Entrepreneurs

This high school dropout dad cashed in his 401(k) to open a burger joint — now it's ranked No. 2 in America and bringing in millions

Todd Brooks with his family outside Brooks Burgers
Brooks Burgers
Todd Brooks with his family outside Brooks Burgers

Today, Todd Brooks is a success. He's the owner of Brooks Gourmet Burgers & Dogs, a restaurant that brings in millions and is ranked the No. 2 burger joint in America by TripAdvisor.

But it hasn't always been that way. In fact, Brooks' life has been all about taking risks.

"The day I turned 16, I dropped out of high school," Brooks, now 47, tells CNBC Make It. "I was a young punk who thought he knew everything in the world."

Brooks, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, got a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant to support himself. He liked the business and eventually worked his way up to the kitchen at the Hereford House, a popular area steakhouse, where he cooked for 15 years.

"It became my home," Brooks recalls. "I planned on retiring here."

But you know what they say about the best laid plans.

An inflection point

In 2008, the Hereford House burned down. (Its owner, a close friend of Brooks', was later sent to prison for fraud and his role in the fire.) Brooks, then 38, knew he had a decision to make.

Brooks Burgers 

"I had to decide to either work for another person or take a chance and do something for ourselves," says Brooks. By then, had a family to think of — his wife, Sandra, then 8-year-old daughter Rylee Annabelle and then 3-year-old son James Albert.

"I didn't want to work for another person," he says.

The Brookses had friends who lived in Naples in southwest Florida, whom they visited once a year for almost a decade. The couple thought the town was paradise and had always wanted to move there. They never dreamed of making it a reality, but now they had their chance. Brooks decided he'd open his own restaurant in the town.

"We only had one shot at this," he says.

Brooks started looking at eateries for sale in the area and, after months of searching, settled on a place he could afford and make his own. He cashed in his 401(k) and sold his car and everything he owned for a total of about $180,000 to buy the restaurant and start a new life.

"That was all we had," Brooks says of the money.

But before moving his family to Florida, Brooks went to Naples at the end of 2009 to find a place to live and check out his new restaurant.

"Everything went really, really bad," Brooks says.

It turned out the paperwork to the restaurant was fraudulent and income figures were made up.

"Even the lease was false," says Brooks. (He'd been represented by a business broker who had assured him everything looked good.)

Todd Brooks at Brooks Burgers
Brooks Burgers
Todd Brooks at Brooks Burgers

Brooks was shaken by the experience but set on moving forward with his plan to open his own restaurant in Naples. It took him two months to finally get the money back and, in 2010, Brooks, then 40, moved his family to Florida hoping to find another restaurant to buy.

"I remember going into a divey burger joint, Lindburgers in Naples, to have a beer. It was such a gross and dirty place, I just went for a beer, knowing I wouldn't eat any of the food." Brooks struck up a conversation with the owner and told him about what had happened with the restaurant. The owner told Brooks he was selling Lindburgers.

"It was a hole in the wall, but two weeks later, I bought it," Brooks says. "Lindburgers was gross but it was an institution. People have been coming for decades. People who are 50 years old had been coming when they were 20 years old. I thought at the time, we could clean it up."

His own neighborhood burger joint

Brooks got to work gutting the downtown Naples restaurant, putting in new furniture and replacing everything in the kitchen, even the fryers, all by himself. But he preserved some of the look and feel of Lindburgers, which had an aviation theme.

"It was a very greasy spoon sorta feel, like a dive on the corner, which I liked," says Brooks. "We cleaned it up but kept it so it felt like an old, beat-up restaurant."

Naples has the 15th richest ZIP code in America. Two of southwest Florida's six billionaires, Shahid Khan and Reinhold Schmieding, live there. Lindburgers was right off Fifth Avenue, which was otherwise filled with "elite" restaurants, according to Brooks. But he wanted his place to be the spot where you could have "a normal dinner" where you don't feel like you have to get dressed up.

Brooks opened the joint as Brooks Gourmet Burgers & Dogs in March 2010.

"I decided on burgers and dogs because I knew a lot about the meat market and I also loved the history of the old burger joint," Brooks says. "It had been a part of the community for 30 years. It just needed new life," he says. "We made Lindburgers cleaner, more approachable and we improved all the food."

But serving community regulars wasn't enough to make a profit. "For the first three years, we made no money," Brooks says. It was rough.

"Every 30 days, I wanted to give up," Brooks remembers. "My wife and I were constantly working together, 60 hours a week, then we had to go home and take care of the kids together in a small, 1,500-square-foot rental house," which put a huge stress on their relationship, he says.

"We were basically in survival mode for the first 18 months, trying to make ends meet and pay bills. There were times we were down to under $5,000 in the bank, which is pennies when you're operating a business," says Brooks.

He borrowed money from credit cards and family members, took out loans and sold his car in favor of riding a scooter to work. He even applied to two or three corporate positions at area country clubs as a second job, finally deciding to stick with his burger joint and hope for the best.

"There were multiple times I told my wife we should sell the restaurant," says Brooks. "I really thought we may not make it but I had to think of my kids."

So Todd and Sandra "kind of fought our way through" the third year of the restaurant being open.

The secret sauce

Eventually, the couple started to get out into the community more.

