Smashburger started in Denver in 2007, and first appeared in the Twin Cities three years later. It now operates 365 outlets in nine countries — including 16 in the metro area — proof that it has obviously struck a chord among burger-craving consumers.
Co-founder (and part-time Minnesotan) Tom Ryan recently sat down at the chain’s busy Southdale outlet and talked Natural Beef Reaction Flavors, the importance of 32 year-olds and the Midwest’s unsung love of onions.
Q: Which came first? The smash method, or the desire to start a new company?
A: It started earlier, if you want the real story. In my prior life, I was the worldwide chief concept officer at McDonald’s. We were watching sales go north and loyalty go south. When we went to study that, the key insight — this was back in about 2000 — is that people were increasingly dispassionate about burgers. The reason is that there were this plethora of burgers to choose from, and they just weren’t exciting anymore. They were commoditized.
Q: So, people were bored?
A: Yes. I started calling it the Latent Demand of Dissatisfaction. There was no need to build another burger place, because there were so many of them. But I really believed that if someone took the time to put a great burger back into people’s choice set, it would actually result in a new business opportunity.
Q: Your burger’s patties start as all-chuck meatballs, and they’re pressed — or, smashed — on a butter-brushed flat-top grill. Where did that idea come from?
A: This whole smashing technique is really sort of an old-school thing. Our version of it is really a modern version of a very old technique: to sear the bottom, to set up a loose texture. It cooks fast, and when you bite into it, it releases everything at once.
We fell in love with that technique. The other thing we fell in love with was how we were also cooking big burgers in three minutes, and for an operational-based company, that meant that we were getting three turns per table an hour during peak vs. two. We got all that figured out and then we decided to call it Smashburger.
Q: Do you remember what landed in your research’s reject pile?
A: Tons. I mean, where do you want to start? We had over 300 types of beef, and we tasted them all blind, no bias. When we got down to four, I said, “OK, I need to know. What do they all have in common?” What they had in common is that they were all Certified Angus Beef, from four different processors.
Q: What’s in your seasoning blend?
A: It’s kosher salt, which is obviously the classic thing to season meat with. But we also have coarsely ground black pepper, and we have a little touch of garlic. We also basically have — not to go into too much technical detail here — we have a little bit of a bouillon-esque natural beef flavor in there. Because we cook so fast, I wanted a little bit of depth, so there’s a little bit of what we call in our business Natural Beef Reaction Flavors, and that really accelerates that kind of richness and buttery-ness of the beef.
Q: When do you add the seasoning?
A: If you season meat before cooking and mix it in, it interacts with the water in the meat tissue a lot. You get this really rubbery, almost granular feeling. We wanted something that was more tender.
There’s a lot of science in what we do, but it doesn’t look like it. When we smash the patty, that loosely packed meatball spreads out, and you get these cavities that form, so our burgers baste in their own juices.
When we flip the burger [the seasoning] just permeates all the way up. So we actually get all the essence of that top-note flavor: the garlic, the black pepper and this Natural Beef Reaction Flavor, it all kind of goes all the way through the burger by the time we’re done.
Q: Your style of patty — thin, grilled-on-a-flattop, diner-style — is very much in vogue in top Twin Cities restaurants. How does that make you feel?
A: Great. It’s become really popular. I’m really proud of that.
Q: Did you design your smash tool, or was it something you picked up at Williams-Sonoma?
A: We designed it. It’s patented. But since then, we’ve seen them pop up. We see people selling plastic versions online, and all that kind of stuff.
The tool is highly engineered. They’re hand-milled; they cost roughly around $300. Each store gets three of them, and they’re part and parcel about what makes our burgers special.
Q: Did you pick up all of this engineering from your work at McDonald’s?
A: I’m a food flavor chemist by training, so it was actually an amalgam of things from all of the places I’ve been. The key thing I’ve learned is that if you want to grow fast, and scale fast, and maintain a high level of attribute-based quality, you have to build engineering, science, process and platform into the way you do that.
Q: The Twin Cities metro area was one of Smashburger’s earliest markets. Why?
A: Smashburger is a brand that runs deep here in Minneapolis. My wife is from here. We lived here part time when I was putting it together. Our chief operating officer, Greg Creighton, used to run Leeann Chin here in town. He lives here, and his second-in-command lives here.
To be honest, it was really driven by our real estate knowledge of the trade areas. We started in Denver. Our first market outside of Denver was Houston, because someone on the team was familiar with Houston. I knew Minneapolis, and Greg knew Minneapolis, and because he lived here, he could keep his eye on things.
Q: Smashburger specializes in region-specific burgers. How do you go about creating a menu item like the Twin Cities Burger?
A: Everyone was like, “You’ve got to do a Jucy Lucy,” and I’m like, “You’re kidding me.” I mean, we’re not doing that. Those guys earned that, and I’m not doing something like that.
We go to our distributors and say, “What do you move the most?” We asked them to give us an index of everything that goes into the Twin Cities compared with the rest of the country. The insight is that people love onions here. I don’t know that that’s widely known in the community.
Q: Wait, the answer was onions? Really?
A: Believe it or not. A lot of Scandinavian and Germanic dishes are really onion-heavy. And so it’s an onion bun, with grilled onions on top of two different cheeses. What I did know is that people here like cheese.
Q: I’m sure it’s deliberate that Smashburger’s dining rooms don’t look like your average McDonald’s. Correct?
A: I think there’s something magic about 32-year-olds. Thirty-two-year-olds tend to be the tone-setting, opinion and culture leaders for people who are younger than 32. And for all of us who aren’t 32 anymore, we want to feel like we are, and act like we are, and look like we are.
When you talk to 32-year-olds, they’re highly experiential. What they want is a place with a story. They want a place that’s comfortable — that’s one of the reasons why I have beer, because it’s more social — and they want something highly differentiated, and kind of modern, and lounge-y.
We started in 2007, and the 32-year-olds in 2007 are 41 now. I don’t want to resonate with 41-year-olds, to be honest with you. That speaks to a brand commitment to be forever young, in a 32-year-old relevant way. Otherwise you get to looking like Five Guys, which has got this retro look. I don’t want to be the last generation’s place.