The Melting Pot Restaurants’ founders set out to shake up the better burger segment with a fresh, new, kicked-up fast-casual concept.
Melting Pot fondue restaurants during the past 25 years, brothers Bob and Mark Johnston got the urge to dip into other market segments, as well. To lay the groundwork for diversification they created a new corporate entity, Front Burner Brands, whose portfolio now includes Burger 21. It's a fast-casual concept designed to give diners a "beyond the better burger" experience and to provide Front Burner Brands with a hot new platform for growth.Having built a thriving international chain of more than 140 full-service
Two company-owned units have opened since November 2010 and two more will open soon, all in the Tampa Bay market. Franchise sales kicked off late last fall and the company hopes to secure deals for at least 30 franchised restaurants by the end of this year. Beginning in Florida and select East Coast markets, Burger 21 will eventually go national and even international, according to Mark Johnston, chief concept officer for Front Burner Brands and president and CEO of Burger 21. "It's not asking too much for us ultimately to have between 500 and 800 restaurants in the U.S.," he says. "We also have a lot of international experience with The Melting Pot, so within a year or two we'll likely also begin to franchise Burger 21 internationally."
With "beyond the better burger" as its brand promise, Burger 21 delivers a significantly broader and more varied menu than most in the so-called "better burger" segment (i.e., Five Guys Burgers & Fries, Smashburger). Customers can choose from among 21 hand-crafted, chef-inspired burgers, including fresh, 100 percent Angus chuck as well as chicken and turkey burgers ground fresh on site, sushi-grade Ahi tuna burgers, shrimp burgers and two varieties of veggie burgers. A special burger of the month, unveiled on the 21st day of each month, is featured, as well.
Beyond burgers, customers can choose from a selection of made-to-order entrée and side salads, premium all-beef hot dogs served four ways, and regular and sweet potato fries. A sauce bar features signature house-made dipping sauces for fries, and a shake bar serves up a menu of traditional and creative shake flavors (i.e., Ybor City Double Espresso, Bananas Foster, Key Lime Pie) and a featured shake of the month (i.e., Balkava, Crème Brulee, Gingerbread). The shake bar also offers hand-dipped malts, ice cream floats made with high-end Boylan sodas, and a variety of signature sundaes.
"A few years ago we decided we wanted to develop a concept that would get us into the fast-casual segment — more of an everyday, lower priced concept than The Melting Pot," says Johnston. "We liked the idea of doing a burger concept and looked at it a few ways. Ultimately, we decided to kick it up a couple notches above the typical 'better burger' places. We feel we have created something unique, something with a lot of points of differentiation, from our selection on non-beef burgers, to our premium-quality ingredients, to the sauce bar, to the shake bar."
The Burger 21 name was chosen from some 400 under consideration by Front Burner Brands' in-house team. It ultimately provided just the right conceptual thread for tying the menu, branding and marketing initiatives together into a neat, distinctive package. "Once we arrived at Burger 21, we built the final menu around that name," Johnston says. "We also incorporated the letter B and the number 21 into several of our marketing elements."
In addition to a new LTO burger being launched on the 21st day of each month, those elements include a B board in the restaurants that highlights menu specials and charitable partners. Ten percent of sales on the 21st day of each month are donated to a local charity. A series of witty "B-isms" (i.e., B saucy, B original, B shaken, B informed, B involved, etc.) are prominent elements of the menu and dot the walls of the restaurants, reinforcing the brand's values and what customers can expect from the food and service. On its website and franchise brochure, potential franchisees are invited to "B first in line" to grow with Burger 21.
Modern, Durable Design
Like the menu, the Burger 21 prototype was developed largely in-house, a collaborative effort among Front Burner Brands' founding partners, marketing and design departments, and independent architectural consultant Brian Wolfe. Johnston says the look and feel the group envisioned emerged quickly. "We wanted something that was contemporary and clean," he says. "We were after kind of a modern diner feel and, anticipating high traffic, a space that would also be easy to maintain."
To that end, durability and ease of cleaning were key considerations along with aesthetics in the selection of materials. Tables are Formica-topped, and porcelain tile and stainless steel are used extensively throughout the restaurant. Due to the extensive menu and a desire to maintain a clean, distinctive interior, Burger 21 does not use menu boards. Rather, customers peruse and make their choices from printed menus.
Each restaurant features a counter at which guests place their orders and employees deliver completed dishes to their tables. Among the most distinctive elements in the restaurant is the shake bar, which features diner-style counter stools where customers can sit and enjoy their meals or stop in for just a treat or a dessert. Depending on each restaurant's size, the bar has eight to 10 stools. "We get a lot of single diners who enjoy sitting at the shake bar," Johnston says. "They can watch the action of the restaurant and have a conversation with the 'shaker'. We also get a lot of kids who like to sit there and see their shake or dessert being made."
The "back bar" includes an ice cream freezer that holds up to 16 three-gallon buckets of ice cream, a two-door reach-in cooler for milk, refrigerated toppings and back-up soda and beer storage, a three-motor shake mixer and a hand sink. All shakes are built there, and all start with vanilla ice cream. Beneath the counter where guests are seated are a triple-compartment sink, an additional hand sink and some shelving.
