Burger 21’s Better Burgers Catching On
Do you stop and think about how good we have it in terms of food here in the 21st century? It’s crazy how much better the average new-concept restaurant is these days compared with 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Rather than a new take on Sysco’s greatest hits, so many of today’s are both excellent and creative. Even so, the world’s a cruel place and even well-intentioned, high-quality concepts will fail.
Through that lens—both light and dark—it’s particularly interesting to see how things shake out in three very popular categories: Mexican, pizza and, of course, better burgers. These things are replicating faster than a pack of feral cats, and the ferocity of competition will surely thin this growing herd.
One such brand I’d be willing to bet on is Tampa-based Burger 21. In a recent interview with Jim Sullivan, Burger 21’s vice president, he gave me a walkthrough of a brand I’ve yet to experience in person. What I heard made me hungry, and suggested that burger competitors failing to hit this brand’s standard could eventually be in for a tough fight in the future.
Burger 21’s menu includes an array of high-quality beef-based burgers, but also 10 alternative burgers that include sushi-grade ahi tuna, turkey, chicken, and veggie burgers, and a spicy Thai shrimp burger. There are also gourmet hot dogs, specialty shakes and six salads. Not everybody eats beef these days, so that variety covers the vast majority of us fat and sassy Americans.
The brand is up to 24 locations in 12 states now, with the latest opening in Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s still pretty small, especially compared to giants such as Smashburger and Five Guys, but the company has more than a dozen other locations in development, and Sullivan sounds quite bullish about the company’s future.
Of course, everybody’s outlook is rosy when talking to Franchise Times reporters, but we take the wide, long view with everybody’s “amazing future growth” claims.
Sullivan says the burger category is now a $70 billion business in this country, and that it’s still growing overall with each passing year—recently exceeding double-digit annual gains.
To give the concept flexibility as it scales up, Burger 21 has three different models ranging up from a tiny, 2,000-square foot design up to a new hybrid model that includes a full bar (half fast casual, half traditional casual) up to 4,000 square feet.
“We believe there are a lot of markets where there is a big demand to have an alcoholic beverage while being in the restaurant,” he said. I’ll second that.
In its quest to fit in with both urban and suburban cities, Sullivan said the company’s model diversity helps Burger 21 capture markets such as downtown Chicago, where it has recently expanded, and the hot retail area in nearby Schaumburg. For a brand targeting mid- to high-income customers, that flexibility should suit it well.
In addition, its impressive menu should be enough to ensure that Burger 21 holds its own in the face of less creative, unremarkable options. It’s still hard to compete with the sounds, smells and taste of a home-grilled burger, so creativity and diversity is key.
As a reporter in this industry, it’s fun to paint these overheated categories as a clash of titans. The reality is far less dramatic, but flexible brands that work in cities and suburbs with a truly unique menu have a brighter future than those peddling something you could make at home for less money. There’s a lot of talk about the growing price divide between grocery stores and restaurants, and I suspect that price differential applies strongest to burgers—something just about anyone can have fun cooking.
Next time you're out to eat, don't forget how good we have it in this era of amazing food options. The pickings have never been better, and it's fun to watch it unfold from the sidelines.