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In the race for national dominance in the better-burger category, “It’s really Five Guys and us, and we do things very differently,” Crane said.

Five Guys, known for its wide range of toppings and build-a-burger format, is winning the race in terms of unit count, with 1,184 U.S. locations.

Smashburger offers customization as well, along with signature “smashed to order” burgers that cater to regional tastes, salads, Häagen-Dazs shakes, and local craft beer and wine.

The brand is growing its emphasis on freshness and health, Crane said.

“That’s something we don’t do enough of communicating,” he noted. “We use all-natural Angus certified beef and all-natural cheeses. We use Häagen-Dazs ice cream and make hand-spun shakes. They’re not made in a machine. We are going to do a better job of telling that story.”

The company is currently testing a gluten-free bun and recently became the first restaurant chain to offer non-bottled Honest Tea beverages. It is also looking to make healthful tweaks to kids’ offerings, said Crane.

Smashburger was founded in 2007 by Quiznos co-founder Rick Schaden. The chain is owned by Denver-based Consumer Capital Partners, a private-equity firm led by Schaden, who is also a primary shareholder of Consumer Concept Group, operator of the recently launched fast-casual Live Basil Pizza and Tom’s Urban brands.

The recent opening at Los Angeles’ sprawling LA Live complex downtown included all three concepts in adjacent spaces that Crane called a “food pod,” where guests can choose between the fast-casual Smashburger or Live Basil Pizza and the full-service comfort food of Tom’s Urban.

Crane says Smashburger has potential not only in the better-burger space, but as a fast-casual concept competing with the likes of Panera and Noodles & Company.

“Burgers are far and away the largest segment, and fast-casual burgers is such a small percentage of that, to me, the white space is almost immeasurable,” said Crane. “Fast casual is just the way people are eating now. I think this is going to be a great company for the next 15 to 20 years.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter @livetodineout