Do you remember your first burger? Tommi does. "Yes, 1961 in Iceland. I was maybe 13. It was at a diner, I had never seen a burger or French fries before. It was enlightening."
It set in motion a life of serving up some of the best burgers in the game, most recently at Tommi's Burger Joint. If cooking is an expression of self, then what do Tommi's delicious, no-frills burgers say about him?
"I'm either going to stay here for three years, or until I sell a million burgers."
After helping a friend to set up a burger place in his native Iceland, Tommi decided that the time had come to start a joint of his own. "I opened the original Tomma Burger, on March 14th 1981. I said to myself: I'm either going to stay here for three years, or until I sell a million burgers."
A million burgers seems like a lofty goal, but Tommi wasn't unduly worried about aiming high. "Within a year and a half we had six restaurants. After three years I had already sold a million burgers, so there was no way out. I sold them all and I went out to discover the world."
Tommi talks about all of this matter-of-factly, as if he's describing what he had for breakfast, but his eyes light up when he discusses him time in LA. "Oh, it was wonderful. Los Angeles and New York are the Mecca for restaurants – everything starts there. Me and my friend would work out in Gold's Gym every day, which is the Mecca for body building. Then in the evening we would go out and get ideas, and we'd enjoy the atmosphere in Venice beach. We met some very interesting people."
"I had already seen the Hard Rock Cafe on Old Park Lane, and I said 'Wow, this is something I want to do in Iceland.'"
Given that LA is the home of everything American and exhibitionist, it seemed a fitting place for Tommi to fall in love with his next venture; "I had already seen the Hard Rock Cafe on Old Park Lane, and I said 'Wow, this is something I want to do in Iceland.'
"At that time there were only two Hard Rock Cafes in the world – the one in London and the one in LA. I frequently went to the one in LA, and eventually I met the owner – Isaac Tigrett – and I said 'I'm a fan, I want to open up one in Iceland.' So he said, 'Ok, let me come to Iceland and see what it looks like."
That might sound like an empty promise, the sort of thing you say so an Icelandic kid will stop hassling you about your restaurant – nope. "Three weeks later he came to Iceland, I showed him around for 6 hours, took him home for tea and he said, 'Tommi you're a good man, you can have a Hard Rock in Iceland.' That was it."
Tommi ran the Hard Rock in Reykjavik for a few years, also turning his expertise to running nightclubs and a hotel, but what then? You guessed it, he sold it all again. "I thought it was time to do something else, so I went to Argentina to learn the tango. Then I went to China to learn Chinese, I was thinking that maybe one day I'd open up a restaurant there. So I studied Chinese for two months, and when I came back, I could say in Chinese "I'm an Icelandic person", and I could count to ten. Now I can say "I'm an Icelandic person", and I can count to five."
"My son and his wife said to me, 'We don't want you to be a permanent guest at our house. You need to go to work."
What put a halt to all of that jetsetting? Tommi breaks into a smile, "After a few months, I discovered – more or less – that I had no money. My son and his wife said to me, 'We don't want you to be a permanent guest at our house. You need to go to work. Why don't you go back into the burger business?'
"I said, 'No, that's in the past, I've done that.' But then people heard, and started saying; "Tommi's going to do burgers again!" One thing led to another and we opened up the first Tommi's on April 10th 2004." A second burger empire was born, and it went from strength to strength.
Tommi becomes very animated when he gets into the nuts and bolts of running a successful business. "It's important that you don't grow too quickly. It's like a plane, if the angle of ascent is too steep it's going to stall. The same happens in the restaurant business, so you have to go slowly and steadily."
"Consistency is the name of the game."
Slow and steady wins the race, got it. What about the burgers? "The most difficult thing to fulfil is consistency. When you come in, your burger should be exactly like the one you had the last time. It's better to have a bad burger all the time and let people get used to it, than to have a good burger one day and a bad burger the next day. Consistency is the name of the game. It's difficult, especially when you cook to order."
How do you ensure you have a consistent, quality product? According to Tommi, suppliers are key. All of the meat for Tommi's Burgers comes from super butcher H.G. Walter. "They are very dedicated to high standards and good quality. It was a total coincidence actually. One of our chefs was looking for an apartment, and he went past H.G. Walter's shop. He wanted to see what they were doing, so he went inside and that was that."
What does better quality actually mean from a customer perspective? It's tastier, that's for sure, but there's more than meets the eye. "Because we have such good quality meat that we decided to do them medium, medium/rare, unless people ask for something else. Personally I really enjoy my burger medium/rare, but I can understand people who want it well done. So we cook to order, it's easy to make everyone happy."
Talking to Tommi, he makes the whole process seem so effortless, as though all of this just happened to him. What advice does he have for someone who wants to replicate such an exciting career? "Isaac Tigrett from the Hard Rock once told me to do something you like, and do it well. Do a lot of it and you don't have to worry about income or anything – because you're enjoying life and you're doing good things, so the money will come.
"Put all of your eggs in one basket, and watch that basket."
"I say do what you like and do it well. It's not enough to do something well, if you don't like it. And it's not good enough to do something you like, and not do it well. So I say, put all of your eggs in one basket, and watch that basket. I think that's a quote from Andrew Carnegie."
It's a fittingly pithy end to our brief chat. Before he furnishes us with some coupons for free burgers, we shake hands and it's clear to see that it's not just Tommi's brain that has served him so well throughout his career. It's the fact that the man is a class act and a bonafide gent. Doesn't he just look the part?
If you're hungry for some Tommi's burgers, try ordering from one of the locations below: