There’s no question that the burger business has grown exponentially in recent years. But, representing only 3 percent of the overall quick service and fast casual burger business, the “better burger” category has plenty of room for growth.
The owners of The Melting Pot Restaurants, a fondue restaurant franchise, founded Burger 21 in November 2009 and opened the first Burger 21 location in Tampa, Florida in November 2010. Leveraging more than 25 years of franchising experience, Mark, Arlene, Bob and Mike Johnston recognized an opportunity to introduce a higher quality product in a rapidly growing foodservice category. They differentiated Burger 21 from other concepts with 21 chef-inspired burger creations, hand-dipped signature shakes, premium ingredients, and a comprehensive, varied menu of innovative recipes, delivering a gourmet experience without the gourmet price.
The first Burger 21 location in Tampa has experienced impressive sales that are exceeding the company’s expectations, proving that this is a unique concept well-positioned to grow across the country.
Franchise Chatter (FC): Can you tell us how Burger 21 got its start?
Mark Johnston (MJ): As an organization (Front Burner Brands – management company for The Melting Pot, Burger 21 and GrillSmith restaurants), we have been very focused on The Melting Pot and growing that brand over the years. Growth is slowing down as most desirable markets have been developed in the U.S. and sales concentration is focused more on international expansion. As we have a huge talent pool of people here who have contributed to the growth and success of The Melting Pot, we wanted to utilize this talent base by launching our second franchise concept, Burger 21, streamlining a lot of our processes across departments and creating synergies.
For several years, our company has been interested in venturing into burgers, and we wanted to design a restaurant concept that offers the highest quality and variety of burgers, fries, shakes and more at an affordable price for consumers. We were in menu development for over a year before opening our first Burger 21 location in November 2010 in Tampa.
FC: For those unfamiliar, please tell us about your food? What is unique about your menu compared to those of other fast casual restaurants specializing in “better burgers”?
MJ: Burger 21’s menu offers 21 unique, chef-inspired burgers and a variety of signature shakes, made-to-order salads, Hebrew National hot dogs and more. The 11 hand-crafted Angus beef burgers are made from fresh ground chuck. We also offer a dipping sauce bar that includes eight different sauces.
Furthermore, our restaurants also offer 10 beef alternative, one-of-a-kind burgers made with sushi-grade Ahi Tuna, shrimp, turkey, chicken, vegetables or black bean selections. Consumers demand a wide variety of burger choices not currently found in most QSR and fast casual burger restaurants and seek more affordable prices than the casual dining burger establishment or full-service burger bar.
By offering such a vast selection of innovative gourmet recipes in a contemporary-style diner atmosphere with fast, high-touch service, Burger 21’s creations appeal to all audiences and ages, resulting in strong guest traffic during both lunch and dinner.
FC: What is the #1 thing that sets Burger 21 apart from other franchise opportunities?
MJ: Burger 21 goes beyond the better burger. It’s been our goal since day one to deliver an even higher level of variety, food quality and customer service than others in the category. We listen to customers and give them what they want at a fair price, ultimately providing a great value and fun
experience. That is what we do at Burger 21, why we are successful and continue to attract loyal customers.
FC: Can you describe the ideal franchisee for a Burger 21 restaurant?
MJ: Currently, we are seeking single-unit and multi-unit operators with proven foodservice or restaurant experience to help grow our brand. Candidates should have a passion for and commitment to exceptional customer service and delivering a fast casual dining experience unmatched in the industry. Additionally, candidates should possess the resources and ability to open the first unit within 12 months and each additional unit at a maximum of 12-month intervals. Franchisees should also possess a minimum liquidity of $200,000 per unit and net worth of $500,000 per unit.
FC: What is the ideal neighborhood and territory for a Burger 21 restaurant?
MJ: Ideally, we will be in high traffic centers with great access, synergy and a lot of residential and office space nearby. We prefer to be in end-cap locations or freestanding buildings that are not part of shopping centers if they are well located.
FC: What are some of the things you plan on doing to help your franchisees become profitable?
MJ: We launched our national franchise program in September 2011, so at this time we are working to acquire franchisees. As an affiliate of Front Burner Brands, our franchisees will benefit from a team of franchise experts who have more than 25 years of franchise experience and proven success with The Melting Pot Restaurants, Inc. We will ensure our franchisees are prepared with the necessary tools and training for success. This includes having access to an extensive in-house team of marketers, designers, public relations professionals and social media experts to help franchisees grow their customer base and drive sales.
FC: What are your goals for Burger 21 in the next few years and how do you plan to grow your business?
MJ: Burger 21’s national franchise program launched Sept. 7, 2011, and has aggressive growth plans to expand throughout most of the U.S. targeting locations situated in lunch/dinner fast-casual restaurant hubs. The top markets of interest for 2012 are located throughout the state of Florida
and will extend into select markets along the East Coast. While initial expansion efforts will focus on Florida markets, franchise opportunities will be considered in many markets nationwide. When evaluating new market opportunities, Burger 21 relies heavily on population density levels, average income levels per household and per capita, growth trend projections and the optimization of units.
Our Discovery Process (approval process to become a franchisee) takes a minimum of two months. Given that the franchise program launched in September, no franchises or rights for stores have been sold at this time. We are offering an early adopter discount of 20 percent off the franchise fee for each franchise sold by June 21, 2012. Our 2012 goal is to have 30 franchising deals signed by the end of the year, one or two of those franchise units open and two to three additional corporate-owned units open in the Tampa Bay area.
FC: What advice can you give prospective franchisees on how to evaluate the overwhelming number of franchise opportunities available to them?
MJ: Recognizing the number of franchise opportunities that are available, I would suggest focusing on four key components when seeking a franchise: differentiation, demand, quality and support. A prospective franchisee must do a great deal of research and determine what makes the franchise
opportunity unique, the demand for the product or service and the experience and support provided by the franchisor.
FC: Finally, what advice can you offer new franchisees on how to increase their chances for
success in the restaurant business?
MJ: A new franchisee needs to be intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of his/her business, especially in the early years. Time and time again, I have seen the value of being an owner and operator. The benefits include better service, consistency, operations, controls, marketing and networking in the local community. Once a franchisee has a well-established system and stable, talented management team in place, he or she could be in a position to pull back somewhat from the daily operational tasks.