Standing out in a crowded better burger segment

Standing out in a crowded better burger segment

Burger 21 aims to differentiate with varied menu, non-beef options

There are many "better burger" chains in the U.S. these days, but Burger 21 claims that it’s different from the rest.

For one, half the burgers on the menu are non-beef, made from turkey, chicken, ahi tuna, shrimp, or beans and vegetables instead. The result is a varied menu with lots of higher-end options, said Dan Stone, vice president of franchise development for the restaurant’s Tampa, Fla.-based parent company, Front Burner Brands.

The fast-casual restaurant currently has five locations, all of which are in Florida. Four of those locations are company owned, Stone said.

Stone spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about what makes Burger 21 unique, as well as the company’s future growth plans.

Let’s start with some history. When did Front Burner Brands first introduce Burger 21?

The development of the concept began in November 2009. The first unit opened in November 2010. The franchise program launched in September 2011.

Forty-five percent of Americans eat burgers at least once a week. We just saw a void, something a little different, and we came up with Burger 21.

What are some of Burger 21’s competitive differentiators?

We focus a lot on variety. The idea of Burger 21 is that we take 21 different gourmet recipes, things that would be hard to make at home. We sell you those in an environment, but not with the sticker shock, of a gourmet restaurant. We have 10 beef and 10 non-beef burgers, and one featured burger that changes. My personal favorite is the ahi tuna. It’s fantastic. In addition, we do salads. You can actually get a burger bowl, or [add] any meat onto our salads.

We have a whole signature shake bar and we do a lot of unique shakes like key lime pie or bananas foster. We have an extensive kids' menu with about 10 items on it. We offer beer and wine as a convenience for adults. With this, we have gone beyond the better burger.

When you look at our design and our service, it’s more than fast causal.

What about your service makes it 'more than fast casual?'

Guests order at the counter, the food takes about eight minutes to make, and the guest gets a number. This isn’t a situation where you get a pager and go back to the counter. There are no trays. The food is brought out to the guests’ tables.

In the eight minutes, guests can go to the beverage station and get iced tea, then go to the sauce bar, where there are 10 options to choose from. We feature a marshmallow sauce that goes perfectly with our sweet potato fries. A lot of other places will just have ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise.

Do most guests still stick to traditional beef burgers?

To date, 40 percent of our burgers that we sell are non-beef. Sixty-nine percent of our revenue comes from non-beef menu items, including our drinks, fries, salads, sundaes, beer and wine.

Will the non-beef focus of your menu help shield you from rising beef prices?

We will have half our menu to fall back on, and will not necessarily have to drive our prices up. I think our menu gives us greater flexibility going forward. We are not harnessed by the beef market like some other burger concepts are.

When you do grow, will you do so with company-owned locations, or do you plan to expand through franchising?

The majority of our growth will be franchised locations. We’re going to grow via franchising in all other areas outside of Tampa Bay. That’s our strategy — we’re using the hub-and-spoke method. If we open up units in a dozen locations in the next two years, it’s going to allow us to really create some additional growth in those markets.

How many locations will you open in 2013?

I believe we will open a minimum of seven stores in 2013. We’re building on momentum. I suppose that each year, we’ll open more stores than we did the year before. We’re opening stores in the Atlanta market, in the Charlotte market, and we’re going to opening somewhere in the Metro D.C. area. We’re going to open in New Jersey. And our next franchise location will open in Orlando.

The beauty of being with Front Burner brands is that we’ve been franchising The Melting Pot for nearly three decades. A lot of brands look to grow in their own backyards first, but given that we have Melting Pots in 36 states, we could open just as easily in Texas as we could in Florida.

How many locations do you plan to open in next five years?

It’s something we’ve thought a lot about, but we’ve been very hesitant to stick a number to it. There are just too many unknowns right now. We’d rather just do what we do very well. We want to be the equivalent of what Chipotle is in the Mexican fast-casual segment.

When people think of Chipotle, they think of consistency. They think of a good value and they think of good service. We want to grow at a pace that allows for that consistency, whether it’s 500 units in five years or 10 years. We want to make sure that we establish ourselves in other markets the way that we have in Tampa Bay.

Contact Erin Dostal at [email protected] [6].
Follow her on Twitter: @erindostal [7]