Fondue-chain operator The Melting Pot Restaurants Inc. tested the better-burger-restaurant waters in November 2010 by opening Burger 21 in Tampa, Fla. The fast-casual restaurant takes its name from the 21 “chef-inspired” burgers—priced from $5.95 to $8.95— on its menu. It also features signature hand-dipped milk shakes, a dipping-sauce bar and more. Front Burner Brands—the corporate management company formed to oversee The Melting Pot, Burger 21 and GrillSmith—now has decided to seek franchisees for Burger 21. BurgerBusiness.com talked with Chief Concept Officer Mark Johnston, Concept Development Director Arlene Johnston and Vice President of Franchise Development Dan Stone about why they believe the Burger 21 concept will succeed.
Why is this the time to begin franchising? What convinces you that the concept is ready for such a move?
Mark Johnston: We worked a long time in preparing the first Burger 21. We’ve been open about 9 months now and are about to open the second. And I’d say it’s a good time to open any restaurant that serves high-quality food of any kind, not just burgers.
You’re not worried by the economy’s continued sluggishness?
MJ: It’s a concern, but personally I don’t dwell on that. It’s not my nature. I’m focusing on the burger business, and even in a recession, the better-burger category seems to be a price point and a product that people go for.
Dan Stone: Even in a downturn fast-casual has done well in general. Look at Five Guys, Chipotle, Panera Bread. While many people have had to scale back some on their spending, instead of choosing full-service [restaurants] they’re going to fast casual where they can spend $6 to $10 and get in and out quickly. So the timing is good for a concept like ours but maybe not for a high-end steakhouse.
Is it food quality that will lead consumers to pick Burger 21 over other better burger or fast casual options?
MJ: Quality is one of the main draws, but even before that, it’s the variety of offerings we have at Burger 21 that set us apart. Most of the other burger places offer predominantly beef burgers and while that’s an important part of what we offer, we also have chicken, turkey, veggie burgers and seafood burgers, including ahi tuna and shrimp burgers. We do a great job with hot dogs, we have six great salads, and we have a gourmet milkshake bar that you don’t find elsewhere.
We also have something we call the sauce bar and it’s a bar for fries. It has great, unique, house-made dipping sauces. Our chipotle sauce is amazing. Toasted marshmallow sauce goes great with sweet potato fries, for example. The sauce bar’s a terrific point of differentiation. It makes the experience of Burger 21 memorable and different every time you come.
Can you give me a breakout on your beef vs. nonbeef burger sales?
MJ: We’re selling about 50% beef burgers and 50% other. So we don’t have a big problem with the veto vote from people who say, “I don’t want to just get a burger.” We’ve got so much more. Also people eat a little more health-consciously when they get older, and we’re able to take care of those interests and that group of diners, too. You see a lot of three-generation tables at Burger 21.
Do you have portion-size options for those who want a smaller burger?
MJ: Right now what we have are our Slider 4-Packs [Cheesy, Black & Bleu or Bacon Cheddar]. If you eat all four, it’s the same as one of our regular burgers. But if you’re looking for a smaller portion, two people can share them, which happens a lot. We almost decided to offer two burger sizes when we opened, but instead we went with one size somewhere in the middle.
You also opted not to go the “build your own” route to the menu and instead created your list of set burger builds. What was the thinking that went into going in that direction?
Arlene Johnston: We loved the idea of customization and knew that people like it, too. However, we decided not to go into it for several reasons. The most important was to keep it simple for customers and not to overload the menu with too many options.
We wanted to create specific recipes that play off what people like most. So we have the Burger 101, with lettuce and tomato, and the Cheesy Burger and Bacon Cheesy. Those are our top three sellers. And with our “chef-inspired” concept, we didn’t want to do customization that changed the flavor profiles we developed.
MJ: Of course we will customize any burger. If you ask for any of the burgers with avocado, for example, that’s what you’ll get. But I think it’s easier to execute our menu than to have everyone make a different burger. We spent more than a year developing these recipes and getting the flavors right.
We wanted to make our concept different. And you can’t do that by doing what everyone else does. A lot of people are doing customization. We wanted to create something that’s more like the expensive, chef-driven burger bars but at an affordable price. That’s different.
You serve beer and wine at Burger 21. How big a sales segment is that?
AS: It’s about 2% of sales, which is average for fast casual. We wish it could be higher, of course.
MJ: We want the concept to be family friendly, so we have a bar but it’s a shake bar and not a cocktail bar. We don’t really envision creating that kind of bar for Burger 21. We’re not marketing to that crowd now.
Are you tempted at all to do breakfast?
MJ: We’ve talked about it, and the next Burger 21 [burger of the month] is the Over Easy Bacon Cheesy with a fried egg on top. It tastes like breakfast to me! All the equipment is there to do breakfast, but right now we’re not planning to go there.
AJ: If we were to go into a high-foot-traffic downtown location, we could consider breakfast, I suppose.
MJ: Sure. We’d never say never. But really we’re not planning to go there.
A lot of fast-casual concepts have strong lunch traffic but have trouble later in the day. How does Burger 21 fare?
MJ: People love it for dinner and for lunch. You can feel like you went out to dinner, and not just out to a fast-casual place, so our dinner is strong. We do more business at dinner than at lunch and most other places can’t say that. We’ve shown that this concept works, so we’re looking forward to the next stage with franchising.
You’re about to open a second unit, also in Tampa. What tweaks have you made from lessons learned in the inaugural store?
MJ: We’ve made some tweaks but nothing substantial. We’re a fresh-foods concept, so we’ll have a little more refrigeration space [in the second store]. Our walk-in cooler’s bigger. The dish pit is bigger because initially we used more paper and plastic, but we’ve shifted to serving salads and ice cream treats in melamine bowls, and we have silverware now. At first it was all disposables.
AJ: Yes, most of the changes have been small and operational. We’ve changed a few of the burgers that weren’t strong sellers. And a few of the burger-of-the-month choices have been so popular that we’ve kept them on the menu. But the atmosphere and the nostalgic diner look remains the same, and people love it.
With franchising, are you starting around Tampa and moving out from there?
MJ: We’re certainly focused on Florida initially, although because we’re rooted here in Tampa, we’ll keep Tampa exclusively for company stores. With franchising, we’re staying away from going all the way out to the West Coast right away, but we’ll entertain interest from the right potential franchisees, meaning multi-unit operators, out as far as Texas or Colorado. We franchise all over North America with The Melting Pot, so we know how to do it. We know real estate.
Are there Melting Pot operators who are interested in Burger 21?
DS: Yes, there are some existing franchisees we’ve been talking to who are interested. In some cases it will make sense, in others it won’t.
Ideally, with Burger 21 we’re looking for multi-unit operators interested in five-unit deals in primary markets or three-unit deals in secondary markets. However, we recognize that we’re a young concept, so we’re open to single-unit deals under the right circumstances. We’re not interested in master franchising or sub-franchising. The franchising section of our website has extensive information about the franchise fees and other elements of the program.
Is The Melting Pot growing as well?
MJ: Growth for The Melting Pot has slowed in part because most of our primary markets are already established, but also because it got a lot tougher over the last four years to get financing. That held us back a bit then, but we’re certainly still growing the brand. We’ll open eight stores in the next year. Some of that is international and some domestic. That’s a global concept. We’re just opening up Burger 21 to the U.S. right now.