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Burtons on growth spree

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misstated the per person check average.

Burtons Grill Restaurant Group, a six-unit upscale chain, has found a niche among prosperous suburban baby boomers looking to trade down from higher-end fine-dining restaurants.

With sales trending in the black over the last three difficult years, Burtons Grill, which currently operates in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Virginia, hopes to double its unit count by the end of 2012.

Founded in 2004 by casual-dining veteran Kevin Harron, Burtons Grill serves steak and seafood, upscale sandwiches, salads, burgers and other items similar to what casual-dining chains might offer.

Appetizers and salads are priced from $7.95 to $15.95, although entrées run as high as $31.95 for a 14-ounce New York Strip.

The average check, blended for lunch and dinner without tax or tip, is around $58 per table, Harron said.

He noted that the downturn has not diminished business, either. “We actually had really strong years in 2009 and 2010,” said Harron, who previously was an executive at Outback Steakhouse, Carraba’s Italian Grill, Legal Sea Foods and other casual dining chains.

Growth spree

With the chain’s positive cash flow, no debt, and prospects for growth, Harron said he has been on a real estate shopping spree.

Based in North Reading, Mass., Burtons Grill tends to open outlets in suburban neighborhoods or smaller cities. Currently, it operates four locations in its home state —— in Boston, Hingham, North Andover and Peabody — as well as restaurants in the Hartford, Conn., suburb of South Windsor and in Virginia Beach, Va.

A seventh Burtons Grill is slated to open in Nashua, N.H., next month, while a Burlington, Mass., unit is scheduled for a December debut.

A Charlottesville, Va., location also is in the works, and Harron hopes to open it in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Plans also are underway for restaurants in Westford, Mass.; Charleston, S.C.; and Raleigh, N.C.

“We looked at Philadelphia, Dallas and Northern New Jersey, but the cost of entry wasn’t working out for us,” Harron said. “We’re not giving up on [those areas], but we’re not putting a whole lot of effort into it at the moment.”

Nonetheless, Harron said now is the time for upscale dining operators to expand.

“Right now, we’re seeing an uptick, or a resurgence, by some of the bigger [steakhouse] players, and Ruth’s Chris and Capitol Grille are looking to expand,” said Harron, noting that his well-heeled customers are starting to see their investment portfolios come back, and so they’re coming back to restaurants.

“We have a lot of repeat business,” he added.

The economics of each location varies, with annual sales ranging from $3.2 million to $5.8 million, based on the size and location of the restaurant.

Concept evolution

The concept itself is evolving, both in terms of food and design. The Burlington unit will have a completely open kitchen, while another location is working with a stone hearth.

“You have to evolve,” Harron said. “I think a real example of that is the locally grown [movement]. You really have to make that part of the concept because people are interested in it,” he said.

The trick is to maintain a solid core menu and respond to changing trends on the periphery, he said.

“We always tinker a little bit, because it’s fun to do, it’s interesting to do, and you might stumble on something,” Harron said.

Further evolution might involve change in service styles, and Harron said he might even consider diversifying with other concepts.

“It’s hard to resist the temptations of the fast-casual market,” he said. “We’re really intrigued by the hybrid service concepts that are trying to merge fast-casual and full-service concepts.”

Some fast-casual chains have started to respond to consumer demand for better service in the evening by offering table service during dinner while maintaining fast-casual style counter service at lunch.

“I’m also intrigued by the possibilities of ordering with what I’ll call iPad technology,” he added. “I really believe it’s going to change dining.

“There’s always going to be full-service restaurants,” he continued. “But self-controlled ordering and service I think is going to be a significant deal going forward, so that’s something we’re watching closely.”

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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