“I want to fall in love again.”
That’s what John Dikos, who was named president of Killer Burger in early August, told Nation’s Restaurant News. Dikos was ready to find a new founder-led concept to fall in love with after moving on from MOD Pizza. Enter Portland, Ore.-based Killer Burger and its founder, TJ Southard.
Southard began the burger business in 2010 and grew it to 14 units before finding Dikos, but he wants to grow the brand at a much larger scale and bring the “party” of Killer Burger to the entire country.
“We’re all students of this industry, and you know brands have to have something going for them to help them scale it, but in my estimation, it takes something really special to build something unique,” said Dikos of Southard’s passion.
Dikos recently told the founder he had a “burger religion” and his “deep ingrained desire to build [an] entire business around the delivery of the perfect burger” was what drew him to both Southard and the company.
Killer Burger’s culture is similar to the one Scott and Aly Svenson built at MOD, also a founder-led company.
“There were exactly the same number of Killer Burger company locations [when I joined] as there were MOD company-owned locations when I started there, back in 2013,” Dikos said. As of the end of 2020, MOD had 499 units.
Dikos, left, plans to build out Killer Burger using many of the skills he honed at MOD, where he was the franchising director during the chain’s massive growth. That company had four consecutive years of growth.
Upon joining Killer Burger, Dikos said, “I thought, boy, I’d love to have that kind of a ride again with a small brand and help the organization grow.”
And now, with his latest venture in the very busy burger space, Dikos hopes to grow this founder-led brand to new heights, including nationwide expansion.
The Northwest seems to hold some magic for Dikos; MOD is based in Washington State.
“There's a curiosity, it’s like you have permission as a restaurant to try different things…from my experience,” said Dikos of what gives the Pacific Northwest this brand magic. “People are always willing to try something new, you give it a shot.”
After his time at MOD ended in 2019, Dikos moved on to work with Guy Fieri at his virtual brand in collaboration with Robert Earl, Chicken Guy, where Dikos served as chief licensing and franchise officer.
But what made Dikos take the plunge into burgers was ultimately the company’s founder and CEO Southard. Dikos was looking for a new opportunity and, having observed Southard for a year while serving on the board of directors, made the move to the company as its president.
Southard lovingly calls Killer Burger the “garage band” of burger restaurants, which Dikos interprets to mean that the brand has a raw and edgy quality while also being inexpensive to build out.
“There’s something about that bold, edgy and very stripped-down nature of our stores and our store build out that I think is refreshing primarily to investors and franchisees,” said Dikos.
That includes a free beer for employees post shift, a loud store environment with music blasting, and a “rebellious nature” that separate the company from other burger brands and regional concepts.
“The reality is, Killer Burger is very bold and clear about the fact that we’re trying to build an oasis and we’re trying to bring our guests into our party,” Dikos said.
And, while the brand currently has four franchised stores, Dikos’ main priority is growing the franchisee program like he did for MOD.
The first six company-run locations were literally built with Southard’s own hands. This helped him determine that second-generation stores were a great way to enter new markets, which is why there’s no traditional layout for a Killer Burger location. They vary based on the space and what makes it easiest to move a new restaurant in.
“Here we’re all about being scrappy, Dikos said. “Not that there is a design aesthetic but scrappy around using capital, and I’ll tell you, the economics are really compelling.”
But there aren’t plans at this point to scale the way MOD did. Right now, Dikos is planning to open several company-owned stores in the next year and is looking into franchising to expand out of the Pacific Northwest.
“I think there’s a way to do it here that's really thoughtful, while being aggressive, meaning let’s aggressively build within our footprint but let’s expand our footprint out thoughtfully. I’m not interested in jumping to Florida tomorrow,” said Dikos.
Killer Burger, as it expands, isn’t interested in promoting LTOs as much as it is building the company ethos. Similar to &pizza, another founder-led company, Killer Burger wants to be known for the experience when you walk in.
A recent LTO included a hatch green chili burger. The team at Killer Burger worked with a distributor to procure a small number of chilies to produce the menut item.
The brand’s second-highest-selling menu item is the Peanut Butter Pickle Bacon Burger, so it’s clear to say that the menu isn’t an afterthought at Killer Burger — just not the selling point to a franchisee. Dikos and the team want people to know Killer Burger is a party with great food and a place to, ultimately, enjoy themselves at each unit.