Meet Charlie Carroll | How to play with your food for more followers
A dining guide on doing it for the gram, so the gram can do it for you.
– Served medium rare.
“Good morning Charlie. Good morning Angels,” tell me you wouldn’t have seized that moment too? Calorie counting, crime fighters aside (apart from a couple of vegans who may lurk past one of Mr. Caroll’s legendary steakhouses), Charlie has risen to the top of the food chain from the flames of his famous flash grills, but it’s the world’s phone flashes that have kept him there. Unless you’ve been living under a veggie-pesci-tap-water-drinking rock, you must have heard of the Flat Iron franchise? And if you haven’t heard of them, you’ve surely seen this Gram-worthy-grub “beefing up” your feed, with now over 16 000 hashtags of user-generated content. This month I got to sit down with the man behind the meat himself, and if you know anything about Flat Iron you’ll realise how welcoming a seat can be, with waiting lines longer than a Kanye rant.
“Believe it or not, I hadn’t even heard of Instagram when we were setting up. Instagram has not always just been around like everyone today thinks it has. Twitter was where we thought we needed to be in the beginning. I used to be kind of obsessed with how many followers we had on there and what people were saying about us…but then I thought about the delight of someone sat in the actual restaurant. If someone orders a Strawberry Fizz from our drinks menu - freshly crushed ice, tall glass, basil…we can make them say, ‘That looks fucking great!’ And today when someone thinks something looks great, they take a photo of it and share it with the world.” These images have framed an entire empire, remember a picture says a thousand words, but a thousand pictures only say two – “must have”.
Side note, if you have not tried one of these snapable Strawberry Fizzes yet, the only way I can describe them is what I would image unicorn tears taste like. Happy tears. Sweet. Magical. And hard to come by. Fizzes or filtered water, every part of the Flat Iron experience is as considered as a Steven Spielberg scene change. From the post-worthy popcorn fried in beef dripping, the fruit-infused water that guests are presented with on arrival, to the trending tableware (chiefly the Flat Iron cleavers) collected off your meat boards as you bid farewell to your contemporary meal and every tenderised nuance in-between. “Firstly, what we do is create a real environment where people can say, ‘I enjoyed that. No, I really enjoyed that’ – that’s the “offline” part if you like. Secondly, we translate that into: ‘This is a tribe I want to be a part of’ – that is what’s happening online.” And beef oh beef, is that tribe taking over more and more social media territory. Whether live streams of Flat Iron’s chocolate, salt, caramel mousse being made out of their “what are those?” cream chargers are kicking off your Monday commute or boomerangs of the ultra-violet neon signs hanging in the restaurant are blocking up your bedtime browsing, Flat Iron’s name is being pushed from pillar to post, quite literally…and all because of their tribe – the customers.
“I don’t believe in advertising. I’d like to believe that what people hear about Flat Iron comes from what our customers share with them.” This sharing has too raised the stakes internationally for Charlie’s franchise. Recently the lightly salted steakhouse reached number one on South Korea’s answer to Google as the first thing to do in London, after Korean customers began posting pictures of their plates on a popular Korean food blog and linked the images to their private Instagram’s. (Yes. South Korea have their own Google called, Naver! I would imagine this means they have their own Oprah too.)
Now, online foodies are no stranger to a triple-filtered filo pastry or a designer doughnut deep fried in hashtags. So, what keeps these steak shots a cut above the rest and sets their savoury sides apart in a picnic of food porn? Simplicity. A napkin menu; 1 steak, 4 sauces and 5 sides. No epileptic zigzags of balsamic reduction in the postage stamp-corner of an over-sized plate – resembling the workings of a chef trying to crack an enigma code. Nor served on a California king-size bed of zucchini. Just a craftfully cooked cut, skilfully sliced and seasoned with sea salt. Robert Browning once said, “less is more” (perhaps his name pre-empted him from a more colourful methodology), but in this case, and undoubtedly in the cosmic case of anything effortless, less most certainly is more. And for Flat Iron – more foodies, more photos and more members of the tribe. “People have a very keen nose for bullshit and people trying to play them. Here, we are being straight up. Not over-elaborate, not fussy, not fancy. Every part of the experience simply needs to exude two things (1) craft and (2) cohesiveness, all the way from the aprons our waiters wear to the paint on the walls.” Merging craft and cohesion in an “offline” environment with all the props and filters of an online playroom, Mr. Caroll has cracked the formula for Insta success, without lifting a cleaver.
Last year Flat Iron won Best Breakthrough Operator at the Peach Hero and Icon Awards, hospitality's well-fed version of the Oscars. The year before they were crowned Most Effective Restaurant Design and Best Value Restaurant Operator at The R200 Awards. Now, there is no red carpet just yet for “The User-Generated Gala of Online Culinary Hype and Effortlessly Filtered Franchises Awards”, but if there was, we have no doubt that Flat Iron would leave everyone else looking hungry! This is one London steakhouse that won’t be a flash in the pan. #fact
Before we log out:
How do you like your steak cooked?
One item you wished you didn’t own?
Kindly gifted art I can’t throw away.
If you could only use one condiment for the rest of your life what would it be?
If we got matching tattoos what would they be?
None. My wife might find that weird.
Words by Devin Dewar.