At the intersection of creativity, discipline
By Nicholas Upton
Just a few of BurgerFi’s culinary innovations on display. Founding chef Paul Griffin, opposite page, said getting high-quality and “never-ever” products that compete in the better-burger world is part art, part science and a big part supply chain wrangling.
Paul Griffin, the founding chef at BurgerFi, spent a lot of time in fine dining, where the ideals of high quality ingredients and differentiated cuisine became ingrained in him.
After bouncing around the culinary world, including rising through the ranks under legendary Philadelphia chef Stephen Starr, Griffin landed in Florida as the man under the chef toque for a group of upscale restaurants.
“We were running full service, high quality restaurants and then a team of us got together and thought we could take one of our restaurants that was very gastropub-ish, hip bar and restaurant, and expand it. We were selling a ton of our burgers. It was one of our biggest hits. It was based on clean-label, all-natural beef,” said Griffin.
He said that was the starting point for BurgerFi, and the clean-label focus became a core piece of its identity. That identity, he said, is something hard to create and requires discipline to keep from warping into something else.
“I think it’s one of the biggest challenges with brands, keeping an identity and keeping control of menu and development and to make sure that it kind of grows in the correct direction and it’s not all over the place,” said Griffin. “One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is restaurants trying to change rapidly and, five years later, it’s nothing like they used to be and they’re confused about who they are because there’s no foundation.”
Discipline emerged as a key component of BurgerFi’s explosive growth. Founded in 2011, the company expanded to 50 locations by 2014, hit 100 in 2017 and is set to have 130 by year end, even during a pandemic. The “never-ever” beef—beef that receives no antibiotics, growth hormones or animal byproducts—was a founding ideal that stuck around.
“Keeping that core foundation was a big plus for us. We started on the natural, never-ever, high quality, very simple ingredients—a very strong chef technique—and we stayed true to that. We have the same beef today,” said Griffin.
But that doesn’t mean stagnation. The company had to change with the times, adding a chicken platform in the last few years and it jumped on plant-based burgers as the first national chain to serve the Beyond Meat burger.
Keeping up with those trends is just part of being a chef, said Griffin, though he has some help, from Instagram to “get the blood flowing,” to data from Technomic about trends in the culinary space. He’s also tuned into the who’s who of his craft.
“It’s knowing who’s hot, who’s out there. Part of being a chef is knowing who the hot chef is because trends are constantly changing. If you don’t know who’s hot, you’re falling behind,” said Griffin, and it’s an all-team effort. “There are four of us on the culinary team, but I can’t keep the marketing guy from giving me ideas or the real estate guy who has his own ideas, so we all wear the culinary hat.”
Keeping up with the trends is one thing, but getting ahead as a national chain is tricky. He said the company has invested in capacity to build its own innovations.
“It’s a really big challenge for brands to continue with quality and differentiate yourself. We all buy from the same Syscos and US Foods, so it’s really hard to carve out a niche. Recently, we’ve been working on building this new commissary,” said Griffin. “We’re going to supply our system with products we think will really revolutionize the industry.
“If you’re in the restaurant business, if you go into a chain or a fried chicken chain and you think, there’s no way they made this, but you can’t buy it. That’s the kind of product we’re looking to roll out.”
Culinary Q&A with Paul Griffin
What’s the last thing you cooked at home?
In the restaurant business, there’s not a lot of time. And I’ve got a decent drive home, so the last thing I want to do when I get home is cook. I’ve mastered the meal of whole wheat toast with some smashed avocado, but I throw a protein on it. I’m a fan of barbecue shrimp, the dry spice. You take some shrimp and grill ‘em up in five minutes and spritz with lemon.
What’s your guilty pleasure food?
I’m a little kid at heart, I’ve got a sweet tooth. So, I’ll sit there and have some candy or chocolate or a cookie. My wife is the opposite, she’s all salt. I try not to keep it in my pantry, once a month is about it. Something like licorice, I love a good hard licorice.
If you could have any chef cook you dinner, who would it be and what would you want them to prepare?
When you ask a chef this it’s a really deep question. It makes you think, there are so many talented people and so many cuisines out there. I’d like to go way back to like the late 1800s, to the French chefs that really started the foundation of French cuisine. I’m not a cream sauce kind of guy, but the techniques and the time they put in and the days of making stocks and the hours and hours of technique they put into the work and the passion they put into the trade is a lost art. This day and age, so many things are cut short.
If you could only eat or drink three things for the rest of your life, what would they be?
I love my seafood, I was born and raised in New Zealand so I have a lot of fond memories from my early days. I’d go with scallops.* I’m also a mince pie guy, and then I’ve got to stick to a burger. Gotta get my salad somehow so I’ll get it on a burger.
Is there one ingredient you’re dying to get on the menu?
I do but I’m scared to tell you. We have a ton of stuff; we have a new menu rolling out in September. It’s really based on highlighting the quality. We felt like we were underselling ourselves in some of the items we had. We have a ton of exciting cool things.
*Griffin’s Scallop Tip: “You need a good sear, it’s the quality, right? You got to get the dry ones. If you get them pumped with the tripolyphosphate it ruins the sear.”