One of New Zealand’s most revered culinary exports, BurgerFuel is also one of our most enduring. With the renowned burger chain reaching its big two-five this month, we reached out to a few of the folks who’ve worked with them along the way.
Every great story has to start in a particular place. For BurgerFuel, that place was Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, in the mostly inauspicious year of 1995. The proposition was relatively simple: the shop would sell burgers, elevated above the ranks of their fast food peers through the use of better ingredients and an altogether more considered menu approach, yet not elevated so far as to be overly pretentious.
The store quickly built a strong following, and the BurgerFuel empire would soon begin to expand to further-flung parts of the city, then the country, then the world. But although they’ve built an increasingly large house on a foundation of smashed beef and kūmara fries, one of the things that’s long set BurgerFuel apart from similar brands is its focus on things outside of what goes between their buns.
From running their own radio station to sponsoring athletes in sports ranging from BMX to MMA, theirs is a platform more closely reminiscent of international megabrands like Red Bull than your typical local burger spot. And so with the advent of their 25th birthday upon us, we reached out to a handful of the athletes, artists and various other hangers-on who’ve been associated with the brand over the years to learn what exactly they think makes BurgerFuel more special than most.
Big and bold
Ten years ago, Kairau “Haser” Bradley was studying design and doing one-off graffiti mural pieces for BurgerFuel. A typical student, he was initially lured into the partnership by the offer of copious amounts of free burger vouchers – “something like $200 worth, which lasted me a whole semester”.
The association soon deepened, and before Bradley knew it, he’d worked his way up as senior designer for the company, and was travelling overseas to complete murals for BurgerFuel’s stores. For Bradley, “as someone from a graffiti background, and an indigenous background”, culture is inherent to his practice. It was always important to Bradley, then, that the brand stayed true to its rebellious heart, and a certain brand of NZ humour. “Everyone else might find it lame, but it’s us.”
Bradley is now responsible for Creative, Sweet, a BurgerFuel initiative built around supporting and showcasing local artists. And while that programme is still in its early stages, Bradley is excited to see how it grows, particularly in the regions, and at the end of the day he just wants to make sure everyone is being looked after, and the creatives “get some food in them and are being well-represented. Not just leeching off them and using their goodness, but actually giving back to them.” And while he doesn’t have much need for free vouchers any more, “when I meet someone who could do with some, I make sure they’re looked after. Free food always goes down well.”
A genuine local legend of extreme sports, BMX rider Haimona Ngata has been sponsored by BurgerFuel since 2007. A long-time friend of the team, he first met marketing manager Aaron Carson at Auckland radio station bFM. “We would go on his radio show every now and then for a laugh.”
Ngata shies away from calling himself a competition rider. “I just ride, take some photos now and again, and have a good time.” When he started competing in BMX competitions, sponsorship started off with a few BurgerFuel stickers slapped on his bike. This has since developed into “Custom painted BMX frames, custom apparel, travel budgets, parties, hangovers”. And on BMX trips or projects, Ngata says he was always loaded with burger vouchers to feed the entire team dinner for a few nights in a row.
Ngata says that for him, the BurgerFuel brand is all about “having a laugh while enjoying a good burger” and not taking yourself too seriously. For someone with such an unorthodox specialisation, it also helps somewhat that he’s always felt like the team was made up of his kind of “slightly odd and quirky” people. After all, as he points out, there aren’t too many BMX sponsors out there “willing to action concepts and ideas that we thought up over a massive night on tequila shots”.
Fast, loud and fresh
From a young age, Lee Densem was surrounded by music – growing up in Christchurch, a young Densem picked up multiple instruments and was a devout listener of local radio. “I used to ring up the DJs and bug them,” he recalls, “so Radio BurgerFuel really is a dream job.”
That dream started, like most aspects of the brand, from relatively humble beginnings. Back in 2012, he was asked to curate what he refers to as “mixtapes” – playlists for the brand’s in-restaurant sound systems, consisting of “the best bits of everything; just awesome songs you want to hear while waiting for a burger, or eating one”.
Broadcasting icon Mikey Havoc is another person who’s played a role in the development of Radio BurgerFuel. First sponsored by the brand back in his early days on bFM, he recalls how ground-breaking the offering seemed in a time when burger options consisted mainly of “Maccas and the odd fish and chip shop”.
