The “better-burger” segment is crowded lately, with Smashburger, Shake Shack and others expanding apace, but the four-year-old BurgerFi chain has held its own with healthy sales growth. The company tripled its systemwide sales for the year ended Dec. 31, to an estimated $42.8 million, according to NRN research. More importantly, estimated sales per unit also showed robust growth of 25.6 percent, to $1.9 million.

The North Palm Beach, Fla.-based chain, whose name stands for “The Burgerfication of the Nation,” has equally ambitious expansion plans. BurgerFi Intl. LLC plans to more than double its locations in 2014, adding several major urban markets.

BurgerFi has made its mark with cooked-from-scratch burgers topped with its BurgerFi sauce, as well as menu items such as a Kobe beef hot dog, wine and craft beers, all served in stores built with sustainable materials and boasting eco-friendly practices. And after hiring a new creative director this summer, the chain has embarked on a redesign to put more of the focus on its story and positioning as a way to set itself apart in the crowded fast-casual burger field.

While there are many chains in the better-burger boat, they don’t all fulfill that promise “through and through,” said the new creative director, Ronn Pearson. BurgerFi was started by chefs who believe in everything being hand-prepared.  “Those guys walked into the kitchen and they didn’t know from fast food. They didn’t know from cutting corners,” he said. “Nothing is rolling off trucks.”

Keys to success

The menu: BurgerFi offers high-quality burgers made with fresh Angus beef, a selection of hot dogs — including the Kobe dog and one stuffed with apples — and frozen custards. It also has a “secret menu” of special items such as the ½ and ½ Burger — half angus, half veggie — and Urban Fries with parmesan and garlic aioli.
 
“The opportunity for all of us in that better-burger segment is to pull the people who are stepping away from the McDonald’s, Wendy’s and BKs of the world because they’re producing an inferior burger,” Pearson said.

The eco-aware approach: While Pearson said the chain makes no claims to being 100-percent green, it is appealing to the more eco-friendly public, featuring recycled-material furniture, such as chairs made from soda bottles;  ceiling fans to help reduce air conditioning use; a low carbon footprint; and waste recycling.

“We’re not granola eco-hippies, but we are aware,” said Pearson.

New markets: Units grew 175 percent, to 33 locations, by the end of 2013, which included tough markets such as New York. Pearson said by the end of July, the company was opening its 52nd location, and plans call for reaching 70 locations by year-end 2014.

Besides its home state of Florida, where locations in Tampa, Orlando and Naples are coming soon, BurgerFi launched this year in Denver, Boston and Napa, Calif., which became the chain’s first location on the West Coast.

BurgerFi is careful about choosing new markets and locations, said Pearson. It looks for endcap spots where it can have outdoor seating, which makes the store expansion intentionally slower and more deliberate, he said. Management is studying existing stores to establish a set of best practices for expansion, Pearson said.

New marketing leadership: Pearson, who joined the company in June, said he’s been tasked with building up an in-house marketing team. He’s planning a big digital push and realignment of marketing dollars, as well as redesigning elements of the BurgerFi experience. Pearson said he realized the company was not clearly conveying its chef-led menu focus.

“These aren’t just burgers that we’re slinging,” he said “There’s more to the process. There’s more to our story.”

The franchisees: BurgerFi locations are 15-percent corporate-owned, but franchisees are vetted for commitment to the story of the brand. All franchisees and employees go through a two-week training program called BurgerFi University that drills them in the basics of the brand.

“We’ll talk to anybody, but we believe the franchisees that are most successful are those that believe in what we believe in,” said Pearson.

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