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Smashburger Explains its Burger-Beer-Pairing Program

Smashburger disproved the notion that a brand couldn’t be both local and national when it created special burgers for each of the markets or regions in which it operates. For example, in Costa Rica, where its first store opened on Dec. 1, Smashburger devised a burger topped with local favorites chorizo, grilled Turrialba cheese, refried black beans, fried potato sticks and a sauce of mayo, cilantro and Lizano salsa. Now it is pursuing a similar strategy with local craft beers, creating partnerships small brewers and offering burger and beer pairings.

Many small chains and independents already have extensive craft-beer menus, and major fast-casual chains are testing relationships, such as Chipotle with 5 Rabbit and Bertucci’s with Samuel Adams. But Smashburger’s program involves multiple craft brewers nationally. Smashburger Founder and Chief Concept Officer Tom Ryan talked to BurgerBusiness.com about its craft-beer program and offered a quick update on Tom’s Urban 24, the 24-hour “modern comfort food with an urban twist” restaurant he recently opened as a separate venture in Denver.

I know you’ve been traveling around the country tasting and pairing burgers and beers, and I’d like to know where I can get a job like that.
Great, huh? But it’s been a really great run and a joyful thing to do. Clearly it’s something that’s resonating really well with consumers.

In how many markets have you joined with craft-brewer partners so far?
We started Oct. 1 in our home market of Colorado, where we partnered with New Belgium Brewing. They’re probably best known for Fat Tire but we have five of their beers featured on the menu.

In mid-October we rolled out in our Greater New York stores, which includes Brooklyn, Long Island and the north side of Manhattan. We rolled out a program with Sixpoint Brewery, a Brooklyn brewer, and, again, five or six of their beers are paired on the menu. And right after Halloween we began the program in Houston with Saint Arnold, which is a great craft brewer and a Houston institution.

We’ve already done our pairings in Minneapolis with Summit Brewing, and in Chicago with Goose Island, and I am heading to Phoenix to do pairings with Four Peaks Brewery. And then we’re mining opportunities around the country in markets where we have enough stores.

How many markets to you plan to involve?

Smashburger’s Tom Ryan savors a Sixpoint at the Brooklyn location.

All of them. We’ll involve all our location with a craft brewer on either a local or a regional basis. Long-term, wherever we have a presence in a market, we’ll be joining with an outstanding craft brewer. Right now I’m working through the list based on where we have the greatest store density. But as we grow we’ll come back in behind it.

Give me an idea of how the pairing process works.
Right now we are only pairing most of what we call our recipe burgers [with set toppings], the local burger and key chicken sandwiches with their core artisan brews. We’re not pairing with anything promotional. We’ll come back and do that later. But we wanted to use their core brews to launch and establish the programs.

That’s the architecture of it.  We do our homework and try to identify one or two artisan brewers in every marketing area. We talk to them to gauge their interest and then I’ll fly out and spend an afternoon with the head of marketing, and often the founder as well, and the brewmasters. We ask them to bring the array of beers that fit our criteria and then we prepare our food. We eat burgers and pour out the beers, tasting the burger first. We try to figure out the characteristics of both and do pairings. Sometimes you have to taste the burger or beer several times to get it right.

Tough work.
I know! But the decision typically comes down to a harmony of flavors or some flavor aspect of the burger or beer that makes it different and unique. So sometimes harmony, sometimes just a really interesting flavor together that’s better than the two by themselves. Over two or three hours, we usually pair maybe eight sandwiches with five or six beers.

How are you marketing it?
We like to invite the media in and do a “beer and burgers unplugged” session. The brewmasters and I informally talk and take them through the pairings. That’s really our activation in the market.

On our [overhead] menu boards you’ll see the icons for the beers coupled with the burgers. We’ve got counter cards that explain what burger we think goes with which beer. And at there’s information at the tables, too.

Are you going to monitor which beers customers opt to buy with those core burgers with an eye toward adjusting recommendations?

In-store materials explain the pairings and the reasoning behind them.

We’re not. We’re making recommendations but leaving customers to their own devices. My guess is that people are disposed to order their favorite burger and their favorite beer. Sometimes those combinations work, and sometimes they don’t. But what makes the lights go on through this program is that by focusing on the whole line of beers, our pairing suggestions are providing customers with insight, perspective and options that they wouldn’t get to on their own.

Burgers and beers have been around forever. But craft brews with recipe burgers haven’t been. It used to be, maybe, a Bud Light and a grilled burger. We’re taking that to a whole other level by bringing in the innovations these brewers are making and coupling them with Smashburger’s perspective on burgers. It’s tough to leave that up to consumers’ own devices.

Do you see parallels between the growth of upscale-burger and craft-beer businesses?
Well, what I see is a corollary between Smashburger and these artisan brewers in that we are creating burgers for the next generation. I think the craft brewers are innovating beer for the next generation.

Beer is becoming the next wine. These brewers are each trying to get to a unique place that’s different from all the others. They’re not copying each other.  So I’d say what we have in common is that we’re both “next generational” and focused on the next couple decades and we’re both pretty innovative in bringing new, bold, distinctive profiles forward and matching them. And I think we’re taking a leadership position on this.

It’s early but are you seeing sales impact? Perhaps a higher average check?
Yes, we are. We’re not a bar, but we’ve been turning people on to the idea that Smashburger actually has beer. It’s a great way to let people know that if you’re looking for a beer with your burger, we have it.

We’ve seen small increases in overall revenue that represent fairly sizable increases off our beer base sales. On average 3.5% to 4% of our revenues come from beer. We have some markets doing 10%; we have some at 1.5%. In the markets where we’ve done this, yes, we’ve seen some action around the pairings and we’ve seen revenues go up.

But I would say the program is more about satisfying the occasion than it is about boosting revenues. The intent was to do this for the food and flavor value and, yeah, we’ll get some additional revenues from it. It’s about taking a leadership position and bringing forward this great new marketplace energy called artisan craft beers.

I have to ask how your experience has been so far with the Tom’s Urban 24 restaurant.
In a word, good. It’s a month old. It’s big and in the middle of downtown Denver. But we have a great management team. And we have a tremendous customer base in Denver, so we’re off to a great start.

The all-day concept is looking like it’s viable?
Sure does. At month No. 1 there are still things we need to understand and that we’re still learning. But the energy and feedback and traction have all been good. We satisfy several needs that were unmet in the area. We are one of the few 24-hour places to eat. We have really cool craft cocktails and local beers while also serving breakfast, a three-plus-daypart role that most restaurants here don’t do.

In addition to the people who live, work and play down here, we find we’re also catering to the service people who man the other restaurants, hotels and nightclubs. They’re showing up every day. So, really, it’s been great.

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