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Mega-Chains in the Making: Smashburger, Elevation Burger, and Mooyah Burger

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Across the country, new breeds of restaurant chains are popping up to fulfill Americans' endless appetite for the hamburger. From mega-chains in the making to artisan burgers crafted by celebrity chefs, there's a multitude of challengers taking on big players like McDonald's and Burger King. Here now, part two in a five-part series profiling the "better burger" chains. Yesterday was In-N-Out vs Five Guys, today: Smashburger, Elevation Burger, and Mooyah Burger.


Elevation Burger (Arlington, VA-based), Mooyah Burger (thoroughly Texan), and Smashburger (sprawling out from Denver) have displayed the kind of innovation, aggressive expansion, and national footprint that make the most promising mega-chain contenders. These three new chains may not be in every town yet, but given the way they've weathered the economic storm and are still growing rapidly, they just might get close soon.

"The market is looking for something better and more modern than what is on offer," said Smashburger founder and CEO Tom Ryan. "I think the major players have been shifting their focus to pursue other occasions and the burgers have been falling by the wayside."

While the traditional standard-bearers of the fast-food burger have been dreaming up novelty sandwiches and trying to succeed at breakfast, the patties have grown arguably sub-par. As Americans demand more and better burgers, new chains are stepping up to satisfy our cravings with more options, better ingredients, and a new approach to fast food nation.


Elevation Burger

[Photo: CarbZombie ~/Eater National Flickr Pool]

Elevation Burger is staging itself as the eco-/waistline-friendliest new option on the block for your burger needs. With ground-on-premises grass-fed beef, olive oil-fried French fries, and environmentally friendly operating practices from renewable, non-pollutant building materials to oil for biofuel donation, few companies can compete with the measures this chain has instituted. Prioritizing LEED-certified locations, encouraging franchisees to purchase Clean Energy Offset Credits, and offering two vegetarian options — including one vegan? Now you're just sucking up.

But they aren't — and that commitment to better practices for both customer and environment is helping this new player stand out in the increasingly crowded meat-market. Hans Hess came up with the idea for Elevation Burger in 2002 based on a desire for a burger that not only tasted good but was sustainable. After planning, research, and development, Hess opened the first location in Arlington, VA, in 2005 and began franchising in 2008, promptly earning the title of "Green Business Visionary" from Washington Business Journal. With the help of Dan Rowe, a veteran from the fellow Arlington-based Five Guys, there are now 12 existing locations, 15 that are slated to open in 2011, and projections call for a total of 100 locations over the next three years. The company has also signed a multi-franchise deal to open six restaurants in Bahrain and Kuwait by 2013.

Elevation Burger's franchisees are as eclectic as the menu, ranging in the New York area alone from former Metro New York, Inc. CEO Daniel Magnus to former Verizon Wireless employees Fabian Rosario and John Harris. The healthier approach to classic fast food staples brings a new option to the table for diners looking to have higher quality products at the affordable prices of a quick-service restaurant. As Rosario told industry publication Fast Casual, "New Yorkers are always looking to eat healthier, but it's easier said than done. Elevation Burger offers an organic, better-for-you burger at a reasonable price."

Mooyah Burger

[Photo: Mooyah Burger]

Mooyah's 17 locations across Texas may not sound imposing right off the bat, but with 20 more set to open in 2011, six multi-unit development deals signed to increase the total to 221, and strategic plans for 1600 percent growth in the next 10 years, we're looking to cattle country for a new burger mega-chain.

While Five Guys may take top billing as the most popular alternative burger chain, Mooyah co-founder Todd Istre considers the fight for number two to be the biggest battleground for up and coming burger franchises across the country — and that's a spot he considers wide open. "I think, if we focus on our systems, quality, and market, we can realistically end up in that spot in the next five years," Istre said. "We have a great basic team in place and we're focused on giving people the best full experience possible. Now, we're focused on incorporating elements that differentiate Mooyah from all of the other chains out there that might fall by the wayside over the next few years."

To that end, Mooyah has started to bake their own buns in-house — a rarity in the burger chain business. They have also developed a kids' meal, further cultivating what the company perceives to be a heavily suburban target market. With a focus on the nation's sprawling suburban communities and aggressive but educated franchising choices, Istre aims to see Mooyah grow concentrically from its Texan home base. While one non-traditional location will open in Connecticut later this year, the 15-20 restaurants planned for 2011 will be closer to home, branching into Tennessee and Kansas, then pending Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas locations will follow.


[Photo: Smashburger]

"We are intent on being national," declared founder and CEO Tom Ryan. "And we are confident that we will have achieved a near-national footprint by the end of next year."

From a single restaurant in Denver, Smashburger (named for the authentic method of smashing a ball of ground beef into a patty on the grill) grew to ten locations by 2008, 43 by 2009, and 94 stores today. They are on track to double again this year and to control 400 to 500 locations in the next five years. With 400 restaurants committed to 30 groups that already control over $1 billion in other food brands, Smashburger stores are multiplying like rabbits — rabbits that make really tasty burgers.

In addition to franchising like crazy, the company follows a model of adding value in-house. According to Ryan, this means taking the best commodity items available, hand-forming meatballs to be smashed into patties on the griddle, breaking down produce in-store, and doing all battering and frying on-site. Smashburger also sells local and craft beers and customizes 10-15 percent of their menu to suit individual locations, a touch that the CEO feels "is engaging and adds substantial value to the standard options currently available."

Smashburger's financial structure draws strength from private equity firm Consumer Capital Partners, which also funds Ryan's last venture: Quiznos. With the resources of a private equity firm, the budding burger chain has flexibility that would be enviable for any culinary venture, but has most notably given the company an edge in the market to grow amidst a recession.

Food writer and hamburger expert Josh Ozersky had lofty praise for the chain, and asserted it may just have the best shot to make it on a major national scale — and he can't wait. He said, "Their approach, quality control, and willingness to give juicy and flavorful burgers are at the very least deserving of great success."

What's next for a chain that's already mastering the challenge of rapid national expansion? Smashburger plans to go international. The company is already recruiting investors in Canada and is pursuing partnerships in South Korea and the Middle East. "We built a burger for every occasion, and we're trying to put burgers back in the lives of people who haven't had them in a while," Ryan said. "Burgers are timeless — whether they're recession-proof or not. How you supply them is where the recession-proof part matters. We have a lot of sources for those occasions."

—Hilary Tuttle

· All Burger Week Posts on Eater [-E-]
· All Hamburger Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Elevation Burger Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Smashburger Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Mooyah Burger Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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