The Counter, part of a California-based chain, may not have been able to cut it in Colorado, but the homegrown Smashburger continues to smash the competition. Since it got its start at 1120 South Colorado Boulevard in June 2007, the company has grown to eighty stores, with hundreds more on the horizon -- and one finally downtown, in the Tabor Center. (For every Colorado Burger sold there through September 30, Smashburger will donate a buck to Denver's Road Home.)
Smashburger is now in 24 markets, with signature burgers in twenty of those. "Smashburger's vision is pretty simple," says founder Tom Ryan. "We want to be every city's favorite place for burgers. To do that, we've got to take the time and provide the input and energy and innovation to think through how we can present a burger that will resonate with them. We take an analytical approach that's pretty creative."
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In Minneapolis, for example, they studied a local favorite called a Juicy Lucy -- two patties, crimped, with cheese inside. "For us to go into Minneapolis with a Juicy Lucy would be insulting," Ryan notes. "We're about being different, and at the same time relevant." So they studied the market, realized that Minnesotans love their cheese and onions, and came up with a Twin Cities burger that tops the patty with a scoop of bar cheese, grilled onions and melted Swiss cheese, then adds lettuce, tomato and mayo on a toasted onion bun.
In Michigan, the locals crave olives, so the special Smashburger here has chopped Spanish olives. In Idaho, they put potato chips on top of a burger in a potato bun. "In Tulsa," Ryan adds, "we found out that everyone was eating deep-fried pickles, so we decided to put them on our burger and call it an Oklahoma Burger." The pickles were such a hit that they've been added to all the Smashburger menus, as have sweet-potato fries.
The Smashburger at 1201 16th Street features the Colorado Burger, which was introduced last year in this state's stores. To devise that regional specialty, they accepted that everyone in Colorado is "green chile crazy," Ryan says, but also saw that all the other places doing green chile burgers were "roasting them or mashing them. What Colorado doesn't need is another green chile burger that everyone already has." So instead of roasting, peeling and mashing the chiles, Smashburger slices them and grills them fresh, then covers them with melted cheese. Flash-fried chiles are also offered as a side in all the Colorado stores. And soon, the downtown location will feature the black-bean burger introduced for Boulder.
"The rest of the local story is pretty straightforward," Ryan says. "It's knowing what locals want, understanding local favorites. We're romancing the familiar -- finding a whole new way to serve something people are used to."