The winner of the 2012 BurgerBusiness.com Burger Brackets is Andy’s Burgers, Shakes & Fries. Or is it Hwy 55? Yes.
Based in Mount Olive, N.C., the 21-year-old chain with more than 100 locations throughout its home state bested Ted’s Montana Grill in a spirited competition for the right to claim the most loyal customers in the burger business. Loyalty is especially important to Andy’s right now because in February it announced a name change to Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries as it expands outside North Carolina. It seems someone else had laid claim to the Andy’s name, forcing President/founder Kenny Moore to come up with a new moniker and to hope customers stick with them. But he’s not worried about that.
Just before the Burger Brackets competition began, BurgerBusiness.com spoke with Kenny Moore about the new Hwy 55 name and the difficulties of changing who you are.
Did your heart sink when you realized you had to change the name?
It was mixed emotions. First, it was named for my son, so on the personal side that bugged us. I tried to work out a deal with the person who has the trademark but nothing came of that. So, long story short, we’re pretty happy now. We’ve moved past the personal side and decided we can have some fun with the Highway 55 name in kind of a Route 66 way. We can have fun and, at the same time, I say our name doesn’t define us. Our people and our culture do.
How did you come up with the new name?
Gosh, we threw out a ton of them. A ton.
I suppose once you open the door to complete change, it can be anything, right?
No. That’s just it. It had to be an odd name because anything common was pretty much taken already. It was our attorney who steered us there and said, “What about a highway or a road?” That spurred us on. I tried to be able to put up a symbol that said ‘Formerly known as Andy’s” but we couldn’t even do that.
But you’ve kept the concept the same?
Absolutely. The concept’s the same, really. As a matter of fact, the big burger on our menu is still the Andy Burger. We’re keeping that. It’s just the front of the store, just the name that changes.
What else changes?
We’re a 21-year-old concept, so we have stores that already gone through at least one renovation. But we have a new look for the stores in North Carolina, and as we change the name they’ll be asked to provide that new look. It’ll be images from the ’50s that will be put on the walls; a little different color scheme. We started out with a lot of blue and red. Now we’re more pink and teal.
Are you changing the menu?
Won’t move. The menu stays the same. It ain’t broke; people love burgers.
The Andy’s burger is the signature?
Yep. We’ve been in the “better burger” segment before it was in vogue. We’re a 1950s theme restaurant with a fresh hand-pattied burger. The meat is seasoned and cooked to order. We’re full service with a wait staff. Now we’re taking the Andy’s/Hwy 55 concept outside North Carolina for the first time.
What’s the burger-restaurant marketplace that you see out there?
I look at it as 1991 when I started Andy’s. The economy wasn’t great then, either. I’d been fired from a job. I took my last $500 and opened my first store and basically cooked every burger and did everything else for the first two years. But it was a great time to do deals. A lot of retail space that people were eager to lease. It was a great time to cut a deal. It’s the same now: If you believe in your concept and in your burger it’s a great time to grow. Because people are going to eat cheeseburgers, no matter what you hear.
People try to beat up on cheeseburgers. But if you have a great burger you’re always going to have a great business. That’s absolutely my belief. If they want to eat healthier, they’ll do that at home. But when they want to treat themselves, they need a good burger. That’s where we are.
A lot of burger concepts have “chef developed” signature burgers with special ingredients. You don’t seem to have gone that route. Why?
Oh, we have a couple of signature burgers. We do a “John Boy and Billy Western BBQ Burger.” John Boy and Billy are radio personalities in North Carolina and I think they’re in about 16 states now. We’ve got a partnership with them. They have a Grillin’ Sauce and we do a barbecue burger with an onion ring on top and chili, mustard, bacon and American cheese. We do a pimento cheeseburger as well with fresh pimento cheese. So we have a couple of what I call “frou-frou” burgers. But at the end of the day, it’s a cheeseburger that you want.
You’ve got cheesesteak too?
Our cheesesteak is a little bit of a southern version. Maybe not what you get in Philly. What you get is mushrooms, onions and peppers. We don’t do hot peppers. We keep that in the box for you to add if you want. Then sharp American cheese or provolone. The difference is we chopped it all together and mix it rather than lyering it. That’s how we do it.
Is it popular?
That does real well. Burgers are the No. 1 sellers, but cheesesteaks aren’t far behind. Our frozen custard is up there, too.
Where do you want to go with the concept, geographically and operationally?
Well, I tell you, we’re thrilled right now. I’d always franchised in-house in the past. I kind of raise people in the system and turn manager into owners. But we’ve just started for the first time franchising with “outsiders.” We’re doing master franchise/area developer deals, and we already have 100 stores contracted in Florida, 50 in South Carolina, 50 in Virginia and 75 in the western part of North Carolina. So those are all committed to be open in the next five to 10 years. We’re really excited. And we’ve got an individual interested in taking a large part of Ohio. We’ve only been selling franchises for a few months so that much committed growth in a short time is pretty exciting for us.
Is financing available out there?
Not so much from the banks, but sometimes in business you have to be creative and find alternative sources. Most of these developers can self-finance. They were looking for places to put and grow their money for family members. The dollars are out there. The conventional getting-a-loan-from-a-bank deal may not be easy, but there’s money out there.
Who’s your competition ?
I feel we fill a unique niche. You have fast feeders and casual dining and we’ve always fallen in between the two. We give full service like the casual diners but our product is a step up from the fast feeders. Everything’s cooked fresh. But price-point-wise we’re not much above the fast feeders. The better burger segment is taking off but we’ve been doing this for a long time. We can go into smaller communities than the big chains because our upfront costs aren’t bad. So I won’t say we don’t have competition, of course, because everybody’s a competitor, but I think we are uniquely niched.
What’s the average check at Andy’s?
About $6. The standard special we’ve run for 21 years is the Andy’s cheeseburger, fries, soft drink or sweet tea and it’s $5.69. That’s a 5.5-oz. fresh burger with any topping you want, fries and average for $5.69. We’ve always been well priced.
Any desire to add breakfast?
No. We tried it but it’s just hard to compete with the big fast feeders’ convenience. We’ve tried it on more than one occasion, actually, but we just couldn’t generate enough business. I’d rather our folks work 11a.m. to 10 p.m.and call it a day and not have the biscuit maker coming in at 4 o’clock in the morning.
Can I ask you the 10 burger questions?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you like burgers?
I’m a 10. I eat ’em every week. Love ’em
Flame grill or flat top: What’s the best way to make a burger?
Flat top. You have to sear the burger.
What’s the highest price anyone should charge for a burger?
That I will pay? $8.99. But it better be good.
Your favorite burger topping?
This will surprise you but it’s chili. The eastern North Carolina way I grew up with is a burger with mustard, chili, onions and coleslaw. Delicious. But the slaw has to be really sweet. No vinegar.
What should never be on a burger?
Fruit. That’s just me.
Your favorite non-beef burger?
I’m such a burger snob that I just don’t know. A turkey burger, I’d guess.
Best beverage with a burger?
What’s the best restaurant burger other than yours that you’ve had?
Gosh. And I eat ’em everywhere I go. Can’t remember the name but it’s in Orlando. Not a chain. But it was a great burger.
What’s the best restaurant of any kind that doesn’t get enough recognition?
There’s a place about 9 miles up the road [in Goldsboro, N.C.] called Carl & ‘Chelles Grill Room. He could franchise that place. It’s just rib-eye steaks hand-cut at the table.
If you weren’t a burger entrepreneur, what would you want to be?
A professional baseball player. I was a player in college; I was a shortstop, but I never worked at it. Still, I got a couple of hits. But I learned my lesson, because I sure work now.