Havoc would share music with the Radio BF team in the station’s early days, passing on USB sticks full of new emerging talent for Densem to check out. It’s that kind of collaboration that has seen the quest for the perfect burger-eating soundtrack evolve dramatically over the years – having started out as mainly loud, heavy rock music, these days you’re as likely to hear hip hop, alternative and electronic music on the station, and as Densem’s quick to point out, “We always support New Zealand artists.”
That support means more than just burger vouchers – as well as a fully functional radio studio, broadcasting from BurgerFuel’s Grey Lynn HQ to its stores and the internet, they’ve more recently taken their musical focus into the IRL, hosting gigs at HQ with local acts such as Melodownz, Bailey Wiley and Church & AP. And while Covid has “put the turntable on hold”, on the DJ school they were also running, Densem hopes to kick things back into motion soon.
Densem reckons NZ musicians’ distinct attitude – of always wanting to get out there and achieve on the largest scale possible – has a lot in common with the BurgerFuel ethos. “New Zealand’s a small place, and so most musicians do it knowing it won’t make them lots of money,” he says, also noting there’s a certain kinship to the local music scene that he thinks is unique to Aotearoa.“[That makes it] extra special when you see someone achieve their goals.”
Kat Benson is making waves in the motorsports industry, having competed in the World Time Attack Challenge twice – the only female race car driver invited to the prestigious, high-level competition. As someone competing at the highest levels, she’s dedicated to changing the perception that motorsport is a man’s game. In her own words, Benson is living proof that “women can do it. We can win championships and beat the boys.”
Benson followed in her brother’s footsteps in entering the sport. After open heart surgery meant he had to hang up his helmet prematurely, she purchased his drag racing car, converted it into a circuit car and started entering open days. She says that racing fuels her competitive side, admitting she’s “a bit of a petrol head”.
Benson’s been a brand ambassador for BurgerFuel for the past 10 years, and with motorsports having long been a family affair, the brand’s close-knit approach to dealing with its partners is one that fits perfectly with how she approaches her sport.
She’s currently taking a break from racing. “I chose to have a baby, which put us out of action for a bit.” But with daughter Zoe now four-and-a-half months old, Benson’s already looking forward to getting back out there. “I can’t wait till she gets a bit bigger, and we can put her little earmuffs on and get her involved.”
And so while many championships have been cancelled due to Covid, Benson and her husband have been busy planning and working and developing the car. In the meantime, her message is simple: women who are pursuing careers in male-dominated fields need to believe in their own capability, and their ability to compete and take part at the highest possible levels. “You can do anything you want, if you put your mind to it. Go pursue your dreams.”
Josh Randall’s introduction to combat sports was about more than just fitness. “I didn’t finish school, and I moved around a lot, so competing in fights became one of the first things I completed.”
Striving for personal development and having a goal-setting mentality was invaluable to his progression as a fighter, he explains. “It’s about facing a fear head on. I was bullied a lot growing up.” He says often, “You surprise yourself, and you make yourself proud.”
Randall’s association with the brand began in 2012, when BurgerFuel became the first listed company in New Zealand to sponsor an MMA fighter. He remembers his first sponsorship deal vividly. “I was so broke, I couldn’t afford my diet. So BurgerFuel would give me five kilos of chicken breast each week. They helped put me through university.” Soon after, the business brought Randall on board to “bring some of that [fighting] mentality into the office”, an effort that would lead to the formation of the BurgerFuel Athletic Department (B.A.D.)
The department started, like so many other aspects of the brand, as a humble project – a basic gym, set up to give free classes to staff, friends and anyone who was interested. The company wanted to highlight “the rebel spirit of the brand”, so it was all kept in-house to maintain the mystique. “A bit of a ‘Fight Club’, invite-only model,” Randall jokes. They never had social media, or charged people for a session, and relied on word of mouth to bring athletes in.
Randall always felt supported by the company, as despite there being, in his words, “a lot of negative stereotypes” associated with MMA fighting at the time, they didn’t try to clean him up. “They aligned with my street background. I was working night clubs to pay for my passion in combat sports, and they went along with the edginess.”
And despite being paid in eye-watering quantities of poultry way back in 2012, Randall, like most of the people who’ve worked with the brand along the way, still has a soft spot for the BurgerFuel menu. Asked what his go-to order is, he answers without hesitation: “Chicken Fenders.”
“Yeah it’s probably the healthier option, but honestly, I’m just a fan of chicken.” Truly a match made in heaven.