Make It

Tom Ryan shares 4 secrets of Smashburger’s double-decker growth

How one co-founder left a lasting impact on the fast food industry
How one co-founder left a lasting impact on the fast food industry

Smashburger says it's putting soul back into fast-casual dining by smashing each hamburger it serves. Yup, literally smashing each one.

Apparently, smashing the burger results in a better flavor.

Raise an eyebrow if you like, but customers are buying it. Literally.

Since launching seven years ago, Smashburger, headquartered in Denver, CO, has opened 380 restaurants in 38 states and nine countries outside the U.S. Of those, 220 are owned and operated by Smashburger and the remaining are franchised.

Its success is the result of calculated teamwork and decades of industry experience.

Smashburger founder and chief brand officer Tom Ryan spoke with CNBC at the Iconic conference in Denver. "Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking about the landscape and its potential to change. And then going after that full tilt," he says.

Source: Smashburger

"It wasn't like I went to my garage and did this stuff on my own. I had very tenured partners, well capitalized, very focused on making a difference," says Ryan. "It was a common fixed point on the horizon that a bunch of tenured old, wise guys went after. That's how we did it."

Prior to launching Smashburger, Ryan studied food science. He earned his bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees in flavor and fragrance chemistry from Michigan State University, and he has worked at Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and Quiznos.

An industry veteran, Ryan won acclaim as the man responsible for the stuffed crust pizza craze at Pizza Hut. He and his teams also produced a whole host of fast food classics: The Lover's Line, Breadsticks and Chicken Wings, and Sicilian Pizza at Pizza Hut; McFlurries, The Dollar Menu, and McGriddles at McDonald's; and the Steakhouse Beef Dip and the Prime Rib Sub at Quiznos.

It wasn’t like I went to my garage and did this stuff on my own.
Tom Ryan
Smashburger, founder and chief brand officer

Smashburger positions itself as a higher quality, but still affordable, alternative to the chain burger franchises like McDonald's and Burger King. Smashburgers are made out of fresh, never-frozen, 100 percent Angus Beef and sides include everything from traditional fries to fried pickles and hand-made milkshakes.

Here's an inside look at the guiding principles that went into building the popular fast casual restaurant.

1. Pick a product that’s already familiar and popular and then shine it up

Working with his partner Rick Schaden, Ryan looked to make incremental improvements on a product that the mass market was already demanding: the hamburger.

"We both had a common vision and that was to basically design and execute and scale disruptive concepts, concepts that were familiar in name, but not very familiar at all in the way they played out," says Ryan.

For example, stuffed crust pizza for Pizza Hut was an innovative tweak to an already popular product.

"The idea came from, how do we take something as common as, what we call in the business a traditional style pizza, and do something to it that makes it uber relevant and added value that makes everybody else's traditional pizza a little less exciting and a little obsolete," says Ryan. "Stuffed crust pizza was a solution to a real and obvious and impactful business problem. Business opportunity, if you will."

2. Get experience in the industry before you go out on your own

Smashburger wasn't Ryan's first hamburger.

"Another piece of advice for entrepreneurs is they should cut their teeth learning the business someplace else before you just decide you have got what it takes to just go do this," he says. "That's rare space, so I think that's really tough."

3. Look for a product that will impact large numbers of people

Ryan built his career in fast food because of the large number of people who eat fast food. "If you are going to make an impact, impact infers you are going to do it with a lot of people. And fast food, back in the day, was the category that people were using the most," says Ryan.

Tom Ryan
Source: Smashburger

Since the 1980's when Ryan started in fast food, however, consumer demands have evolved. Even while working in fast food, he has started to think about the next generation of popular eateries.

"I agreed, even back then, that it was going to get contemporized, that there was going to need to be some sea change going on, because as fast food had grown into its kind of adulthood, it had gotten complacent."

You have to surround yourself with talent.
Tom Ryan
Smashburger, founder and chief brand officer

4. Include a mix of experience and youthful energy in your talent pool

Ryan doesn't buy into the idea that entrepreneurship is one guy, toiling alone. Building a company of scale is a team effort, he says.

"I think it takes a village. I think it takes a really smart partner, or even two. I think you have to surround yourself with talent if you don't want to spend the thick part of your career figuring out what you got right and what you got wrong," says Ryan. "And the more tenured your partners, the better."

"One of the things I credit Smashburger in general as a culture is that we are a mix of wise, tenured individuals ... and we combine ourselves with what I call the 'immortals,' young people in their 20s and 30s who are just dying to get involved in something that they can become passionate about. And I think it's that combination inside our company that is one of the special and magic reasons Smashburger has been able to do what it has been able to do."