Name: Anmarie Spaziano
Job: Proprietor, Restauranteur and Entrepreneur
Office: Annie's Burger Shack, Nottingham and Derby
Hi Annie! Can you tell us a little about how you started Annie's Burger Shack?
“I started Annie’s Burger Shack from the kitchen of the Old Angel in Nottingham with a bum bag and a frying pan!
“After I graduated from Nottingham, I had a variety of roles, mostly with the Council. I’d always been entrepreneurial, it’s sort of in my blood, as my mother was an entrepreneur. I started a cookie business, which failed miserably. I ended up taking my big box of cookies and throwing it on the bar of my friend’s pub, the Old Angel. I couldn’t go any further, I was working 80 to 120 hours a week and living on cookie dough and not much else! I had to figure out what else to do. At the time, nobody was running the kitchen in the pub and I said I would take it on. I thought, ‘what this place needs is a good burger’. I grew up in Rhode Island in New England, where the first diners started, with old school style burgers so I wanted to make it authentically American.
“It was the most exciting thing, having my own kitchen where I could do everything I wanted. I did everything from scratch and made my own menus. I started off with 65 burgers, and ended up with 45, which all felt unique and different. I loved the food I grew up with, old school American, but I also wanted to make sure everyone could sit at the table with vegetarian and vegan options too, which very few restaurants were doing at the time.
“And then all of a sudden, people started flocking in very quickly. We moved to the Navigation Inn, then to the Broadway, and now we have our own restaurant in Nottingham and we’ve just opened a new place in Derby. I’m still amazed at the reaction, there are so many incredible places out there, but people come to us. I feel incredibly fortunate.”
What is your job now and where’s your ‘office’?
“I guess now I would call myself a proprietor, restaurateur and entrepreneur. I would also add building restorator. I love architecture and history, so for Nottingham and Derby we’ve chosen buildings that were sort of dilapidated but we’ve gone in and fixed up. The atmosphere has to be important, you have to get that right.
“The team at Annie’s do a great job, the students have taken over the master, so I try to be the face. I’m kind of like a female Ronald McDonald person, a passionate spokesperson for the business. I do a lot of charity work for the business, and help mentor students and entrepreneurs.
“We’re also working on growing the business. Despite what’s going on, we’ve been navigating the ship through the icebergs and I think we’ve done a good job of it.”
Was there one career-defining moment which enabled you to pursue your career?
“I think it goes back to starting in the kitchen at the Old Angel. I was so excited to get started, I’d spent two days designing and hand-making the menus, which the staff thought looked amazing. But then I found out the landlord had given the kitchen to someone else. Talk about having the rug pulled out from underneath you! If it wasn’t for the staff, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Even though the landlord was an intimidating guy, they convinced him that he should give me a chance. He put all these barriers up, like everything had to be separate from the bar and I had to take my own orders, but I didn’t care, I had the kitchen!
“I had no idea what to do, I’ve never worked as a chef before. I love food and cooking, and I knew I wanted the food to remind me exactly of when I was a kid, but the business side was all new. I did a weekend business management course while I was studying at Nottingham, which I tried to hark back to. But that defining moment was really about getting started, lifting your legs up and going for it.”
What would you say are the key characteristics of someone who does your job?
“In my role as a proprietor, I think you have to wear a lot of hats, and be able to switch them when needed. This business is no longer just me with a bum bag and a frying pan, this is a business that people depend on and who are relying on you. So it’s a lot of juggling.
“I always look at it like a giant tanker. If I want to make any change, even something small like changing the vegan cheese, I can’t just go ‘right, let’s do this’. Everything is connected, so like a giant ship you can’t just turn quickly. Everything has to be considered. You’ve got to learn to be captain of the ship, and it’s a very different thing.”
How would your colleagues describe you?
“Definitely altruistic. Definitely impulsive, when I have to be."I’ve been described as a Pied Piper. There’s a Harvard Business Review thing that describes how entrepreneurs are different and I’ve been described as a Pied Piper, in the sense of creating momentum and bringing people along with you. “I can see myself as that sort of thing. I know I can’t do accounts very well, so I have a partner who is way better than me to come over. Or with team things I’ll be like ‘let’s do this’ and we’ll come together. It’s totally reciprocal, because if people are excited and get on board, it makes me even more passionate about doing it. So I think it’s positive, a nice reciprocal forward movement.”
What’s the one thing about your office which you most love or hate?
“I love my team. The staff are absolutely amazing. They definitely feel like Annie’s is a big, inclusive family. And they created that themselves. They do an amazing job for the business. They do it much better than me!
“The flip side of it is, I’m out of a job! If I go in the kitchen now when it’s busy, I can see their faces, they want me to get out of the way. Or if I go and help behind the bar, I’ll smash glasses or forget parts of an order. I’m literally in the way, which is a great thing. It’s not that I’m not needed any more, I’m just not doing what I used to be doing. So it’s sort of bittersweet.”
