When restaurant industry veteran John Dikos joined the board of directors for Portland, Oregon-based Killer Burger in early 2021, he liked what he saw.
“The team, the founder, the food, the restaurants, the unit economics,” he said. “All of it together gave me a lot of confidence in this brand.”
Six months later, Dikos was tapped as Killer Burger’s CEO. Two years later, he continues to maintain that level of confidence despite lingering challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, relentlessly high inflation and labor shortages. He also believes Killer Burger has the necessary components to scale despite an intensely competitive burger category. Currently, the 12-year-old Killer Burger includes 10 company-owned units and seven franchised units, with an eighth slated for January. There are also two non-traditional units. The company plans to open five or six restaurants in 2023.
“This business is growing. It deserves to grow, and I believe it’s differentiated enough and strong enough to grow,” Dikos said during a recent interview. “If we can do the next 20 restaurants after getting our first 20 restaurants, we’ll earn our way into the next phase of growth. I’ll be disappointed if we’re not a 100-unit brand in 60 months.”
What differentiates the concept, he adds, is the “craftsmanship” of its burgers. Each burger is built with fresh ground chuck and is served with bacon and made-to-order fries. The menu includes unique variations such as the peanut butter pickle bacon burger (with a peanut butter sauce); the "Fun Guy,” with bacon, mushrooms, Swiss fondue, house sauce, grilled onions and pickles; and the Barnyard Burger, with bacon, ham, egg, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, house sauce, grilled onions and pickles.
Killer Burger also added chicken sandwiches in mid-October. It’s too early to gauge their full impact, but they are mixing north of 10% of sales so far. Dikos adds there has been a noticeable shift out of veggie patties and smaller pint burgers into the higher-check chicken sandwiches.
“Chicken sandwiches are an example of us taking a swing. We want to see what happens if we hedge just a little bit with two different proteins. Could there be some margin benefit? Until we put it in the store and test it, we don’t know,” Dikos said, adding that limited-time offers will be a priority moving forward to try and win over more veto votes. "You’re only going to eat burgers and fries every so often. It’s really indulgent. One chicken sandwich at a table could have saved that entire table of burger sales."
Beyond the menu, the company has much more in the works to get to that 100-unit goal. For starters, the brand is adding franchisees. Since Dikos joined in July 2021, Killer Burger has doubled the number of its franchisee commitments, from three to six. Each are working on second or third restaurants. The company is also working on correcting labor shortages by offering higher pay, bonuses for managers who are able to staff up their restaurants and additional support. When Dikos came on board, for instance, the company moved its corporate staff to Killer Burger’s support center. Killer Burger is also advertising a guaranteed floor wage of $19-to-$20 an hour.
“We’ve got to get to this place so we can be compelling against our peers in hiring and make it easier to hire,” Dikos said. “We’re really working to shift the culture and that includes communicating that we’re here to support you, not the other way around. Our job is to build systems to make our employees lives easier.”
Killer Burger is also tapping into technology to simplify things – integrating new systems, for instance, that remove manual processes for payroll or online orders. The company has added a real estate analytics system to better understand potential sites as it grows, for example, and new kitchen display systems to speed up throughput. Further, the company plans to launch its first-ever loyalty program in February.
“We already leaned in heavily on the tech side before I came to the business, which helped them pivot quickly to digital sales. For the things we’re adding now, like less manual reporting and all the work going into data analytics, those benefits we’ll see more of when we go from 20 stores up to 50 and beyond,” Dikos said.
The plan for "beyond" is ambitious to be sure, especially given persistent challenges that continue to hinder the industry. But, again, Dikos has the confidence in the brand to get there.
“It is difficult right now and there isn’t a silver bullet. But when you’re on the board, you’re privy to all the information and we’re in a good position,” Dikos said. “There are going to be short-term hits and challenges. If you build around those short-term hits, you’re never going to build a sustainable business over the long term. Our goal is to build the business for the long term.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]