FALLS CHURCH Va. Billions and billions served? It’s way too early to make predictions. But entrepreneur Hans Hess has high hopes for Elevation Burger, his fast-casual restaurant here. He feels the time is right for mainstream acceptance and franchising of a concept built around a limited menu of hamburgers made from 100-percent organic, grass-fed and free-range beef; French fries cooked in olive oil; veggie burgers; and hand-scooped milk shakes — all served in snappy fashion from an open kitchen with a streamlined equipment package and step-saving layout.
“We actually felt the time was right five years ago, but now it’s really right,” said Hess, a former real estate consultant who said he devoted three years of planning before opening the restaurant two and a half years ago. “In some ways, the time we took planning was really great, because the organic wave is about to crest.”
Since then, the 1,800-square-foot restaurant, which has seating for 55 inside and 30 outside, has been a successful proving ground for a limited menu of healthful and flavorful fare and a relatively simple equipment package that he believes will appeal to prospective franchisees. The principal food preparation pieces are deep fryers, a conveyor oven, steam-heated griddles and a spindle milk shake mixer.
“There aren’t a lot of moving parts or complicated prep work,” Hess said. “We can provide an extremely fresh, extremely high-quality product without resorting to things that are precooked or frozen, because we don’t need to.”
Elevation Burger’s standard operating procedures include some practices that Hess was told were impossible. Take his method of cooking French fries in olive oil in standard commercial deep fryers. “We were told by everybody in the industry, the popular press and even the [deep fryer] guy that it couldn’t be done,” Hess said. “But I said it will work. I’d been frying them in olive oil for years.”
The patented process manipulates such variables as cooking time, oil temperature and the sugar content of potatoes, though Hess wouldn't elaborate on the proprietary details. The result is crispy, golden fries that are “a huge differentiator” for the concept and a draw for healthful eaters.
For future stores, Hess anticipates replacing his conventional deep fryers with a type that uses less oil but is highly productive in order to counter the relatively high cost of olive oil. Because of the volume of fries sold, new stores probably will open with five frypots rather than the current three.
Hess also went against the grain by cooking his veggie burgers in a conveyor oven typically used for toasting bagels.
“Again, that was something everyone told us we shouldn’t do,” he said. “But it has worked out remarkably well by producing very hot veggie burgers.”
The conveyor oven cooking method also allows him to keep vegetarian fare away from the griddle where beef is cooked, something appreciated by his vegetarian clientele, which he estimates at about 5 percent to 7 percent of total customers.
Elevation Burger’s organic, grass-fed, free-range beef burgers are cooked on griddles heated by steam, rather than gas flame, because they have a more uniform surface temperature and faster temperature recovery, Hess said. The price tag is higher, he said, but worthwhile in terms of improved consistency.
The popular hand-scooped shakes are another differentiator. They are made with a classic five-spindle milk shake mixer rather than the mechanized milk shake dispensers that large chains favor.
“When I say I’m going to make you a milk shake with real ice cream, you don’t think of something drawn from a machine,” Hess said.
Hess intentionally drew the open kitchen with sight lines unblocked by walls, racks or banks of equipment. “We want to give the customer a sense of confidence about how the food is made,” he said. The layout is planned with efficiency of movement in mind. “All the food comes together at one point and it’s literally two steps to the counter,” he said.
Elevation Burger is registered for franchising in California and soon will be registered in Virginia and Maryland, Hess said.
“Our vision is to bring a healthier product to anyone who wants it," he said. "I feel the sky’s the limit.”
However, a possible constraint to growth could be the margin pressure caused by the higher costs of organic foods and olive oil. But for now, Elevation Burger’s price points are not beyond the pale of fast-casual restaurants.
“We charge $3.69 for a cheeseburger. The double is $5.69. The fries are $2.49,” Hess said. “We routinely see a husband, wife and two kids come into the store and eat really well for $20 to $25.”