Operators of fast-casual burger chains insist they’re relatively casual about being fast, noting that customers are willing to wait for a high-quality product.
“We don’t ever want speed to interfere with quality,” said Bill Spae, CEO of 54-unit, Plano, Texas-based Mooyah Burgers Fries & Shakes. “It’s not about trying to be the fastest; it’s not quick service. And our guests know something really good is worth waiting a little bit for.”
At several fast-casual burger chains, about 7 or 8 minutes elapse between the time customers order and when they get their burgers. Fatburger CEO Andy Wiederhorn said when all is working perfectly, grill crews can shave 1 to 2 minutes off of that time, but 6 to 7 minutes is still the goal.
Fatburger cooks gently smash their patties to gain some edge on cooking time, but Wiederhorn insisted, “You don’t want beat it to death by continuing to smash it. You let the juice continue cooking within it.”
Like its big brother, The Counter, single-unit Built Custom Burgers uses a proprietary holding cabinet to stage and hold its burgers at medium-rare while awaiting orders. “Once they’re ordered, we mark them on the grill and finish them,” co-CEO Craig Albert said.
However, Albert noted that effort is more about promoting juiciness than trimming transaction times, which are close to 8 minutes.
Instead, the new concept, which opened this summer in Los Angeles, aims to save time at the order station. “We’re not collecting money there. We’re having the guest tell us what protein they want and getting it started.”
Four-unit Shula Burger also aims to save some transaction time at the order counter, according to president Dave Shula. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based concept has seven signature burgers people can choose from instead of customizing their sandwiches, he noted.
“I’m sure everybody else has the same challenge,” Shula said. “When a customer orders with all their custom detail, you’ve got to slow down and read it carefully, which means the process doesn’t flow quite as easily.”
While most fast-casual burger chains cook their burgers to order, they also signal their grill cooks when the rush arrives. “That’s when you smartly ride the wave and drop a few burgers on to stay ahead,” said Tony Rosenfeld, CEO of b.good in Boston.
Rosenfeld said the 13-unit chain’s use of charbroilers helps cook the burger patties quicker, but transaction time is still about 7 minutes. “But look at our restaurants: no drive-thru windows,” he added. “Customers know it’ll take a little longer.”
Because Elevation Burger uses only 85-percent lean, grass-fed beef, franchisee David Wallis said there’s no staging allowed at his two Washington, D.C.-area units because the meat will dry out. Still, those 3.1-ounce patties cook fairly fast, meaning burgers are in customers’ hands in about 5 minutes.
Operators serving veggie burgers say cooking the frozen patties takes as much as two minutes longer than meat, but that customers understand. Providing that option is essential, they added.
They also note that minimizing tasks at each station during service is also essential: grill cooks focus only on burgers and buns, while others manage fryers and others solely toppings and presentation. Spae said Mooyah gains production efficiency because of its kitchen’s central collection point where final assembly occurs.
Meanwhile, Albert believes Built’s “-like” setup, where customers walk a service line, works best. “No one had done that service format for burgers, so [Built co-CEO] Jeff Weinstein married the two,” Albert said. “Chipotle has proven that’s the most successful service format going, and we’ve made it work for burgers.”