Q&A: Smashburger's Founder Ryan Talks Buzz Marketing, Being Unique and Leadership Lessons


Q&A: Smashburger's Founder Ryan Talks Buzz Marketing, Being Unique KandessaMedia

Smashburger celebrated the opening of its 100th store in April just outside of Chicago. While many in the industry, restaurateurs, bloggers, and journalists alike, laid eagle eyes on Five Guys Burger's seemingly exponential growth across America; Tom Ryan, founder and chief concept officer of the Smashburger chain was building his own 'better burger' empire, one store at a time, in places like St. Louis, Jacksonville, Atlanta and Charlotte.

Denver-based Smashburger has recently been ranked 99 on the Inc. 500 list, and is poised to open 500 stores by late 2013. It is the only limited-service restaurant in the prestigious top 100 of the list.

Each store has opened up to an incredible amount of local hype and buzz. A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., Ryan, with a Ph.D. in Flavor and Fragrance Chemistry from Michigan State University, and as Chair of the Brand Committee, provides guidance to the marketing machine¹ that has generated great burger buzz. In this abstract of Quick Serve Leader's interview² with the Smashburger entrepreneur, he talks about how it all comes together, and why there was room for another better burger in the restaurant burger marketplace.

You have become known as the energetic and charismatic voice of the Smashburger concept. What keeps this energy alive?

Ryan: We love being in the restaurant business: The entire Smashburger team's energy is all my energy. And Smashburger is the love of my life. We have a lot of energy in the marketplace and strike a chord with consumers. That energy, and also our franchise partners' energy keeps my energy level high. 

People are constantly curious about what Smashburger's reason for being is - "What makes a Smashburger a Smashburger?", and why we've entered such a dense marketplace. It comes down to this: Smashburger's goal is to put fresh, hand-crafted burgers back into people's lives. People have always loved burgers, but the industry has not been giving people burgers in a fresh and modern way, in terms of food and experience.

Tapping into that unmet demand is hugely energizing. Based on the energy in the marketplace, the energy is high because it's being driven externally, not from inside.

Tell us the relevant experiences of your career that led to the conceptualization of Smashburger.

Ryan: I worked for the packaged foods industry. I had a keen eye on restaurant trends because all the trends were coming from restaurants. I said to myself, "Why try to change them [trends], why not join them?" Since then, I  transformed  my whole career from food-based packaged goods companies to restaurant companies because I was very passionate about products, marketing and concepts.

I worked at Pizza Hut, running business developing teams. My team's biggest claim to fame is the Stuffed Crust Pizza, which was iconic, and still is considered iconic in that industry. I also had experience  at McDonald's, and ran marketing and menu in the United States, and throughout the world . I had a chance to understand the global community of food and the worldwide passion for eating out.Brooklyn Smashburger

I moved in 2003 to Denver and was able to use my entrepreneurship skills with Consumer Capital Partners, bringing vitality to the Quiznos brand.

As we broke away from there, that was the genesis that led to Smashburger.

How does your concept achieve differentiation from other chains?

Ryan: The most important things for us to watch: how well are we doing that [providing great tasting burgers] for people; how happy are they doing that with us, and what are some of the barriers that we can manage through the concept or focusing on operational tools.

We're really focused on the familiar flavor in a great tasting burger. In today's market, people need to feel good about what they're eating. It's a combination of great taste and freshness. We serve 100% Angus beef that is fresh and never frozen. When a customer orders a smashed burger, we smash a fresh meatball, hold it there on the grill for 10 seconds to sear the bottom and hold in the flavor and juiciness, season it and top it off with, what in most cases is, custom made sauces to produce a great-tasting burger, accompanied by butter-toasted bun.

We also have a whole line of great chicken sandwiches that are cooked to order, and we have a whole line of Häagen-Daz ice cream shakes. And don't forget our service is well-differentiated, and the food is brought to you. The food is served [when dining in] open-faced and "restaurant style."

We distinguish ourselves from other restaurant companies  through our food and service, friendly people, and the environment is more upscale than the typical fast casual restaurant. Another uniqueness of our concept is the way we customize our menu and we provide our towns with flavors that are local and familiar to guests.

Each Smashburger menu in a new trade area is customized with regional offerings to give it a local feel. Tell us about this process and how it gets done.

Ryan: Whether you're in San Diego or New Jersey; or Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta or Mississippi, we often have a burger, a hot dog, quite often a shake or a float, sometimes a chicken sandwich that really caters to the local tastes.

When you go to Chicago, you have the Windy City Burger, or in Las Vegas, the Sin City Burger.

We track the flavors and what people love to eat. We find an interesting way to customize it for the local residents. Whether we're opening in Kentucky, Jackson, Fla., Sacramento, Calif., or New Mexico, the first question is "So what is the local burger going to be?"

When you ask, "What is the part of us that is different?". That's part of it ─ the localization of the menu. When you ask, "What is the thing that nobody else does?" That's something that is popular for us, and it's become an important part of our brand²....