"We were still so new in Naples and never had the time to meet anyone since we were working so much. We really started shaking hands with people in town that third year. We took really good care of people who came through, and that's what started changing things."

Brooks had upgraded the beef from Lindburgers' variety when he opened the place, but since then it wasn't a new menu or different food — word-of-mouth marketing became the secret sauce, so to speak, and the restaurant gradually started making money.

"Naples is full of elite restaurants, and you come in here and I'm like 'Hey! Have a seat! Make yourself at home!' and people are like, 'Wow, I love this,'" says Brooks.

If anyone ever had a complaint about anything, it never went unanswered, says Brooks. "I followed every social media site that was out there to respond to reviews. Every phone call and letter I responded to was like, 'Hey, you are the most important person in the world for us. Come back and let me fix this.' People actually came back and said 'We never had anyone invite us back, apologize, then cook for us,' and they became our advocates and they told people to come by. They told everyone about us, and it just started snowballing."

Still, it didn't occur to Brooks that all the right ingredients for a successful restaurant — great burgers, great design and great hospitality — would carry the eatery's notoriety beyond Naples.

"Right around the fourth year of us being around, in 2013, we got voted the top 10 local restaurants in Naples by TripAdvisor," Brooks says.

"I was like 'that's kinda cool' and didn't think a lot about it — but then all these tourists started showing up," he says. "Then, eventually, we climbed up to No. 1 locally, and in 2014 we were ranked No. 6 in the nation for best burger on TripAdvisor.

"We had no idea it was coming. Our restaurant got annihilated. Our business literally tripled."

Todd Brooks with a customer at Brooks Burgers
Brooks Burgers
Todd Brooks with a customer at Brooks Burgers

Brooks wasn't in Naples when TripAdvisor's best burgers in the country were announced. He was visiting family in Kansas City when a friend texted him the list. "I thought 'that's impossible' but I saw it and was like 'holy s---, we did.'"

The reality of the situation didn't fully sink in until the next day when the manager called to tell him the line was literally out the door. "She took a picture and sent it to me. It was 52 people deep out the front door. We took off and went right back to Naples."

Brooks thought he would see a burst of sales that would then die own, so he told his employees, "'Everybody that walks through that door, they have to come back. If there's a time to be perfect, it's now.'

"I lived at Brooks Burgers day and night, but it wasn't as painful since we were making money," he says.

Brooks wasn't just making money, he was making millions. "Our revenue went up to a million bucks almost overnight," he says.

Not only did Brooks Burgers' revenue go from $320,000 in 2014 to $1.3 million in 2015, the kitchen went from one cook to three cooks and he doubled his staff to handle the volume. "It was the first time in a long time we put money in the bank. It felt good."

And the crowds never fully dissipated. "We still get lines in high season in Naples, which is a seasonal town ... [and] we have people in there all day long now."

Behind the burger

After Brooks Burgers started turning a profit in 2014, Brooks decided it was time for a second location. "I said to my wife, 'We have all this momentum, we have the community behind us, and we have employees. Let's take the money we made and reinvest.'"

Brooks Burgers opened in North Naples in 2016. In that same year, it was bringing in about the same as the original location, about $1.3 million in revenue, and earlier this year Brooks opened a third restaurant on East Tamiami Trail.

"The third one is twice the size of the other locations, and it has a full bar and kind of a sports feel to it. It's a much larger operation. We're anticipating it will reach about $2.5 million a year in revenue."

While the third location is like a sports bar with 23 TV screens, dart boards and shuffle board, each location is based on great burgers.

"I spent the last 15 years in Kansas City working at a steakhouse, and I did all the buying and I was extremely well educated on beef," Brooks says. "The beef we buy right now comes from a small plant called Iowa Beef. ... It's natural and corn fed and it's an expensive product, but we have our own grind of short rib, brisket and chuck. And then there's a company down here, Buckhead Beef, who take the meats and combine them and make them specifically for us, down to how hard they get packed, which has more of a steak feel than hamburger feel. The beef we get makes an awesome hamburger."

He says the burgers are a premium product at a moderate price, with a classic burger only costing $9.95.

Brooks is also known for its innovative twists, like a Korean burger with duck bacon; Goober burger with Angus beef, peanut butter and bacon; and the popular doughnut burger, where the meat is sandwiched between two glazed doughnuts.

"The Donut Burger was something that we had eaten at state fairs and made a great talking point, so we offered it," says Brooks. "It took off like crazy when people started taking photos and put them on Facebook and Instagram.

"I must say that no matter how strange of a burger we come up with there's always people that fall in love with them. We have many patrons that come and have worked their way through every burger available."

Whatever the case, it continues to please. Brooks Burger is now the ranked No. 2 best burger in America by TripAdvisor. The majority of reviews on the travel site give the brand five stars; the few that complain seem to do so mostly about service.

Burger king

With three restaurants opened, Brooks says, for the first time ever, he's at a point where he doesn't have to work. But he chooses to.

"I still work about 40 hours a week, but now I'm in front of the restaurant and my wife is at home with the kids. It's so much better. Everything is so much better now."

Even after growing into success, with a fourth restaurant scheduled to open in 2019 in the Tampa Bay area, Brooks is still aiming high.

"Our goal is to start franchising Brooks Burgers," Brooks says. "Whether it's three restaurants or 20, we want to grow into something big."

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