is pretty astounding: "When I first started developing the menu, I did have an entire fridge just for cheese," admits Yianni. "Everything from American cheese, Turkish cheese, British cheese, Polish cheese, until I settled on the right one – and it's exactly the same cheese that we still use now.
"Every single ingredient was researched and developed almost to the point of madness. I'm a bit obsessive about things like that. Not just the ingredients but the techniques. We've never let ourselves get stuck in a rut, we're always trying to improve everything. We haven't made wholesale changes, but the dishes and techniques have all been honed, as has the equipment. We always try to make everything a little bit better."
"People are very wise nowadays – they see straight through any shit."
We're sitting in the Dulwich branch, where you can't miss the masking tape signs that are plastered all over the walls. We point them out to Scott. "I saw a beer fridge in Singapore which was labelled like that. Yianni made a couple, and the staff have run with it – it's become a little theme. Every site, something will crop up, and we'll be like fuck, 'Why didn't we do that six years ago?' Using masking tape is cheap, easy and fun, but it feels like us."
That authenticity at the heart of everything they do is hard to come by, and it's easy to spend a lot of money trying to contrive the same effect. Scott's verdict? "People are very wise nowadays – they see straight through any shit."
After spending an afternoon with Yianni and Scott, it's clear that their individual flair and complementary strengths, not to mention a genuine friendship, are what makes MEATliquor the phenomenon that it is today. But Yianni is quick to direct the plaudits to their early customers who pitched in at the beginning, "I feel very grateful to the people who supported us. Our customers, our staff, and the volunteers who helped out setting up #MEATeasy after the MEATwagon was stolen." At the end of the day, what these guys really care about is giving people the best food every time. It's the secret sauce that's taken them from that car park in Peckham to opening their tenth restaurant with queues around the block, and an ever-growing cult following. You can't escape the feeling that this is only the beginning.
Bonus: The quickest way to eat a chicken wing
Any MEATliquor fan will know all about their signature chicken wings, but do you know how to eat them? Check out our video, where Yianni shows you how to up your wing game, the MEATliquor way:
Want to try MEATliquor's awesome American food for yourself? Check out the links below: