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Burger 21 mixes up its store models


Above is one of Burger 21’s three different store models, to offer flexibility to franchisees.

This world’s a cruel place, and even well-intentioned, high-quality restaurant concepts will fail with so many new competitors. This dog-eat-dog mantra applies doubly in overheated categories like pizza, burritos and, of course, better burgers.

To set itself apart from dryer competitors, and add flexibility for franchisees as it scales up, Tampa, Florida-based Burger 21 has developed three different store models ranging from a tiny, 2,000-square foot unit up to a new hybrid model that includes a full bar, is half fast-casual and half traditional format, and as large as 4,000 square feet.

As Vice President Jim Sullivan explained it, the thinking is that some consumers prefer to have a beer or cocktail with their burger and fries. Who knew?

“We believe there are a lot of markets where there is a big demand to have an alcoholic beverage while being in the restaurant,” Sullivan said, adding that the burger category has now tipped the scales at $70 billion in annual sales with no signs of slowing down.

Jim Sullivan

“Burgers don’t just have to be beef,” says Jim Sullivan, Burger 21’s vice president.

Even so, he acknowledged the importance of Burger 21 differentiating itself from the competition, both for the restaurants’ guests as well as the company’s franchisees looking to outpace the Five Guys and Shake Shacks of the world.

In his quest to offer models that fit in both urban and suburban locations, Sullivan said the company’s newly expanded model diversity helps Burger 21 capture markets like downtown Chicago, where it recently expanded, along with the hot retail area in Schaumburg north of the city.

For a brand targeting mid- to high-income customers, that flexibility should suit it well—but the food is still the top dog, or cow, as Burger 21 hits the 25-unit milestone.

“The food is phenomenal, and that’s what really separates us from a lot of the competitors throughout the country,” Sullivan said. “Burgers don’t just have to be beef, and they can be made with a lot of various proteins—that’s the direction we’ve taken, a gourmet path with our burgers.”

Burgers without beef

Burger 21’s menu is much different from some fast-casual competitors that pride themselves on a simple, stripped-down menu. With an array of Angus burgers like the Tex-Mex Haystack with applewood-smoked bacon, gouda, guacamole, onion strings and chipotle-jalapeno sauce, its offerings also include 10 non-beef burgers including sushi-grade ahi tuna, turkey, chicken and veggie burgers, and a spicy Thai shrimp burger. There are also gourmet hot dogs, shakes and six salads to appeal to non-beefy customers.

Dessert is another differentiator, with items like a Pineapple Upside-Down Shake with spiced brown sugar syrup and pound cake crumbles, along with more traditional cookies, shakes, floats and sundaes.

With its latest opening in Raleigh, North Carolina, Burger 21 is now up to 24 locations in 12 states, a pittance compared with Five Guys that now has more than 1,000 units in the United States and its cult-like following to match. The company has more than a dozen other locations in development, and Sullivan is quite bullish about the brand’s future relative to the competition.

The plan is to “go up the East Coast and out West and the Midwest, and then fill in between,” he said. Of course, everybody’s outlook is rosy when talking to reporters, but he stressed that such a large category with ongoing double-digit annual gains still has room to expand, saying nothing about the waistlines of its most frequent customers.

He added the new hybrid model, which will have a full-on bar in one half of the template, is partially a response to the tightening real estate market, further stressed by so many up-and-coming fast-casual brands striking a chord with millennial consumers.

“We’re not a late-night bar concept by any means. We’re very family oriented even with the full bar,” Sullivan said of the change. “We’re always going to be a company that really holds food as the number one part of why we do what we do.”

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