Burger 21's sauce bar provides another key point of differentiation. Positioned adjacent to the beverage area, it offers a selection of eight French fry dipping sauces in self-service pump dispensers. "Of course there's ketchup, but we also have a variety of other sauces for people to try," Johnston says. "Some are familiar, like honey mustard, but we make our own versions in-house and we have some signature sauces, such as our cider sauce for sweet potato fries and our Thai ketchup. In the summer we featured a scotch bonnet mango sauce and right now we have a spicy Cajun mayo sauce. Customers can take one or try all eight. It's a very popular feature."
The sauces are in double-walled, gel-lined containers that are stored in the freezer before filling, which eliminates the need for a refrigerated unit. "The containers will keep the sauces at required temperatures for six hours or more, but we change them out every hour or so," Johnson says. "It's a great system. It would have been a much bigger investment and also meant higher operating costs if we would have had to put a cooler in there. We use two off-the-shelf units, each of which has four separate pumps. The table that we set them in is custom-fabricated, but the units themselves are standard."
In fact, Johnston says the company has made great strides in keeping costs down by utilizing more standard equipment across the board. "We did more equipment customization in the first restaurant than we did in the second or will do going forward," he says. "In the second restaurant, we were able to pull some $13,000 out of the design cost by doing so. Now, we're fabricating only around $5,000 to $6,000 worth and we'll continue to look for ways to reduce that and drive opening costs down, which is critical as we begin franchising."
The kitchen itself comprises roughly a third of the restaurant's space. It holds a walk-in cooler as well as a walk-in freezer, used primarily for ice cream and for the specialty brioche buns that the company has made for its burgers. Ninety-five percent of the restaurant's prep work — cutting and chopping fresh vegetables, preparing sauces, grinding chicken and turkey, and hand-forming burgers — is done on a standard eight-foot-long stainless steel prep table plus an additional eight-foot-long prep table with a sink in an area roughly 19 by 8 feet.
Under an 18-foot-long hood is an oven with a six-burner range and two flat-top grills, one (three feet long) used for cooking beef burgers and the second (four feet long) divided into three compartments for cooking poultry, seafood and veggie burgers without cross-contamination. Three, two-basket fryers complete the cooking line, across from which sit two eight-foot refrigerated make tables where toppings are added and dishes are finished.
In the front of the house, which in most units will seat 80 to 100 guests and another 50 on an outdoor patio, three categories of employees are tightly scheduled to handle the flow. "Movers" deliver food from the kitchen or shake bar to guests, respond to incidental service needs and maintain the dining room; "shakers" man the shake bar, producing shakes, floats, malts and sundaes; and "takers" take customers' orders and operate the cash registers. A typical busy shift will field two takers, five or six movers and two shakers.
Despite its varied menu and emphasis on hand-crafted, fresh, high-quality food, labor systems in the back of the house are tight and efficient, as well. On busy weekend days, typical kitchen staffing includes two prep cooks, three to four line cooks and one expediter. Each unit also employs a general manager and two assistant managers, one of whom often will serve as expediter or jump on the line if needed.
Johnston notes that Burger 21's labor costs so far have been right where they want them to be. "During the first 11 periods of 2011, our average hourly labor cost, including both front and back of the house was 16.45 percent," he says.
Beyond Beef Burgers
In addition to creating awareness of some of the ways in which Burger 21 offers a "beyond the better burger" experience, putting the spotlight on the variety of burgers it offers is a key marketing objective. Beef burgers, of course, are expected, and represent 10 of the 21 burger options on the menu. The three top-selling burgers are beef — the Cheesy Burger, the Bacon Cheesy Burger and the 101 Burger. But Johnston says 50 percent of sales already come from non-beef burgers, a figure he feels could go higher as more people learn of the full range of offerings. Non-beef sales leaders currently are the Ahi tuna burger and two varieties of turkey burgers.
"One of the big things we have that traditional better-burger places don't is that variety. It really sets us apart and strengthens our appeal to a broader demographic. Families with kids love us, older customers love us, women love us. Next to families, however, we're probably strongest with the 18- to 29-year-old group that doesn't have families yet and has some money to spend on quality food. They're willing to spend the $1 or $2 more for the kind of food we're serving."
With its systems in place, its prototype and menu refined, and first two units running smoothly and profitably, Burger 21 is now focusing its marketing efforts on luring potential franchisees. Leveraging the experience and infrastructure already in place at Front Burner Brands from The Melting Pot, the company has also added sales people and a vice president of real estate. Early this year, it began hitting major franchising shows to kick-start the effort.
"We have a handful of Melting Pot franchisees who are interested in getting on board, but we're casting a wide net," Johnston says. "And we're looking at both area developer folks and individual operators who may just do one to three stores. We feel both models can be successful and will pursue a blend of the two."
While franchising is a major goal and the primary means by which Burger 21 will reach the high unit numbers Johnston foresees, growth via corporate stores is part of the plan, as well. "We're going to open more company stores than we initially thought we would simply because we've found them to be very profitable," he says. "In The Melting Pot, we have about 144 stores and only four are company-owned, but with Burger 21 we already have four company stores lined up and we'll do quite a few more. Not only are they profitable, but we're also getting a lot of inquiries for corporate stores from landlords and shopping center folks, in particular. They're attracted to this concept and see it as a great fit for their upscale centers, a way to draw in the type of shoppers they want. It's pretty exciting."
Facts of Note