For a restaurant company whose success revolves around three main offerings — prime burgers, fresh Atlantic lobsters and lobster rolls — it’s somewhat of an understatement to say they’ve done pretty well for themselves. What began as an idea, an entrepreneurial lark, by four schoolmates on a London rooftop in 2011, has mushroomed into a veritable empire, growing from a small, single restaurant in the British capital’s posh Mayfair district into an instantly recognisable brand with outposts in all corners of the globe, from New York to Kuwait, Singapore, Thailand and, since 2017, Malaysia.
Its first local outlet opened in 2017 at SkyAvenue in Resorts World Genting but Kuala Lumpur welcomed its very own restaurant on Oct 3, at a choice location at the foot of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, overlooking the verdant expanse of the Roberto Burle Marx-designed KLCC Park. On the unlikely but clearly winning combo of earthy beef and luxurious lobster, its founder and CEO Mikhail Zelman, also known as Misha, asks candidly: “What is better than prime protein?”
Zelman’s company runs the surf “n” turf-centric empire alongside several other brands — interestingly, all steakhouses — such as Beast, a luxe dining room with outposts in Miami and London, Zelman Meats in Knightsbridge, and Goodman, a London-based chain. When met over a surprisingly tame cup of tea in the British capital’s Soho district, Zelman was asked about his original idea of starting a restaurant offering just three main items: burgers, lobster and lobster rolls.
He mulls it over before saying, “My friends and I were just hanging out in the flat that I had rented. We were all single, young, crazy and ambitious! I personally have always loved burgers. Growing up in 1990s Russia, I remember when the first McDonald’s opened. I queued for hours! Even my grandmother heard about it and asked me to bring back an apple pie for her,” he smiles. “You must remember Russia was a closed country then. We were isolated, blocked … sometimes we couldn’t even buy enough food. Then, all of a sudden, the Soviet Union collapsed and things began to open up quickly. I still remember that day [when McDonald’s opened]. It wasn’t just the idea of eating American fast food or burgers, but the idea of tasting freedom. McDonald’s, to me, was also a symbol of new opportunities. Russians of my generation, we were crazy for opportunities!”
It is no secret that intelligence and ambition make for a potent combination, and Zelman quickly proved he had both in spades. He finished school at the age of 14, landed his first job at 15 and opened his first restaurant at 19. “I understood very early on I had opportunities that my father [an engineer-scientist working for the then-USSR government] would never have had. [With regards to Burger & Lobster], you could say I was a little bit inspired by McDonald’s,” he chuckles, “but we are not in the mass market business. Yes, the burger is an affordable food but we are proud that ours is different, special. We make each burger individually and put our hearts and souls into everything we serve. We don’t offer an extensive menu but each item is crafted beautifully and meticulously. We are not about numbers but quality.”
Joining Zelman in his KL vision is none other than Datuk Simon Foong, a fellow serial entrepreneur whose varied business interests already include F&B as exemplified by ice cream brand Crème de la Crème, but also span hospitality (Angsana Hotel Teluk Bahang in Penang), leisure (Aquaria) and skincare and cosmetics (The Body Shop).
“I’ve always had this liking for F&B and it was during the pandemic that I yearned to do something new, and that was when I recalled Burger & Lobster, one of my favourite UK restaurants,” says Foong. “We were regular visitors to London as my youngest son Dexter was studying there then. In fact, it was he who introduced us to it. So I wanted to make it easier for myself and the city folk to be able to enjoy a great Burger & Lobster meal without having to drive too far … or catch a flight.”
A fan of the brand’s minimalist but flavourful offerings, Foong admits to loving the chain restaurant so much that he literally “jumped at the chance” when the opportunity to become the master franchisee for Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam came up. “An iconic landmark like Suria KLCC deserves an iconic brand like Burger & Lobster,” he explains on selecting the restaurant’s city centre location. “This store is also unique in many ways, from the design and fit-out to the menu. We are also pleased to have, once again, commissioned Nizam Abdullah, who created the iconic Angsana Tree lobby sculpture in Angsana Teluk Bahang, to create our outlet’s lobster sculptures.”
Not that opening the KL restaurant was smooth sailing, though. “Anyone who has started a business will know it is hard work and fraught with challenges … mostly unexpected! So, what I have learnt is to expect the unexpected,” Foong says, shrugging. “Issues ranged from the global supply chain, to shortage of builders and staff, so we were lucky to have the international Burger & Lobster team as well as our internal team at AquaBlu (a subsidiary of Aquaria’s holding company that handles design and construction for theme parks and aquariums) to help us manage these challenges.”
Now that the dust has settled and Burger & Lobster KLCC is merrily pulling in the crowds, Foong, an enthusiastic eater himself, shares how most outlets would have a special item that celebrates the uniqueness of its location and/or country. The one at Singapore’s Raffles Shopping Arcade, for example, offers salted egg yolk baby cuttlefish as a starter while Bangkok’s edition serves lobster tom yum soup at its Gaysorn Village restaurant. So what is the KLCC outpost’s unique offering? Lobster laksa!
“The menus might not be exactly the same [around the world], but the crowd favourites will always remain: there are the lobsters, and then there are wild-caught Canadian lobsters; the beef burgers as well as the Nebraskan beef burgers. You must come and taste the difference. You will also love our other offerings like the lobster mac ‘n’ cheese and fried chicken and waffles. Seriously, they are all to die for!”
A caveat though: Those who have eaten at any Burger & Lobster outlet will tell you that getting in line is part of the experience. “Admittedly, I myself hated having to queue up in London. But now, as a Burger & Lobster owner myself, I am looking forward to huge queues in KLCC,” Foong laughs. “But seriously, the ‘no reservations’ policy helps ensure the best turnaround time. Besides, queueing is good for the soul. Just think of David Beckham who recently waited 12 hours in a queue to pay his respects [to the late Queen Elizabeth II].”
This article first appeared on Nov 14, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.