|Cool Founder and CCO Tom Ryan|
Forbes magazine even touted Smashburger as "America's Most Promising Company" in November, 2011. Given their rate of growth and their profitability, and especially during the recent severe recession and anemic recovery, this is quite remarkable! Per Forbes:
In the midst of a severe recession his Denver company will have grown to 143 locations (half company-owned, half franchised) and $54 million in annual revenue by the end of 2011. Another 450 franchise agreements are already on the books.
Such torrid expansion earned Smashburger top honors on our list of America’s Most Promising Companies—privately held up-and-comers with compelling business models, strong management teams, notable customers, strategic partners and precious investment capital.
(J.J. Colao, Forbes; Nov. 30, 2011)Not too shabby for a former McDonald's executive who left Michigan about 5 years ago, moved to Colorado and deliberately set out on a single-minded mission to expand the concept of what a burger could be, embrace the diversity of the nation and each city where it was operating, and in Tom's own words "put burgers back into people's lives." It's also worth mentioning that Gourmet magazine had Tom on their list of Top 25 American Food Entrepreneurs.
One of the unique elements of Smashburger is that they have had most of their growth and advertising through word of mouth and social media, like Facebook, Twitter and Foodblogs like this one. Tom Ryan is not alone in this. Many successful entrepreneurs in the current economy have found ways to do this--one notable example from New Orleans (the next major metro they have targeted--Louisiana Tweeps, Peeps and Friends, he is designing an AWESOME local burger for y'all!!!) is Lauren "Fleurty Girl" Thom. They are only now starting to use print media and testing radio spots in their home base in Colorado.
Smashburger has grown to over 165 locations in just five years, and that is incredible, especially in a down economy. As an Economics professor, I can't say no to meeting a successful entrepreneur and as a burger-loving food blogger, I never say no to a great burger like you can get at Smashburger, so double win for me! Whoo-hoo!!! (in a Homer Simpson voice)!!! I'll try to contain my enthusiasm...
Tom Ryan is a very affable fellow, quite friendly and I was truly appreciative that he made time for me to come out and interview him despite his busy schedule. I found him to be focused, quite deliberate and very much committed to the success of his company and his franchise partners. A couple of things I learned from: Smashburger is now in Canada (they have POUTINE!!!) and Kuwait, both largely thanks to very committed franchise partners that came at the right time, with the right investment money and a can-do attitude. They have many local burgers on the menus of their different locations (like our spicy Texas mustard burger and deep fried jalapeños) and side items built around the culture and customers of the cities in which they operate. To be so thorough in making sure to research the market and produce a product that meets high standards but also caters to local tastes is no small task, but its also clear as to why the company is successful. For example, here in Houston they carry local craft beer from St. Arnold--I enjoyed a St. Arnold Amber Ale with my burger in fact (thank you Tom Ryan!)
|North American Map of Smashburger--Calgary Tweeps|
they got you covered during the Stampede!!!
What I also appreciated about the meet, greet and eat was that Tom gave me the opportunity to sample a couple of of their burgers and chicken sandwiches that I had not tried before. Some of them I was aware of when they were promoting local burgers across all locations last year. FYI: The Sin City Burger--smash patty, fried egg, apple-wood smoked bacon, grilled onions, haystack fried onions, American cheese, mayo/mustard mix on an egg bun--is on their "secret menu" and can be had at any location. Tom had one made for me to try--it is fantastic, Grade: A.
However, there are a few other burgers and sandwiches he highlighted that were on the menu but had not caught my attention or that I had not seen the last time I'd paid them a visit. I am pleased to present some of them to you now:
|Avocado Club Burger|
apple-wood smoked bacon
Lettuce & Tomato
on a multigrain bun.
As a fan of Avocado--which has become one of the latest "it" toppings on sandwiches outside of the usual spots (Texas, California, the Southwest have been doing this for decades)--I've done this before. However, this option wasn't on the menu and unfortunately some of us have an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude. Folks the number one rule of media and restaurants is "give the people what they want." I've asked for that option a bunch of times at differently places and if they had it, they'd do it, albeit for a little surcharge since bacon and avocado cost a bit more. Putting it on the menu has boosted the sales tremendously, although this setup was on the menu for their chicken sandwiches all along.
|Spinach and Goat Cheese (Feta) Grilled Chicken Sandwich|
Grilled season chicken breast
Goat (Feta) Cheese
Cucumbers, Spinach, Onions
Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing
on a multigrain bun
This one is a chicken sandwich, Mediterranean Style. I'd have liked it a little better with Tzaziki sauce personally. Tom indicated that they'd tested it out, and found that if folks couldn't pronounce the sauce they might not try it. He did consider my comment that in Houston and other cities where there are tons of Greek and Mediterranean joints serving up Shawarma and Gyros it would go over better. Maybe he'll add it to their ever-growing list of sauces that you can get on your burger or sandwich (fingers crossed.) Grade: A- (will probably be A+ when I can get it with Tzaziki sauce!)
|Buffalo Chicken with Bleu Cheese and Veggie Frites|
Hand breaded Chicken Breast (makes a difference in the flavour)
Franks Red Hot™ Sauce
Crumbled Bleu Cheese
Lettuce, Tomato and Mayo
on an Egg Bun
(I had some Ranch Dressing on the side)
This one is comparable to Hooter's, but the chicken is more tender. Tom told me that the chicken in their sandwiches is tenderized by hand using a tenderizing mallet. Makes sense to me. This sandwich was spicy, flavourful and tender. I really enjoyed it with the veggie frites, which I must admit I had never noticed on the menu before. To my shame, I was informed those had been on the menu from day one. They're seasoned with sea salt and pepper, fried for a little while in the vats, have more texture and pop than boiled veggies, but aren't as hard as raw or some steamed veggies can be. I will definitely substitute them from time to time instead of fries on future visits. Grade: A
One other treat Tom provided was a demonstration on how to cook a Smashburger patty. Tom made one which I took some video of (I will compile and post it here by the end of the week) and then he let me try it as well. I did not get any video of my attempt. I can tell you I did okay--got it caramelized just fine, but a small piece broke off to the side on the flip. This method is a lot like cooking pancakes. It produces a patty that tastes like a medium well done hamburger steak with a good sear on the outside and meat that has cooked on the griddle in its own juices. In a word, it is FANTASTIC.
After spending a good hour, Tom had to be on his way and I thanked him for his time and the chance to sample more of what Smashburger had to offer. One of the great pleasures I have had since I've started blogging has been the opportunity to meet business people like Tom Ryan who are committed to producing a good product, setting up a good corporate culture and work environment and to do so in an affordable manner. Although my first love in restaurants is always unique local places and local chains, one can't ignore the positive economic impact that Smashburger has made on the Houston area. 11 locations currently open, each one employing over 20 employees--over 220 jobs added--and most of them do quite well in a very cut throat economy. In times where bad news about corporate types is the norm, it is nice to meet someone like Tom Ryan who is forward thinking, dedicated to putting out a good product and serving his customers well.
Oh and one last comment: I told him about one of his local competitors who is a favourite of mine, Jerry Built Burgers. Tom said he wanted to go for dinner to try them out because he'd heard how good they were and he had no problem enjoying a competitor's work if it was done well and done right. In my professional opinion as an Economist and a lover of food, there is plenty of room in Houston for places like Smashburger and Jerry Built Burgers to enjoy some friendly competition and both can be successful.
And always remember to Eat Happy, Y'all!!!