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Red Robin Readies Fast-Casual Burger Works

[During RRGB's 11/3 quarterly analyst call, CEO Steve Carley acknowledged the impending Burger Works opening and called the concept a way to enter urban sites as well as colleges, airports, military bases, food courts and other nontraditional sites where a a full-size Red Robin cannot go.]
The sluggish economy is pushing yet another casual-dining chain to test how well a simplified, lower-price, limited-service concept might work. The latest with the courage to think small is Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, which on Nov. 21 plans to open a fast-casual concept with burgers, beer and wine called Burger Works. The first location will be in the upscale Northfield Stapleton mixed-use center in northeast Denver according to its website.

The Tavern Double is a Burger Works original.

Burger Works borrows a few menu items—including the Whiskey River BBQ, 5 Alarm, Royal and Banzai burgers—from Red Robin’s menu. At Burger Works, these burgers are priced at $5.99 and are 1/3-pound, the same as regular-size Red Robin burgers. At the Red Robin in Boulder, Colo., burgers with the signature Bottomless Steak Fries offer are priced from $9.59 for the Whiskey River to $9.99 for the fried-egg-topped Royal burger. Red Robin’s most recent LTO, the Oktoberfest burger, was introduced in September at $6.99.

Burger Works’ pricing puts it in line with fast-growing, Denver-based fast-casual burger chain Smashburger, whose basic Classic with Cheese burger is $4.99 for a 1/3-lb. patty, $5.99 for a half-pound.

Like Smashburger, but unlike Red Robin, Burger Works will offer customers a Build Your Own Burger customization option. Start with a 1/3-pound “Fire-Grilled Burger” for $4.49 on choice of brioche or wheat bun. A 1/3-pound cheeseburger is $4.99 and starts with American, Cheddar, Swiss or Pepper-Jack Cheese on brioche or wheat bun. A chicken breast on one of those two bun choices starts at $5.49.

Free burger add-ons include mayonnaise, chipotle mayo, Thousand Island dressing, house bourbon BBQ sauce, Thai Chili Ketchup, Red’s Relish, pickles, lettuce, Roma tomatoes, jalapeños, raw or grilled onions, Beer Mustard Onions and Fire-Roasted Salsa.

Premium add-ons are Cheddar, Swiss, Pepper-Jack, or American Cheese (50¢ each); guacamole ($1); apple-smoked bacon ($1); onion straws ($1); sautéed Portobello mushrooms ($2); fried egg ($1) or extra beef patty ($2).

Burger Works will open with a few signature menu items of its own.  These include the Tavern Double burger ($4.99) with two patties, American cheese, lettuce, Roma tomatoes and mayo. Also new are three Hand-Breaded Chicken Tenders ($4.99) with Bourbon BBQ, Ranch or Dijon dressing. A Veggie Portabella Burger also is offered, at $5.99.

Salad choices include the Whiskey River BBQ Chicken Salad ($5.99)—with mixed greens, grilled chicken, Bourbon BBQ Sauce, onion straws, tomatoes, Cheddar cheese and Creamy Ranch Dressing—and the Crispy Chicken Tender Salad ($5.99) with mixed greens, crispy chicken tenders, hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, onion straws, bacon, Cheddar and Creamy Ranch Dressing.

Burger Works will offer a smaller version of Red Robin's egg-topped Royal burger.

Of course Burger Works has fries, but they won’t be bottomless. Regular fries are $1.99; sweet potato fries with Thai Chili Ketchup are $2.49; onion straws are $1.99. Get ‘em all for $4.49 or pick two for $3.49.

Like many fast-casual, “better burger” concepts, Burger Works will serve beer and wine. Other beverages include soft drinks and iced tea, along with real-ice-cream shakes.

Red Robin is among several casual-dining chains that have opened or announced plans for smaller, limited-service concepts. Famous Dave’s, The Cheesecake Factory are among the fast-casual dabblers. Ruby Tuesday is converting some of its high-end casual-dining locations to lower-price Lime Fresh Mexican Grill or Marlin & Ray’s seafood concepts.

Earlier this year, a Red Robin executive told Nation’s Restaurant News that the company was interested in developing a fast-casual burger concept in order to “leverage our brand expertise.” According to the website, “Burger Works was created to keep it simple. Basically, we’re burgers…A simple concept that makes scrumptious sense.”

