Common logic would suggest that this is no time to open a restaurant. The economy is tanking, news of layoffs comes through daily, and people are cutting back on spending to the bare essentials. Right?
Not so fast, a few restaurateurs say. There’s always room for burgers.
At least that’s what the founders of two soon-to-be Twin Cities burger establishments are counting on. Tom Ryan, the founder of Colorado-based Smashburger, and Phil Roberts, the co-founder of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, which is scheduled to debut its new Burger Jones restaurant concept this spring, believe it is the time and the Twin Cities is the place to bet on burgers.
“Why Minnesota? Why not?” asks Ryan, who, though based in Denver, owns a second house on Minneapolis’ Lake of the Isles. “Minnesotans are some of the most prolific, food-forward people around.”
Ryan launched the Smashburger concept just two years ago after noticing a gap in the $100 billion/year burger industry: Customers wanted more than the average McDonald’s burger but didn’t want to spend money on a sit-down restaurant meal. He designed Smashburger to have broad appeal, offering cooked-to-order, certified Angus beef burgers on bakery-style buns, for “burger lovers and the people who hang out with them.” The menu goes beyond fries, offering haystack onions, veggie frites (deep-fried carrots, green beans and asparagus), smashed chicken sandwiches and hot dogs, Häagen Dazs shakes, floats and malts and bottled beer and wine. Burgers start at $5, with the average check coming in just shy of $8.
“Smashburger fills a gap that fast food and Red Robin are not hitting,” Ryan says. “We’re a convenient and cost-effective way to have a good food experience. And we’re doing even better in the recession!”
The first Twin Cities Smashburger outpost is set to open in St. Anthony in May, and Ryan plans to eventually bring 30-35 locations to the metro area. Last fall, he hired Greg Creighton, a Minnesota native and former president of Leeann Chin, to oversee operations at new locations such as St. Anthony, and he has an aggressive approach to expansion nationwide. As far as Ryan can see, there’s no reason why Smashburger won’t succeed in the Twin Cities.
“We’ve made sure that Smashburger differentiates itself [among burger establishments] at every turn. Our level of service and our value is very distinctive,” Ryan says. “We have a great, great chance to win at our level, and it’s a level onto itself.”
Though the menu at Burger Jones will have a higher price point than Smashburger, Roberts has confidence that his “witty,” table-service burger bar, also scheduled to open in May, will follow the success of the other Parasole restaurants, such as Chino Latino, Salut and Figlio, which have been performing well despite the dampened economy.
“Our restaurants are doing fantastic. We’re in a fortuntate-enough niche that we’re going to be recession-proof,” Roberts says. “Our burgers aren’t going to be gourmet with foie gras. It’s a burger joint at the end of the day, and damn, they’re good burgers.”
Working with chef Andrew Suthers, who is moving from the W Minneapolis downtown to Burger Jones’ location in Minneapolis’ Calhoun Village Shopping Center, Roberts and his team are perfecting their menu of beef, turkey, salmon and veggie burgers cooked on a griddle. They’ve tested bun after bun to settle on a challah-type roll that will stand up to the hearty burgers, and customers can expect homemade pickles atop their patties. Fans of Salut’s famous fries, take note: you’ll find them at Burger Jones as well, along with sweet potato and waffle fries. And yes, you will be able to order a combo basket with all three and a selection of dipping sauces. Desserts are still up in the air, though Roberts is thinking about pie, but you can count on shakes and malts made from premium ice cream, including alcoholic frozen treats. The restaurant will also feature a full bar, though Roberts emphasizes its family atmosphere.
“We want Burger Jones to be approachable – guys in suits sitting next to guys in hard hats, sitting next to moms with kids,” he says. And with prices beginning at $7.95, he promises the burgers will be “terribly affordable and terribly good.”
And rather than worry about competition from Smashburger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, a Washington, D.C.-based franchise with an Edina location in the works, Roberts welcomes their entrance to the Twin Cities market.
“Smashburger and Five Guys serve really good burgers. They’ve really filled a need and people will be pleased with them,” Roberts says. “We will be a different experience. Burger Jones will be a little more saloony, a little more adult.”
So will burgers provide solace to Twin Cities diners stressing about the state of the world?
“People still want an experience. They need to be in a different world for a couple of hours,” Roberts says. “Maybe they didn’t go to Florida this year or buy a car, but by golly, they’re going out to eat.”
Bet your bottom dollar on burgers.