The concept, traditionally located in suburban areas, is plotting its first urban restaurant for the Chicago market
After building its system to eight suburban Illinois locations in five years, Meatheads Burgers & Fries is coming home to its Chicago headquarters, but don’t expect the concept to change for the big city.
The restaurant is scheduled to open in September in the Roscoe Village neighborhood, which exudes a residential feel similar to the markets where family-friendly Meatheads already does business, said cofounder and chief executive Tom Jednorowicz. As with its other locations, he added, Meatheads is placing its new unit in a shopping center next to a high-end grocery store and a large high school, Lane Tech College Prep, allowing it to execute its same strategy built upon operations, local-store marketing and a larger dinner business than “better-burger” peers.
Jednorowicz said another restaurant in suburban Frankfort, Ill., would open this year, as would two units for sure next year. Systemwide sales are projected to exceed $14 million for 2012. His near-term goal is to grow Meatheads to about 25 units within the next three years.
Jednorowicz spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about his plans to expand Meatheads methodically by maintaining the concept’s appeal to families.
Would Meatheads have to change its look or menu to go into an urban location?
We feel like there are certain things we do well, and we don’t want to reinvent ourselves. Whenever you’re developing a concept like this, it’s really about hedging risk. You’re minimizing risk by going places where you’re comfortable with underlying variables. It’s very different than Potbelly [Sandwich Works], where I was [chief development officer] before, which was a very urban-out concept: Penetrate the urban core, build brand awareness, then go to the suburbs where that pays dividends.
We’ve worked hard on our marketing programs through local schools around the restaurants, which is how we build our brand awareness and build an identity in these suburban markets. … You’re going to see the same thing in the city. I guarantee you you’ll see the Lane Tech football schedule up in the Roscoe Village location. It’ll be interesting to see how that works in an urban environment, because in Chicago people don’t necessarily live around the high schools where their kids go to school.
So you don’t view the brand as a suburban or urban concept?
We view Meatheads as a family concept. Whether the location is urban or suburban, we’re really looking to first and foremost appeal to that Mom, Dad, school-age kids unit. That’s why we’re doing something here in Roscoe Village instead of The Loop. If you look at The Loop, your business there is five dayparts. We’re open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. We almost solve for [dinner business] first, and then we figure out the lunch business from there.
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We’re trying to provide the highest service level possible without people feeling like they have to tip. Most people in that fast-casual category are really quick service with better food. We’re trying to executive fine-dining culinary principles in an almost-casual-dining way. Lunch is convenience-driven, but dinner is much more dependent on environmental factors in the restaurant.
Is your approach to profitability geared more toward raising an average check or increasing traffic?
It’s not average check, which is $8.50 right now. But for commodity inflation, I don’t want to go any higher than that. We tell our cashiers not to upsell, because all of a sudden you take that $8.50 up to $12, which is great that day, but when you’ve taken a once-a-week customer and become a special-occasion place for them, that doesn’t do you any good. We’re looking for traffic increases more than anything.
One thing we do to appeal to more customers and get them in here more frequently is to give them more food choices and variety. Look at what you have and figure out new creative ways to put it together. We’re doing that right now with shareables, since families are our core business. One major item we’re thinking about adding isfingers, which absolutely appeal to our core audience, but the hard thing is they have to be fresh, natural and made-to-order. I believe that would be a paradigm-shifting addition, and it will help customers perceive us as more than a burger place.
The business model as you describe it could work anywhere, so how do you keep Meatheads from growing too fast?
Where the wheels fall off in a lot of concepts is exactly what you’re saying, and unfortunately, my fingerprints are on some of those murder weapons out there. I’ve been with some of those concepts opening four restaurants a week. But we are so focused on our performance in our restaurants on a day-to-day basis. Are we executing our principles to our standards on a consistent basis? If the answer is no, then we immediately take some of the resources away from what you do to grow. … We grow because growth is energy, but not because we have to. We try to govern it by quality real estate. If every restaurant you do is a profitable, productive restaurant, there isn’t anything else to worry about.
We can be an “early-stage” company for a while. I believe culturally we can maintain the mentality of early-stage for a while, but who knows what the future holds? We’re taking care of business, and letting the rest take care of itself.