Running out of money seems to be a recurring theme in Tommi’s account of his career. There was the time he spent too much money opening the Hard Rock Café in Reykjavik, there was the time he revived a derelict hotel to never turn a profit. And then there was the time he sped off into the South American sunset for retirement, only to find himself back in Iceland a few months later with empty pockets. But through the rough and tumble of the restaurant trade, it’s apparent the only thing that matters to the Icelandic chef is finding a good idea and running with it.
Tommi Tómasson’s calling to the food business didn’t come from a childhood dream to open a restaurant. Far from it. In fact, his route into the professional kitchen was by way of his partiality for a drink or two. “Drinking is what I wanted to do all the time,” he recalls, “we drank on the job and I liked the atmosphere”. Taken by the lifestyle he made cheffing his career, completing the requisite seven years training to become a master chef. Though finding himself quite at home in the kitchen, it occurred to Tommi perhaps being a chef wasn’t enough, so he attended commercial college in Iceland before heading further afield to study in Miami.
But the lifestyle he enjoyed was getting the better of him and he admits that on his return from Florida he was in no fit state to go the distance in the industry. “The truth is, when I came back from Miami I was not in a good order. I had to go to rehab and the only job I was offered when I came out of rehab was from a friend who was opening up a burger place.” He thought at the time it was a bit beneath his standing. “I was trained to do more but nobody really had faith in me.” This was 1980. By 1981 he’d found his feet and decided to go solo in the burger trade with a simple plan to stick with it for three years or sell a million burgers, whichever happened first.
Eight sites and a million burgers later, give or take a few, Tómasson was the fully-fledged Viking of burgers he’d set out to become. He sold up and set out to explore what the likes of London, LA and New York had to offer, encountering the Hard Rock Café on the way. Following a tip off about the best place to get a burger, Tommi found himself at the back of a lengthy queue to get his lunch. He hadn’t heard of the Hard Rock Café at this stage and points out that “Icelanders aren’t good at waiting in line”. But patience paid off. After less than five minutes inside he’d made up his mind about his next move. “This is something I have to do,” he remembers thinking. “From that point, there was no turning back. I was thinking about it constantly. Twenty-four seven.”
The epiphany drove Tómasson to spend eight months tracking down the Hard Rock’s co-founder Isaac Tigrett, eventually finding him in New York as he was launching the Hard Rock Café there. He introduced himself: “I am Tommi Tómasson from Iceland. The great hamburger guy.” Tigrett looked at Tommi, with no clue who he was but told him to come back the next day when he had more time to talk. A second meeting was enough to pique Tigrett’s interest and a trip to Reykjavik was planned. As Tommi tells the story, “Just a few weeks later, I was picked up in a limo and we went to Iceland.” I showed him around and he said, “I notice everybody is looking at you.” And then we go home and I give him tea. And he sits down and he says, “Tommi, you’re a good man. You can do the Hard Rock in Iceland.”
It finally happened in 1987, when there were just 10 Hard Rock Cafés in the world. It was a revolution in Reykjavik and was the busiest restaurant in Iceland for ten years, although Tómasson admits it never made any money. “That restaurant could have been anywhere in the world and still been one of the top restaurants. But the size of it, and the money spent, was not to scale with the Icelandic population.” This financial miscalculation was echoed in Tómasson’s decision to buy and restore the Hótel Borg in Reykjavik, a beautiful old building that he fell in love with and saved from a fate of redevelopment into offices. The “great hamburger guy” was now also “the guy that saved the hotel”. But overspending meant that, like the Hard Rock Café, he never made any money from it.“I have been struggling my entire life not to go bankrupt,” he says, “but having fun”.
Indeed, after selling up in Reykjavik with retirement on the cards, Tómasson headed to South America, to Buenos Aires, the “Mecca of Tango” as he calls it. But it wasn’t long before the money ran out and he found himself back in Iceland having to withdraw cash from three different bank accounts to find 500 Icelandic Króna (around £4) to top up his mobile phone. Once again, he was faced with the prospect of the burger business. Someone suggested he made a comeback. He staunchly refused, believing more than ever that he was beyond that point. “But when people heard I might, they start talking, you know, Tommi’s going back into burgers. So, I said why not?”
Telling his story from his Thayer Street branch of Tommi’s Burger Joint, Tómasson is surrounded by the business he developed from that point on; it amounts to 17 restaurants across Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and the UK. With a history of financial missteps, how did he build such an empire? He uses the term ‘creative financing’: “The idea comes first, followed closely by taking action and only after that come the logistics of how it will happen,” he says. “Once you begin there’s no turning back. You have to complete the job. You do whatever. Then somewhere along the line you get a little bit here, a little bit there. And if you’re successful, everyone wants to be involved. That’s the name of the game.”
But having people queueing outside his own restaurants is the result of an astute attention to detail and a passion for hospitality. “There needs to be good service, a good quality product, tender loving care, and above all: consistency. If you fulfil these four things – they’re like the four feet under the table - people will come.” It’s the same consistency Tómasson sees in the Relais de Venise, a French restaurant just around the corner on Marylebone Lane that he frequents when in town. “The only thing on the menu is steakfrites. It’s simple but totally reliable in its quality, every single time.”
It’s interesting to note that the consistency in the quality of Tommi’s own burgers can be traced back to an independent family butcher in west London: HG Walter. The quality of meat is such that they export it to every outlet in Europe (aside from Oslo where strict regulations make it too complicated).
Having outgrown HG Walter with their volumes, they now use the same meat but buy directly from the slaughterhouse. The bread buns are also made by Millers in the UK and exported. “I mean it’s just a bun, and this is only a burger. But you know, there’s a difference between a burger and a burger and a bun and a bun.”
Tómasson claims he wouldn’t open up in London if he was just starting out in the burger business today. In preparing for his debut in London back in 2012, he and his two business partners – Icelandic guys that knew the London scene – did a recce of the competition, eating 25 burgers in three days. Though not a burger restaurant, Rivington Grill came out on top. And as a hamburger restaurant, Byron was also up there. “I was impressed. And at the same time, I said OK, I am not afraid to go into competition with these restaurants. I think my burgers are just as good - or a little better.” But this was back when they were pioneers; Honest Burger were just starting out and it was before the days of Dirty Burger and Patty & Bun. A lot has changed in the intervening years and Tommi believes they wouldn’t be as accepted today as they were then.
Asking Tommi whether he’s keeping an eye out for any more sites in London, he says he’s perfectly happy to get on with the three he’s already got. Then again he adds, “When you see a site, you look around…sometimes there’s no turning back. There’s a saying that a man’s mind, stretched to a new idea, will never go back to its original dimension”. So it looks like we’ll just have to wait and see.
Chloë Hamilton @chloedavida
This article was first published in Issue 11 of CODE Quarterly.