Meatheads Burgers and Fries paces itself for steady growth

Meatheads Burgers and Fries paces itself for steady growth

CHICAGO Einstein Bros. Bagels [3] and Potbelly Sandwich Works [4], and the funding and real estate are available for him to do it again with his three-unit concept, Meatheads Burgers and Fries [5]. But he and his nascent better-burger brand aren’t in any hurry, and nobody’s going anywhere until the pickles are perfect. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

From a table in the Northbrook, Ill., location of Meatheads, Jednorowicz explained his hang-up with the pickles and what it means for Meatheads’ growth plans. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

“I was unhappy with the food coming out of the kitchen [one Saturday],” he said. “It was sloppy. I want three pickles placed evenly across that bun, and there’s no excuse to do it any other way.” —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

He jumped into the prep line with his cooks and got back to basics, building the restaurant’s signature Angus burger, the Meathead, which sells for $4.50. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

“Those are the maniacal standards we are trying to attain,” he said. “We’re not always perfect, but unless you attempt to attain that, it’s the only way you’re ever going to come close.” —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

Since Chicago-based Meatheads opened in 2007 in Bloomington, Ill., and expanded first to nearby Naperville, Ill., and then Northbrook, Jednorowicz and co-owner Doug Reichl, a commercial real estate executive, have aimed for steady, controlled growth. Jednorowicz said the company is on pace for 2009 sales of $4 million from its three suburban locations, and he and Reichl hope to open three to five units next year. The average check is about $10. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

Meatheads’ planned expansion contrasts sharply with the experiences Jednorowicz had at other restaurant brands. As chief development officer, he guided Potbelly’s growth from nine units to more than 100 in four years. Before that, he also helped open as many as 200 locations of Einstein’s in one year. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

“That’s four openings a week,” he said. “I couldn’t even see all those units. I had to make decisions based on stuff I wasn’t even looking at.” —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

After leaving his post at Potbelly, Jednorowicz took about 18 months to travel the country, looking at different restaurant concepts to potentially buy or franchise while also consulting for private-equity firms looking to acquire restaurant businesses. During that time, Reichl, who continues to own Tartan Realty Group, offered him some office space for when he was in Chicago. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

In 2007, Reichl approached Jednorowicz about a vacant space in a Bloomington strip center that “seemed to be teed up for a smallbox, fast-casual restaurant,” Jednorowicz recalled. Jednorowicz hadn’t found a concept that had “the total package” during his travels, so the partners decided to create their own. They’d narrowed down the type of cuisine to pizza or burgers, and when they chose the latter, they brought in consulting chef Charlie Braggs, formerly of Chicago’s Ambria, to develop the menu. Reichl and Jednorowicz have funded all three units themselves, and are just now starting to consider outside investors for future growth. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

Since Meatheads’ inception, the food, operations and decor have evolved considerably, but the core of the business remains the menu of never-frozen Angus beef, fresh-cut fries and hand-dipped milk shakes. Reichle and Jednorowicz try to respond to customers’ feedback, which led to the early-October rollout of a new chicken sandwich, they said. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

The partners insist that the recession of the past two years never really factored into much of their business strategy, though they’ll continue to take advantage of opportunities in real estate. Costs for commodities and construction might have eased this past year, they said, but they’re ready to carry on growth plans even as those costs cycle back up. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

“There are probably a lot more subcontractors to bid these [construction] jobs down, so there are those benefits,” Reichl said. “In the coming months, it’s our intention to find the right opportunity to build a freestanding brand-building location. That’s probably where real real estate opportunities are going to show up. Some of the mania of the past few years, with the banks bidding up the out-lots, those guys are out of the market.” —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

However, the market for fast-casual, premium burgers is getting crowded. Several such brands are franchising rapidly, often led by longtime operators with experience at high-profile chains, including The Counter [6], Five Guys Burgers and Fries [7], Smashburger [8], The Habit Burger Grill [9], and Boardwalk Fresh Burgers and Fries [10]. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

Jednorowicz remains undaunted, confident that Meatheads’ high service standards and unit-economic model will ensure its success, which is how Potbelly managed to grow in the competitive sandwich segment during his tenure, he said. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

“I can tell you first-hand: This game is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” he said. “When you talk about the better-burger category, I think it’s still a pretty wide-open landscape.… I believe the company that offers better product and service in a better environment, on a consistent basis, that’s the company that’s going to win. And by the way, there’s more than one of everything out there, so I don’t know that there’s necessarily going to be one winner and everybody else are [going to be] losers.” —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

For now, the partners said, the focus is on profitability and execution, which is what will allow Meatheads to grow at a smart, strong pace, no matter who’s checking the pickles coming out of the kitchen. —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of

“This company is set up today—with the unit-economic model, the training system—to franchise tomorrow,” Jednorowicz said. “We have no intention of franchising under the existing management group. I always want that to be something this company has the ability to do. If somebody wants to take it and run with it, they can. The problem with franchising is you lose control with how those pickles are placed on the bun, and I’m not ready to lose that control.”— [email protected] [11] —Tom Jednorowicz has run the break-neck restaurant growth race before, overseeing development of