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Habit Burger founders debut Hook Burger Bistro

The founders of the Habit Burger Grill chain have launched a new concept designed to tap into the growing demand for more upscale burgers.

Hook Burger Bistro had a soft opening Nov. 1 in Oxnard, Calif., a city between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara on the Southern California coast.

Hook Burger was created by Brent Reichard, who, with his brother Bruce Reichard, founded the now 33-unit Habit Burger Grill chain, based in Irvine, Calif., three decades ago.

In 2007, the Reichard brothers sold most of the Habit Burger chain to private-equity firm KarpReilly LLC, although the founders kept four units in Santa Barbara, which they still operate. They also remain shareholders of the larger chain.

Brent Reichard said he wasn’t ready to “retire his spatula” and just operate the four Habit Burger units. But, he said, “I wanted to stick with what I know.”

He positioned Hook Burger Bistro as a more upscale “better burger” concept, while staying within the fast-casual segment — where burger players are proliferating.

The Habit Burger, with a pay-as-you-order and counter-pickup format, leans toward quick-service. At Hook Burger guests order and pay at the counter, but food is delivered to tables.

Unlike Habit Burger, Hook Burger features wine and beer — including eight beers on draft — served in real glasses. Some menu items also are served on china, Reichard said, which is more fitting with the casual-dining atmosphere.

Hook Burger’s menu includes a line of char-broiled burgers made with 5-ounce patties of prime chuck and served on a brioche bun. A Maui burger, for example, includes fresh pineapple salsa with teriyaki; and a prime burger is topped with honey-Dijon mayonnaise with cheddar or jack cheese, lettuce and tomato.

Guests also can build their own burgers. Condiments and salad dressings are made in house. Fries are shoestring cut, made with the skin on, and sweet potato fries also are available.

In addition, the menu includes a marinated skirt steak sandwich — the most expensive item at $8.95 — as well as a seared ahi tuna sandwich. Habit Burger also is known for its seared tuna sandwich, but the version there is made with albacore tuna fillets, Reichard said.

Hook Burger’s kitchen has a rotisserie, so the menu includes two chicken sandwiches: a club and pulled barbecue chicken. Guests can order a half rotisserie chicken and side for $7.95, which Reichard said would help build dinner business.

While Habit Burger’s sales fall about 60 percent lunch/40 percent dinner, Reichard is hoping Hook Burger will be more evenly split between the two dayparts.

The average transaction at Hook Burger is about $13.50, roughly $3 to $3.50 higher than that of Habit Burger, he said. He expects beer and wine to account for about 4 percent to 5 percent of sales.

Reichard, who serves as Hook Burger’s “chief burger flipper,” also has tapped former Habit Burger alums for the new concept. In addition to his brother, partners include former Habit Burger president David Nordahl.

Hector Hernandez, also formerly of Habit Burger, is Hook Burger’s vice president for operations, and Reichard said he has built the management team with shared equity down to the general manager level — as he did when starting Habit Burger.

The group plans to open a second Hook Burger in Burbank, Calif., in April, and a third is scheduled to open in Pasadena within 2011.

“We’ll look to do two or three a year,” said Reichard, aiming for a region of Southern California between San Luis Obispo and South Bay.

Russ Bendel, president and chief executive of the Habit Burger chain, said he is not concerned about competition from Hook Burger — at least not more from that concept than any of the many other burger players fighting for “share of stomach,” he said.

Meanwhile, Habit Burger also is growing.

The chain opened its first unit in the San Francisco Bay area this week, and next year has sights set on opening for the first time outside California. Two or three Habit Burgers are scheduled to open in the Phoenix area in 2011, Bendel said.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].

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