MARKET SEGMENT: quick-service better burger
NO. OF UNITS: 4
SYSTEMWIDE SALES: $4 million
AVERAGE CHECK: under $10
LEADERSHIP: managing partner Scott Barton, executive chef Tim Hockett and managing partner Randy Brand
YEAR FOUNDED: 2010
COMPETITION: national better-burger chains, high-quality quick-service restaurants in Chicago
TARGET MARKET: Chicago
WEBSITE: www.mburgerchicago.com 
Thirty years after the opening of burger joint RJ Grunts — the first restaurant in what would eventually become multiconcept empire Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises — Chicago-based LEYE is getting back to its roots with four-unit M Burger.
The burger chain, which features a no-frills menu and quick-service prices, got its start in 2010 in an unlikely place, the company’s fine-dining flagship, Tru. Executive chef Tim Hockett began turning out his version of the perfect fast-food burger from a 200-square-foot section of the restaurant that had previously housed Tru’s chef’s table and served as a private party space.
“We thought it would be awesome for the neighborhood. We wanted it to be a cool hangout,” Hockett said. “We saw a lack of quick-service food in the area. We saw a niche and decided to fill it with what we do.”
The first M Burger was a hit with locals, often leading to long lines that spilled out of the tiny space. The restaurant initially had just eight seats, but the company recently added a 60-seat patio.
A second Chicago location opened just four months after the first debuted. Two more followed — one situated in the Thompson Center, a downtown office building, and the most recent near the Water Tower Place, a landmark structure near Lake Michigan. That unit has a 50-seat dining room, a step up from the chain’s smaller beginnings.
Given M Burger’s start in Tru’s old chef’s table space, managing partner Scott Barton said LEYE is comfortable with nontraditional locations.
“We like the flexibility that the concept allows us in regard to identifying future possible locations and fits,” Barton said.
Barton said there are currently no plans to expand beyond the Windy City but declined to share a timeline for future Chicago-area expansion.
Each of the four locations retains the streamlined menu developed in the original cramped space at Tru — just a few sandwiches, fries, shakes and sodas. The hamburger is priced at $2.49 for a single and $3.69 for a double, while the cheeseburgers are $2.99 and $4.29, respectively. The signature M Burger, topped with bacon, cheese and house-made sauce, sells for $3.29 with one patty and $4.49 with two patties. The average check is less than $10.
The menu also includes a chicken sandwich and a vegetarian sandwich, called the Nurse Betty, made with a beefsteak tomato, avocado and pepper-Jack cheese, and priced at $2.99.
Barton said the non-burger offerings broaden the chain’s customer base.
“It is very important to us, as it helps round out the customer’s experience,” he said. “Burgers have perfect companions, like fries and shakes, of course, but we also like to offer our non-beef-eating guests something, as well.”
Hockett said non-burger sales accounted for 15 percent to 20 percent of the sales mix.
Still, the burger is the undisputed star of the show, and Hockett has exacting standards when it comes to the iconic sandwich.
After a few months of tasting burgers from across the country, Hockett and others went to work on engineering the backbone of M Burger’s menu.
“We tested our own blends and grinds,” he said. “We found the meat that we like, and we have it double ground.”
Phil Vettel, a food writer with the Chicago Tribune, said the chain’s low price point is likely to resonate with cash-strapped consumers.
“People will only spend so much for a grab-and-go burger,” said Vettel. “M Burger seems to have found the right price-quality formula. The kiosks are jammed every time I walk by.”
Vettel added that that LEYE’s robust operations know-how and years of experience are an asset.
“The restaurant has smart locations, efficient service, a good product, and the financial and marketing know-how of Lettuce behind it,” he said. “The key to M Burger’s success may be in its unusually small footprint.”
Contact Mike Dempsey at [email protected] .