If you live in London, like burgers and you haven’t heard of The Meatwagon then you must have been living under a rock. Yianni Papoutsis serves burgers (and other American classics) that blow any competition so far out of the water they practically cease to exist. He started out serving from his Meatwagon van on an industrial estate in Peckham and now regularly rocks up at one of Scott Collins’ pubs in South East London which include (amongst others) The Florence in Herne Hill, The Victoria in Peckham and now The Goldsmiths Tavern (soon to revert to its original name, The New Cross House). This time, there is no van; you could describe it as a pop up restaurant, but it’s going to be so much more down and dirty. The restaurant/dive bar is billed as the #MEATEASY and it’s a greedy carnivore’s boozy playground. I gave Yianni and Scott a good grilling to find out more about the project and their future plans.
Yianni, before we get onto the ‘chop-up’ that is the #MEATEASY, tell us a little about The Meatwagon – what inspired you to start up?
Possibly some kind of mild stroke.
For those who don’t know (fools!), tell us about the kind of food you serve from The Wagon. Do you have a favourite recipe? Any new recipes you’re currently working on?
We serve my slightly bastardised version of classic American diner food: Burgers, Philly Cheesesteaks, chilli dogs etc. Everything is made with the best available ingredients, cooked to order every time.
One of the reasons your burgers taste so great is that you take great care in sourcing your ingredients. Can you reveal any of your suppliers (meat, buns, cheese etc.) or do you prefer to keep that info under wraps?
I love chatting with our customers about the minutiae of crafting truly great burgers and a lot of our basic techniques are out there for anyone to use. You yourself did a great article on recreating one of our Chilli Cheeseburgers a few months ago and Mark Hix recently published a version of our cheeseburger recipe in the Independent Magazine. Those techniques are one part of the formula for a great burger and I consider them public domain. My suppliers, however, I’d prefer to keep to myself. A gentleman has to have some secrets, after all.
Besides, finding your own favourite local suppliers is half the fun in my opinion.
So, tell us about the #MEATEASY…
#MEATEASY is The Meatwagon wearing its winter coat.
As I’m sure some of your readers will have heard, The Meatwagon (v.2.0) and its entire contents was stolen from its home in Peckham just before Christmas. Three weeks later, just after New Year’s, Scott and I were sitting in the Bishop having a few ales, trying to come up with a temporary solution to the theft of the Wagon. We came up with #MEATEASY.
Long story short: Scott will be taking over the Goldsmiths Tavern for Capital Pubs next month and reopening it as The New Cross House (its original name). He’s arranged for us to take over the upstairs room until the renovations start and we’ve had total free reign to do whatever we want with it. My good friend Lisa (@Roxanne_Roll) came up with some amazing design ideas and I hope we’ve created a space where people will feel comfortable drinking and hanging out as well as grabbing a bite to eat.
Cocktail gurus Soul Shakers have put together a truly unique bar – if you haven’t heard of them, google them. You’ll get the idea.
We stepped into the room last Saturday, 8th January. We got busy. We opened to the public four days later.
How long will the restaurant be open?
Until mid March.
Will you be offering the same menu as The Meatwagon?
The menu will include absolutely everything we’ve ever done at the Meatwagon – all the burgers, the dogs, the Buffalo Wings, plus a few other things we’ve been wanting to try out for ages – Mac & Cheese, onion rings, and my own version of a classic kebab-shop chicken burger.
And fries! One of the reasons we’ve never done fries is that the logistics and time involved in triple cooking fries from scratch in the wagon made it both unfeasible and financial suicide. I’m employing one chef who will just do fries. All day. Every day. They will loathe the sight of both me and potatoes by the end of this, I can guarantee you.
Will pricing stay the same?
I’ve had to put a quid on the burgers I’m afraid (first ever Meatwagon price rise) but a cheeseburger’s still only six quid: That’s for a third of a pound of meat which is still pretty good bang for your buck, I reckon. It costs as much to set up a restaurant for two months as it does for two years so we’ve had to adjust our prices a touch to cover the extra costs. I think at the moment the prices max out at 8 quid or so for some of the bigger dishes.
Serving in a restaurant is obviously going to be different to serving from the van, are you confident you can serve people fast enough/cope with the level of orders?
I really don’t see this as a restaurant; if it’s anything, it’s a dive bar. We’ve never tried to be slick-as-shit full-service restaurant. Far from it: we are what we are.
Our food is always cooked to order and as such it takes as long as it takes. That’s just how it has to be to maintain a consistently high standard. Having said that, we’ve now got a crew of three working in the kitchen (as opposed to two in the Wagon) plus front of house & bar staff. Right from when The Meatwagon started, I’ve always tried to make the wait for food as bearable as possible with music, good drinks and an interesting environment. We’re continuing the tradition with #MEATEASY.
Are you worried that people will expect a different level of service from a restaurant than a van?
As I said, #MEATEASY isn’t really a restaurant.
I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the local bars & taverns I’ve visited all over the States where I’ve eaten some of the best food of my life.
Giles (from Soulshakers) really has done wonders with the bar so hopefully people will take advantage of that while they wait.
Oh, and we don’t take bookings. There is one exception to that rule, however: There’s one table that can be reserved and that is kept for the sole use of the people who’ve helped out with putting #MEATEASY together. It really wouldn’t have been possible without their support and I think it’s fair that they’re rewarded.
How will you judge the success of #MEATEASY?
One: Are people enjoying the food?
Two: Are people having fun?
Three: Can I put aside a bit money towards buying a new Meatwagon for the summer.