What are the key elements in your creation of local buzz when you enter a market? How do you engage and deploy a team that will create the high level that you generate?

Ryan: As a growth company, you have to resign yourself that you are a trade area marketing company. It's expensive to market above the trade area until you reach some type of critical mass. Early on, we knew collectively at Smashburger, that given these facts, we had to ask ourselves, "How do we really put that together?"

"Connecting with people and third party endorsement is the modern way, new way and respectable way of doing things." Tom Ryan, Smashburger.

We do a lot what we call buzz marketing ─ what most people would consider PR. It's important that when we're coming to the market to say what we do differently and connect it with the local marketing. For traditional PR, we host VIP events for people in traditional media. Generally, food critics, food writers, local magazines, opinion leaders around food, and high-profile TV anchors. A lot of that is changing in the traditional sense.

The whole aspect of social media, and the advent of more and more fragmented, yet important  channels that are developing out there. We acknowledge that, and have a very intense push on our PR side to connect on a personal level with the social media community out there.

I actually fly to those cities and host a blogger lunch. We invite a broad base of social bloggers, the food people and the burger bloggers in those cities. And the food community and blogger communities: we invite them through mail, instead of email. They are enamored with us because of that. And we also invite other relevant bloggers, the "mommy blogger' community ─ these are women who are helping other moms and providing creative solutions to being mothers and families.

We have a very big presence among the Yelp community. I recently went to Chicago to host a private event at one of our restaurants for the Yelpers in the Greater Chicago area.

What are other aspects of local marketing efforts?

Ryan: Since we develop restaurants where people live and work, we have teams that actually touch the workplace around our trade areas. We do some types of print advertising into the households. Depending on the city, we do some direct mail. We do some [ads] on the front of newspapers. We've done some Groupon and Living Social in some markets to try to understand the impact of reach capacity in that [type of marketing].

Our LSM (Local Store Marketing) does a good job, once we're established, of continuing to touch key entities around our trade area; whether it's interacting with kids' sports teams, individuals in teams or leagues, high density, high membership churches, and hospital communities. On the trade area side, there are a lot of ways that people end up together. We like to touch those aggregate groups to make sure that Smashburger is top of the line there.

In addition, we strive to achieve a long standing operating principle, "As we do well, we do good." We have a policy of partnering with the local charity and basically generating funding for causes our store operators, franchise partners or communities really value. That's become a very important piece, and then we do that on a recurring basis.

It's less first party endorsement but coming out to the stores and doing that through connection, differentiation and innovation ─ basically, third party endorsement. I'd rather have tons of people visit us and say nice things about us, rather than have a commercial with me featured in it.

Tell us about what you have learned, and the three things you would share with your peers.

Ryan: (1) Just because the market's there, it doesn't mean that there's not opportunity. David Prokupek and I must have been asked a thousand times, "Why would you pick burgers? There are so many burger places." Outside looking in, it would be a daunting task. But when you really get into the marketplace and understand consumer satisfaction and the occasion relevance, and a combination of these things, consumers were looking for a better way.Mayor Bloomberg at Smashburger Brooklyn

We really did learn early on, that there was a tremendous amount of space. Despite purchasing behavior, there was unmet demand. Just because it's saturated and it looks like there are a lot of players, doesn't mean that there's not opportunity.

(2) We really have a different view on organizational structure. We have a tremendously diverse set of people. We are really focused on bringing in really strong, industry-focused expertise, and matching those with very, very strong analytical business types.

So at the side of every marketing person, there's a strong analytical business type. At the side of Operations and Real Estate, it's the same. And that's not a model you find out there, so we've learned the value of that. Even though the departments have to function on their own, it's a key way that what they do has to ladder up to a cogent business plan. That's very refreshing.

(3) We've learned and adopted the value of looking at franchise partners as investors, instead of as a revenue stream. It's a big mistake that a lot of the older chains have made. We are actually partners  [in the true sense] with our franchise partners. We call it One Smashburger!

Consumers don't care if there's a "C" for franchise, or "F" for Franchise, in front of their stores, so why should we? So we manage our field with one voice, under one common leadership. We share decisions and opinions and have a team of our first four franchise partners we meet with regularly to help direct and guide the day-to-day, as well as the future big decisions of the company.

This is a whole fresh approach of treating franchise partners as investors and welcoming them in decisions.

We have a big respect for two things: energy and wisdom. Having wisdom coupled with young energy. I someone the other day, "I can't wait to get to work, there's so much energy." This is what you have this balance of wisdom, expertise, analytics and young energy in a brand.

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¹Jeremy Morgan, vice president of Strategy, is the head of Smashburger's marketing machine and runs the ground attack in new market openings.

²Our QSL.Insider members will receive the full edited Q&A in this month's Insider PDF newsletter. Not an Insider? Get more information here, or become a member here.

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