And is there anything you could not live without in your office?
“I have to say, it’s kind of funny, but it’s the burger woman that’s on the front of the Annie’s menus. She’s sort of angelic but at the same time kind of demonic.
“I did some guest chef-ing in the Netherlands, one of my friends had a pub in Groningen, and I went over and spent the weekend as guest chef. Her friend was a graphic designer, he had worked on the Yes We Can campaign for Barack Obama, and she asked him if he could work up a poster really quickly as an advertisement for the weekend. He created this burger woman, with flames behind her and sort of a naughty, 1950s wife look. I just loved her and I love that the logo was made by a friend of mine. Some people have said maybe it’s time for her to go, but I really don’t want to get rid of her. She’s cool! She’s part of me and the business.”
What’s been the best moment working in your office?
“There’s always this moment, when we’ve opened a new place, where you take a deep breath and stop to think about what you’ve achieved. It’s like in a movie where everything goes into slow motion. I’m definitely a person that runs at 80 miles an hour, so to have that deep breath moment where you slow down, is really cool.
“When I was in UMASS at Amherst many years before, in the early 90s, I remember having this dream of wearing a bandana, pair of jeans, old dockers, and walking out with two bowls of soup on a wooden chunky floor. When I was at the Old Angel, I remember holding two burgers for two women that had ordered food, and I came out and it was literally almost the exact same kind of floor layout. Going down one step in the creaky floorboards, and it smelled so wonderful, and I just had that moment of going, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m literally doing what I wanted to do’.
“And that cool feeling happened again after I set up at the Navigation and the Broadway. We did all of the DIY on the kitchens and started from scratch, but when it was all done, I felt that moment. You never know if it’s going to work, but when the whole place is busy and you hear people laughing and the tinkling of glasses, there’s nothing like that.
“It changes people lives. People tell me stories of what Annie’s means to them, people that have met in Annie’s or held their wedding reception with us for example, and it changes people’s lives. That’s quite an achievement, I think, for me.”
And the toughest?
“There are always going to be those moments where life is going to kick you in the shins at certain points. Luckily, I’ve never not wanted to do Annie’s Burger Shack.
“Obviously it’s been a tough year with Covid. Shutting down is stomach churning, going back into a restaurant that was flourishing and has been empty and quiet for months is so hard. Back in the beginning though, before Covid had even come over to Britain, my business partner and I had a moment where we just looked at each other and thought it might come. If it doesn’t great, but if it does, we’d better get prepared financially. We sat and worked through what the worst case scenario could have been for the next two years. If we hadn’t have done that, we could have been like so many other business that have folded. A lot of businesses have folded because they waited to see what would happen, which I can understand, but it ended up hitting people so hard. The harshest thing in the world, especially for hospitality, is knowing that when they’re gone, they’re gone, they’re not coming back. People with the same passion as me, I’m not any different from anybody else, it’s very tough.
“It has been a very, very tough year. On the flip side, coming out of it, we’ve been able to do delivery. It took me a while to accept it because Annie’s is all about the experience, but it worked and we’re now one of the most popular delivery services in Nottingham. We’re making an app to download, which we might keep when we come out of this but in a different way.
“If there’s a wall, you just have to find somewhere where there’s a weak spot and kick through and keep going. One of the best lines I’ve ever heard, is ‘if a business isn’t growing, it’s shrinking’. I love that line.”
Do you have one piece of advice for someone who wants to work in an office like yours?
“I think one of the best pieces of advice I got was from a woman in Nottingham who became Businesswoman of the Year. She was just awesome, and the way she described things really clicked for me. She said ‘you can only be 80% as good as something that is original’. So in other words, if you go into a business with the mindset of copying another person, you’re only going to be 80% as good as what that person has created on their own. Of course, I didn’t create the burger, I didn’t make the wheel. It doesn’t mean you can’t take ideas and use them, but you need to make them your own to make it 100% as good.
“As flattering as it has been, people have tried to take my burgers. Some people have been as brave as to literally copy the wording from the menu. But it wasn’t as good because they didn’t know the reason behind it. When people create a business, there is passion and reason behind why things are put together in the way that they are. I have a burger called The Lemmy, like Lemmy from Motorhead. I met Lemmy, so I know that he loved steak, he loved Jack Daniels, he put mustard on his steak and he liked a bit of spice. I studied him and made sure that I made a burger he would love. I made a Jack Daniels mustard and put grilled jalapenos and cheddar cheese on the burger, and it was a combination that was all thought out to go with that burger.
“I like to know that whether it’s going to fail or flourish, this business sits on hard work. It’s on its own creativity, and I think that’s a much better path to success.”
And finally, how do you take your tea?
“I love this question! My mom is a world traveller, and she’s always been an expert on tea, she would travel to try the tea and talk to people about it. It was always about tea.
“I’ve always loved black tea. I love a good English breakfast or keemun or assam, with milk and a bit of sugar. I like it strong, milky and sweet!