As the line between fast-casual and casual-dining continues to blur, Smashburger is hopping on the more upscale, experiential trend within the limited-service category. Recently, somewhat in defiance of the off-premises focus of the COVID-era restaurant, Denver-based fast-casual burger chain, Smashburger, has been trying to get guests to linger longer instead of grabbing their food at a pickup window or multi-lane drive-thru.
“The consumer pays more, and I think they expect more – we’re not a McDonald’s,” Smashburger senior vice president of global operations, Toni Bianco, said. “We’re not a QSR burger. So, I think the guest wants better service, and they want to be really taken care of when they come into Smashburger.”
Over the past few years, Smashburger has elevated its brand with new digital-first prototypes that focus just as much on technology as they do aesthetics. The new prototypes, which began rolling out in 2021, feature open concept kitchens so that customers can see their burger being smashed and milkshake being made in a sort-of “culinary theater” experience.
Although at first, many of the changes shifted Smashburger’s priorities to off-premises—with drive-thru and pickup technology, including smart cubbies — the company also understood the need for more in-person experiences to straddle the line between “fast” and “casual.” In 2022, Smashburger introduced its first full-service bar location in Denver, with craft cocktails, canned beer, and beer on tap, as well as flat-screen TVs showing off the biggest sporting events.
Fast forward 16 months and there are now five Smashburger locations with alcohol menus, including one of the newest, located just outside Penn Station in New York, enticing travelers and commuters to take their time enjoying a burger and a drink between trains.
With these changes, Bianco said that they’ve seen guest satisfaction scores go up by 20%, and traffic retention has also ticked up.
“We've done the remodels on 90% of our portfolio, we have our team members in all new uniforms, and we're spending a lot more time coaching and training the teams to make sure that we enhance the guest experience,” Bianco said.
From a menu perspective, Smashburger has also been focusing on capturing a younger demographic of younger Millennials and Gen Z consumers, which is especially evident with the line extension of wings introduced last fall.
More recently, Smashburger introduced another comfort food classic, the S’mac and Cheeseburger in spring 2023 as an LTO. The LTO was a more elevated menu item, with everything cooked back of house and “smashed” on the grill until the edges were caramelized. The company is soon introducing the Scorchin’ Mac n’ Cheese item, made with the same smashed mac n’ cheese and mixed with Smashburger’s Scorchin’ hot crispy chicken—another popular LTO.
“I really think it’s crucial to [focus on] product quality and make it a place where guests can have a great experience,” Bianco said. “As for younger guests, we had a very successful 4/20 promotion this year with a $4.20 burger special that was very enticing. It’s all about coming up with products that really excite the guests.”