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Congratulations to champion Burgatory! Thank you for casting a record 149,789 votes and thank you to A.1. Steak Sauce for making this year’s competition possible.
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Better Burgers: The View from Everest

Everest has changed beef, buns, sides, service and prices (photo credit: Jim Frost).

What happens when you follow conventional wisdom but your customers don’t? When Everest Burger opened a year ago in Glencoe, Ill., an affluent northern Chicago suburb, it had all the 21st-century burger-restaurant earmarks: upscale grass-fed-beef specialty burgers and a fast-casual service model. Owners Mark and Margarita Challenger weren’t novices: They own the successful Guanajuato Mexican restaurant nearby.
But not all customers or critics were wowed by Everest Burger.
Now, the couple has rethought the concept top to bottom. They changed the beef they were using and developed better buns. They added new sides and revised the menu board (adding photos). They changed the restaurant’s pricing structure, even shifted from fast-casual to full-service dining and have added breakfast. BurgerBusiness.com spoke with Margarita Challenger about reinventing Everest Burger.

BurgerBusiness: Where you started—organic, upscale, fast casual–is where everyone seems to want to be. How soon after opening did you begin to think that maybe an Everest 2.0 might be necessary?
Margarita Challenger:
Probably about six or seven months into it. I got feedback from customers that our meat was too lean. And I asked them to be candid with us because we want them to come back and be happy and feel that we’re giving the best quality.

So the burger itself was the first point of criticism?
Yes. Some people felt it was too lean. I thought everyone wanted lean. One thing I’ve learned is that you go by behavior and not by what people say. People often say they want one thing but do something different.

The problem wasn’t really a quality issue, though, was it?

Owners Margarita and Mark Challenger (credit: Jim Frost)

No. I don’t think so. What we had decided to go with [initially] was a great product. It was Piedmontese beef [an Italian cattle breed]; a great product. No hormones, additives or antibiotics. But it’s muscular with not a lot of fat. People say they want a lean burger, but a lean burger is not necessarily tasty. And you want great flavor.

Deciding to change beef suppliers is a big move. How did you decide what beef you wanted to serve instead?
I try to always feed my children organic meat and we wanted to stay with that, but we didn’t know all the organic and grass-fed beef suppliers. My husband went to an organics convention and got a lot of name and met the owners of Rain Crow Ranch [in Doniphan, Mo.]. We talked to a lot of people about them and other suppliers and decided they were the best choice. They were closer, for one thing. Our previous supplier is in Montana and is a smaller ranch. Rain Crow was very helpful. They sent us meat to taste and we worked with them to develop our own mix of meat and fat. It’s still all-natural [but from Angus cattle].

Do you grind it in house?
Oh yes. We still want to do that. We’ve done some tastings with the media and one woman said our burgers are 100% better. That’s wonderful.

You changed burger sizes and pricing, too.
Yes. We wanted the burgers to be a little bigger and juicier. You wouldn’t think one ounce would matter, but it has. We went to 5 ounces from 4 ounces for our [regular burgers. And there’s also an 8 ounce patty]. And now everything is the same price.

I know that before, for example, the signature Everest Burger was $7 for beef, $9 for turkey or black-bean vegetarian and $9.50 for chicken. So beef, chicken, turkey or black-bean vegetarian are all $9.95 for the 25%-larger 5-oz. burgers, $12.95 for 8 oz.?
We wanted to have an easier menu. Another criticism we heard was that the menu was too complicated. Burgers were priced individually and you could have fries or no fries, and it was too much. Everything’s all one price with the exception of the Wild Alaskan Salmon [a $3 premium].

So you had everyone backed up at the counter scanning the menu and not ordering, right? Of course, fast-casual service is another thing everybody says they want.
Yes. But what we didn’t realize, I guess, is that people in this area really expected table service. We just thought from the beginning that Everest would be a casual restaurant; that you’d place your order at a counter and the food would be brought to you at your table. But people want to go out and feel that they are out to dinner; that they are being served. And there’s less pressure to decide what you want to eat if you’re sitting rather than standing and others are waiting.

Counter service is still an option for takeout orders, but moving from counter service to full service in the dining room must have required some quick retraining of your staff.
It did. It certainly did. The staff that I have is very good but this [new style] is different. I’m very service-oriented. I want them to say hello to customers and be very attentive to their needs. And we had to teach them how to serve. All the details of that. We’re training every day. We’re still working on it. It’s a different way of them working with each other as well as dealing with customers.

You’ve made many other changes in your menu in addition to changing burgers, haven’t you?
Yes. I realized that sometimes people don’t want to think about what to have with their burgers. They just want a meal, you know? So we added four new special burgers like the Great Gringo Burger [with a Corona-marinated beef patty]. All burgers come with your choice of organic fries or sweet-potato fries or coleslaw. We’ve added other sides like carrot sticks or a side of fruit. And we have new, bigger buns that we bake here.

But you didn’t stop there! Everest now serves breakfast beginning at 8 a.m. This was quite an ambitious makeover you gave the restaurant.
Yes, I suppose. We were planning to do breakfast but it wasn’t a full breakfast when we opened. It was croissants and coffee. But since we were there [in the morning] and had people baking, we thought we should go to a full menu. Breakfast is a huge market and hopefully if we do it well it will be great for us. Our eggs are free-range and the turkey bacon and sausage are hormone-free. Everything is made from scratch; we’re not opening cans.

Are you happy with the changes you’ve made or just exhausted from the process of rethinking so many aspects of Everest?
No, I’m happy with the changes we’ve done. It’s still evolving, though. I do believe that the only constant is change. You have to be willing to change with your customers. They keep us in business so I’ll always want to do a good job for them and prepare food they want. The only way to approach this business is to be open to change.
I hope this works for a while! But if we need to change again, we can do that.

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