The man behind that smash hit, Smashburger
You can't talk about Colorado cheeseburgers — which I do in my reviews of Larkburger and the Counter — without talking about Smashburger, the Denver-based chain that's exploding everywhere. Last Thursday I talked Smashburger with Tom Ryan, managing partner and chief concept officer at Consumer Capital Partners, the private equity group that bankrolled the Smashburger rollout back in June 2007.
We met at the location at 3299 South Broadway, which is Ryan's favorite, the most modern vision of his concept for Smashburger. And for the first half-hour of our meeting, we talked about everything but cheeseburgers. We told stories, which is what restaurant people do when they get together for the first time — sniffing around each other like strange dogs meeting. And when I mentioned the last job that I had before putting away my knives for good (a night-shift, short-order job at the Waffle House on Route 66 in Albuquerque), Ryan proceeded to rattle off everything there was to know about the Waffle House business model.
Ryan's never worked for a Waffle House. It just happens that Waffle House, for all its endemic failings of cuisine, happens to be an incredibly profitable restaurant model. And Ryan is a man intensely interested in profitable restaurant models. After all, Smashburger is his baby — the first time in a twenty-year run as a high-level fast-food/QSR brand-and-concept developer that he's tried to build something on his own — with a little help from the outfit that backs Quiznos. Somehow, he saw that in a massively overcrowded market there was still room for one more cheeseburger restaurant; the trick, he explained, was to steal a little of the entrenched business from a lot of different competitors — not McDonald's, but places like Chipotle and Panera.
"There's the head," Ryan told me, pointing to his just in case I'd forgotten where heads are generally located, "and there's the heart," he said, pointing again. As a food scientist (which is what Ryan is by training, with a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance chemistry and a masters in lipid toxicology), you work from the head, and you get TANG and Space Food Sticks. As a restaurant guy (which is how Ryan's spent his career, doing R&D and concept development for McDonald's, Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut and Quiznos, to name-check just a few of his former employers), you work from the heart, and you get, maybe, one great restaurant.
"But the trick is to get your food into as many mouths as possible, right?" he asked. And to do that, you gotta use head and heart together. From the heart came the notion of Smashburger (originally Icon Burger in Lafayette, the first purchase of Consumer Capital Partners, the private equity group of which Ryan is managing partner and chief concept officer) as a place for cheeseburger occasions — a place to go when you want something finer (and slower and more expensive) than the drive-thru, but not as formal (and time-consuming and hit-or-miss) as a full-on restaurant burger. From the head? A burger that would warrant an occasion, made of Angus beef because there's something magical in Angus beef fat that makes for a great burger, ordered in bulk and then balled by hand, ready to be smashed by the namesake stamping dies in the kitchen, then grilled and topped with custom cheese (a fromage forte, mixed to Ryan's specifications and able to stand up to the spice mix with which his burgers are seasoned), served on a custom egg roll. Every ingredient painstakingly researched and tested, then re-researched and re-tested, because that's what a scientist does.
Over the course of our conversation, Ryan went back and forth between head and heart with the ease of a guy who's been doing it his entire life. He talked about how every kitchen is set up exactly the same and can be crewed by just one guy when things are slow, how everything on the menu is built for scalability. He talked about mistakes they'd made (at the original Smashburger at 1120 South Colorado Boulevard, customers used to order their burgers the way sushi patrons do at the sushi bar – with lists of ingredients on paper and those tiny pencils) and the smart ideas they've come up with since, like the specialty burgers they now serve outside of Colorado, keyed for each area's tastes, so that Idaho locations have their own Idaho Smashburger (with potato chips on it) and Minnesota locations have the Twin Cities Smashburger (loaded down with cheddar bar cheese and garlic onions). That's part of making "Every City's Favorite Burger," which is the Smashburger slogan that replaced the "Best Burger" tagline that never really worked. Ryan didn't like telling people that his burger was the best. He'd rather have people tell him that — and then, of course, for those people to tell their friends.
Although I'd put Smashburger right alongside Larkburger as a joint great for its time, its place, great in one's hour of desperate cheeseburger need, it's not my favorite burger. But that could change: Ryan is a man to whom miracles have been attributed before. After we'd finished our talk and our burgers and fries, Ryan had to run to another meeting, so Jen Lester, our PR chaperone, walked me to my car. "You know, they still whisper about him at Pizza Hut," she told me. "He was the guy who invented stuffed crust."
And if he can do that for pizza, just imagine what the man might be able to do for the cheeseburger.
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