Red Robin—which has 321 company stores and another 137 franchised locations—will announce 2011 Q3 financial results on Nov. 3. The chain has shown some sales improvements this year—including positive comp sales (+3.1%) during the quarter ended July 11, 2011—after a series of disappointing years. Company same-store sales were -0.6% in fiscal 2010, -11.1% in 2009 and -1.4% in 2008 after growing by +2.4% in both 2007 and 2006, according to the company’s 10-K filing. Average annual unit volumes have steadily declined from $3.33 million in 2007 to $2.779 million in 2010.

Former El Pollo Loco chief Stephen Carley joined Red Robin as CEO last year and has begun turning around sales while bringing in new executives and fresh thinking. Apparently that includes bold thinking about what the right footprint, pricing model and menu might be.

© BurgerBusiness.com 2011

14 comments to Red Robin Readies Fast-Casual Burger Works

  • Katherine

    Just a couple of notes – the burger patties are the same 1/3 pound size at regular Red Robin’s. These Burger Works locations will also feature the new Coke Freestyle machines with over 100 soda choices. The website also mentions that there will be a Burger Works opening on the Ohio State Campus as well as another one in Denver on Auraria Campus in Spring 2012.

  • I find it odd and crazy “strategy” when struggling restaurant chains virtually give up on fixing the details of their parent brand and start new ventures…worse yet, in crowded fields – usually on the “back end” of initial trends.

    Why not do one thing well…really well, really well, concentrating on the fine details of the brand experience?

    Tom Kelley
    Concept Branding Group
    San Diego

  • Ryan

    If you think about it, it’s actually a solid move on their part. They recognize the trend in the restaurant industry regarding the younger consumer base and their needs and desires. Fast causal concepts really appeal to that particular consumer group and they can do well as long as they embrace social media and market it correctly.

  • GOURMET BURGERS seems to be THE concept of the forthcoming years. Already arrived in France…

  • admin

    Arrived? McDonald’s/France has created burgers topped with goat cheese that are far ahead of U.S. QSR chains.

  • Katherine

    @Tom I’m assuming the point of Burger Works is to penetrate markets that a regular Red Robin wouldn’t be appropriate for – for example, college campuses, airports…

  • J.B.

    This is absolutely brilliant on their part. If I owned Five Guys or any other burger joint I would be pretty nervous right now.
    As someone who is not a fry person, I like the option of getting a Red Robin burger without having to pay for the fries.
    At $5 I would pick Red Robin over Five Guys 8/10 times.

    I commend whoever is running Red Robin because they had a problem with profitability on their current restaurant setup and figured out a way to make their burgers work in a different format. I would invest in one of these as a franchise for sure.

  • Roger C.

    The knockoffs just aren’t as good as Five Guys. Red Robin is grasping at straws.

  • Katherine

    Out of the current fast-casual chains, Smashburger takes the cake in my opinion. In my opinion, the best burger I’ve had. Their beef quality is amazing and the taste is phenomenal. I like the crusty sear on the outside and how juicy the inside is. The egg bun is so good too. Five Guys just isn’t that great in my opinion. I really enjoyed Five Guys the first time I tried it, but every time I’ve had it since, I feel miserable after. I just get super sick after. I know “simple is key” for them but I feel like they’re severely lacking in the menu department. I don’t understand how you can have a burger place without shakes. Preposterous. Their cajun fries are fantastic but you can’t get them unless you’re splitting with at least 2 other people. As for the others, none of them have made enough of an impact to be worth mentioning.

  • Roger C.

    Katherine, are you a Smashburger franchisee? My experience there was not great!

  • Katherine

    @Roger

    Absolutely not, just giving my opinion on the big players in the “Better Burger war”.

  • James

    Wow…going from a 6 oz patty to a 5.3 ox patty wont fool me. Management must be pretty convinced that they must chase Smashburger, 5 Guys etc to stay compeititive.
    Shame on RR for chnaging their recipe. The food was way better a year ago…ehat changed? The bun seems cheaper….meat is fattier…jeez, guess I’ll go back to Chilis.

  • Marie

    These comments are funny! Red Robin isn’t struggling and their strategy is about moving into urban areas and taking a new segment. The patty is still 6 oz James. The raw materials are very high quality.

    Tom Kelley, your comments crack me up.

  • Jay T

    I ate at 5 Guys and, while it tasted great, the sandwich was way to greasy and fell apart in my hands. Yuk. As for Smashburger, I love the name and the fact that I can get a beer, but the burgers are always overdone and that crispy sear on the edges doesn’t appeal to me. It’s like burnt meat, right? Red Robin still makes ‘em the best in my book. Can’t wait to try the new Burger Works. Yummm.

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