How Smashburger Built a Better Burger

Smashburger, a chain of fast casual burger restaurants, gets it's name from the process used to cook burgers, which entails smashing a ball of 100% Certified Angus ground beef on a grill to sear in the juices.
Matthew Staver | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Smashburger, a chain of fast casual burger restaurants, gets it's name from the process used to cook burgers, which entails smashing a ball of 100% Certified Angus ground beef on a grill to sear in the juices.

Just when you thought there couldn't possibly be room for another burger franchise, along comes Smashburger, the wildly successful burger chain that has opened nearly 200 restaurants in the last five years.

And, though the company's name was inspired by the unique way its Angus beef patties are "smashed" on a hot grill, the company's rise to success has been based on a more traditional entrepreneurial formula. Company founder Tom Ryan and CEO David Prokupek saw an opportunity to build a better burger and they took it.

"Hamburgers overall are among the biggest and most competitive food market in the United States," Prokupek said. "More money is being spent by McDonald's,Wendy's and Burger King advertising hamburgers than is being spent on any other food brand, probably in total."

Despite all the competition that exists in the world of burgers, Ryan and Prokupek felt they could succeed by catering to the "better burger market." Since opening in 2007, the pair has been proved right consistently. Today, there are around 160 Smashburger restaurants open, all but two of which are in the United States.

"The big idea for us was that burgers were America's favorite food, but at the same time they were pretty disappointed in most of the choices that were out there from the major players," Prokupek, who came aboard as CEO after the fourth Smashburger opened, said. "Today, we have about 40 groups and they have committed to build 400 Smashburger restaurants over the next six years. No other restaurant that we know of has gotten from zero to 200 restaurants in five years."

That success can be attributed to the research the founders conducted before opening Smashburger. In particular, they focused on catering to what customers said they wanted in a burger restaurant.

"We used a lot of wisdom and knowledge about the food market and burger market overall, but really backed it up with the consumer insight that told us this is really what you need to do in order to win," Prokupek said. "We didn’t base it on a hunch. From a business owner's perspective, you need to back up good ideas with good consumer insight."

With the idea of how to open a better burger restaurant in place, the founders began to look for an existing chain with which to implement their ideas.

"We concluded that we would be better off starting our own," Prokupek said. "We found a lot of people had it half right."

The other half was learned at Icon Burger, a Denver-based restaurant that the pair bought to serve as a test laboratory for Smashburger. After several months learning about opportunities and what customers wanted from a burger restaurant, the first Smashburger opened. The menu featured customizable burgers, Häagen-Dazs milkshakes, beer and wine along with dishes tailored to the particular state in which the restaurant was located.

For example, the New Jersey burger features applewood smoked bacon, blue cheese crumbles, grilled onions and haystack fried onions (like shoestring onions) on an onion roll, while the Norcal burger from Smashburger's California restaurants features Brie cheese, applewood smoked bacon, sliced balsamic marinated tomatoes, grilled onions, lettuce and mayo on a sourdough bun.

"I think that is a part of the modern way of how people want to eat," Prokupek said. "Part of our mantra has been to put burgers back into people's lives and the fact is that there are different taste profiles around the country. We want to be able to capitalize on that. It is also a really big differentiator among other folks in the food industry."

Customers are not the only ones who agree, as earlier this year Smashburger was named the "Most Promising Company in America" by Forbes Magazine.

"It is a very prestigious award and something we are grateful to get," Prokupek said. "It is a nice external gratification for a lot of people's hard work. People are working around- the-clock doing their best and it is nice to get recognized for your work. It had a positive effect in that way."

Beyond recognizing the hard work within Smashburger, the award also serves as confirmation that the ideas and business plan guiding the company are working.

"A big part of our DNA at Smashburger is that we are very data and insight driven," Prokupek said. "Ultimately, you can do all the homework in the world, but until you do it you will never know if you will be successful. But you ought to go in pretty well- informed."

If there is one thing that other businesses can take away from Smashburger, not surprisingly, Prokupek recommends aspiring business owners focus on ironing out all the details before they ever think of opening their doors.

"Entrepreneurs would be well served by modeling out what the next two to three years will look like, what the real costs are and how they are going to get to where they want to," Prokupek said. "Lots of entrepreneurs underestimate how long it will take to do things and how much it will cost. Marrying the business model with the idea on the service side of your business is crucial. Once you know you have both those nailed, then you really know you have a good business idea."