Once #MEATEASY is packed up and tidied away and a happy, happy memory for all of us, will the Wagon be back?
If so, do you have any plans to take the new Meatwagon outside the UK?
Well, I have been doing ‘Burgers for Burners’ at Burning Man for a few years now (for free, of course, according to the Burning Man ethos) out of the back of an RV, but really, spending a week suffering from altitude sickness, dehydration and culture shock out in the middle of the Nevada desert seems like a lot of effort to go to for a burger.
I’d love to do some cooking in the States, as opposed to just binge-eating, but no firm plans yet, so if any of our American cousins are reading this and they’ve got a griddle and a good butcher, feel free to get in touch.
You often tweet about your next location. How important has Twitter been in drawing in custom for The Meatwagon?
It’s been invaluable.
We’ve never advertised anywhere other than Twitter, Facebook and our website. We still don’t even have a logo, after a year-and-a-half. Twitter lets me communicate directly with people who’ve made an active decision to take an interest what we do.
I do make a point of trying to use @themeatwagonuk responsibly. In general I’ll only put out the bare minimum information rather than spam our followers with trivia. People following @themeatwagonuk don’t want to hear about my hangover or my thoughts on Nick Clegg – they just want to know where to get some red meat and a stiff drink.
You’re a member of eat.st, the street food collective aimed at ‘driving British street food forward’. Do you think there’s a great future for street food in this country?
I still find it amazing that London, one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet, has such a poor street food scene when we have such a huge wealth of different cultures’ cuisines to draw from.
eat st. is a really exciting organisation and I’m very proud to be a part of it. It represents the crème-de-la-crème of British street food. There’s some amazingly talented chefs involved, and some great personalities. The Florence recently hosted the ‘Tweetmass Gathering’ with eat st. and where the Meatwagon did the meat, Petra from Chocstar (my partner in crime in wagon-based misadventures) served up dessert, Angus (Kolkata Street Food) handled the vegetarian option and the Meantime Brewery got everyone drunk on London Lager. Perfect symbiosis.
One thing I’ve always been very aware of when it comes to street food in the UK is that we are at the mercy of the weather, and to a certain extent #MEATEASY is a practical solution to that problem; we did a couple of gigs before Christmas where we were outside cooking in the snow (literally ankle-deep in the stuff on one occasion at The Florence after the wagon was stolen). People came in their droves, and a rum old time was had by all. But, let’s be honest, standing around in the snow around a fire and eating meat is fine every now and then, but I do find that the novelty of snow wears off pretty quickly.
I think that with some essential changes in legislation and a bit of creative thinking with regards to the weather issue, we could have one of the most vibrant street food scenes in the world.
And finally, I can’t resist: you’re a fellow Peckham resident – any good local food tips?
Manzie’s for pie, mash & liquor.
Scott, you and Yianni are quite the team now; how did you come to learn about The Meatwagon and what made you decide to get together and park up that wagon in your pubs?
I heard about the wagon through Twitter, visited and was obviously bowled over. He needed somewhere a little more accessible to park it. I took a punt on the car park at The Florence. It was a huge success and worked well for us because we have never used a PR or Marketing co. and have always believed in the old fashioned way of word of mouth. Twitter is just a modern day, faster version of this. The wagon brought a couple of hundred food fans to the pub, some of which had never visited. A lot remain customers to date.
Yianni and I have become firm friends and I believe quite a pool of talent. A street version of Trevor Gulliver and Fergus Henderson, maybe…
Twitter really pulls in the customers for Meatwagon events and you use Twitter quite actively too – do you think it has boosted your business in any way?
The wagon and Twitter have boosted sales and as above, raised our profile. Twitter is amazing for getting immediate feedback, positive and negative which can be dealt with very, very quickly.
Are you nervous about hosting a pop-up restaurant in one of your pubs, particularly one that is just getting started?
We don’t own the pub yet, the current owner has agreed to let us do this. When we take possession on the 7th Feb we will be closing the downstairs and starting a full refurb early March. Yianni will carry on operating until we start the refurb. His presence will help people from outside of New Cross visit and see the before and after effect of one of our refurbs.
Will The New Cross House be serving food after #MEATEASY has closed?
The New Cross house will offer a similar menu to The Actress: gourmet pizza and rustic pub grub.
Depending on the #MEATEASY’s popularity over the next couple of months, it may not close after the refurb downstairs…
All your pubs are in South East London (ish). What’s so great about the area and do you plan to open any more?
South East and South West (this side of the river) has welcomed everything I’ve opened. I live here (East Dulwich) and wouldn’t dream of opening anywhere that I couldn’t visit daily and easily. I like the people and the mentality. Come Easter I will have opened three new pubs and completed a refurb on an existing one (The Clarence, Balham) within one calendar year. So no immediate plans. Still have a children’s room to add to the Victoria and hotel rooms to put above The Actress. Then I’m going to have a breather…
A big thanks to Scott and Yianni for taking the time to answer my questions what with being two of the busiest people I know. I visited the #MEATEASY on Tuesday night and wowee! Yeah it’s pretty special. The buffalo wings get busy with hot sauce and butter. I mean, come on. Get down there, that’s all I can say. Do it, do it tonight.
316 New Cross Road,
Follow Yianni on Twitter
Follow Scott on Twitter
The Meatwagon website and facebook page
The Capital Pub Company
Other posts on The #MEATEASY: Hollow Legs, Cheese and Biscuits, A Rather Unusual Chinaman.
Thank you very much to A Rather Unusual Chinaman and Hollow Legs for letting me use their photos. Mine were rubbish.