This week’s Burger Friday is a departure from previous installments. Instead of taste-testing my way through a favorite burger chain of mine -- Smashburger -- I thought I’d sit down and talk with the fascinating Tom Ryan, the company’s co-founder and chief brand officer.
The chain is growing like gangbusters. Smashburger started in Denver in 2006 -- and first appeared in the Twin Cities three years later. It now operates 365 outlets in nine countries -- including 15 in the Twin Cities metro area -- so it's obviously struck a chord among burger-loving consumers. Present company included.
Here’s part one of our conversation, which took place at Smashburger’s busy Southdale outlet, at a table covered in burgers, fries and shakes.
Q: The Twin Cities 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. And then I knew Minneapolis, and Greg knew Minneapolis, and because he lived here, he could keep his eye on things. And obviously the Midwest is a huge burger index market, and Minneapolis has a fair share of that.
The scary thing about Minneapolis for us is that the reputation of Minneapolis [consumers] is that they don’t like chains. And we were outsiders coming in, even though I live here part-time. But the area has been hugely accommodating to us, and we’ve been welcomed in every trade area where we do business. And obviously you don’t do 15 [outlets] on your way to 25 without some level of liking what you’re doing here. So it has been a really great experience for us here.
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, and 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 any more. They were commoditized. It’s not that they were bad, they were just common.
Q: So, people were bored?
A: Yes, there was nothing exciting about burgers anymore, except at local pubs. Here, like Matt’s. I believed in my heart of hearts that we were seeing fast-casual start to take off, and that was going to be the new way that Americans wanted to eat. 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 in my heart to hearts that if someone took the time to put a great burger back into peoples’ choice set, into their lives, that it would actually result in a new business opportunity.
Armed with that, I moved to Denver in 2003. We did a few things, and then, in 2006, we went to work. We started with a blank page, just this notion that the next generation needs a burger they can get passionate about again.
The smashing technique came out of our culinary exercises to find out what’s the right platform, what’s the right raw material. We landed on Certified Angus Beef because there’s some magic in the flavor and the richness of the fat. We landed on the flat grill because it gave us a lot of flavor. 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.
And so we fell in love with that technique. The other thing we fell in love 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. And so it was really good for the business model too.
We got all that figured out and then we decided to call it Smashburger. We were playing with other names. We did a little consumer research and found out that Smashburger had this really great hand-crafted connotation, which we do. It also kind of had this organic, earthy, commonly popular approach, and it had a little edginess to it, for younger, generational people.
So basically we looked at all the research and said, “This is a magic name for the place, so let’s call the whole place Smashburger.”
Q: Do you remember what landed in your research’s reject pile? (That's Tom Ryan, above, in a provided photo).
A: Tons. I mean, where do you want to start? So, the Certified Angus Beef story. Once we decided we were going to smash on the grill, here’s the way we set it up: I had my head of culinary, myself and my head of operations, we’re the three people making the big decisions. We had our culinary technicians helping us. We had over 300 types of beef, and we tasted them all blind, no bias. We went from 300 to 150, 150 to 75, and 75 down to what was eventually four. When we got 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.
So my first answer to your question is that we rejected all those other types of beef. We looked at Wagyu, we looked at Kobe, we looked at grass-fed, all that stuff.
The other things we rejected? We looked at chain broilers, we looked a char grills, all those things. But the combination of the hot buttered flat grill, with Certified Angus Beef, with back pressure, gave us this really proprietary flavor. So almost everything you can think of — what device did you use? What beef quality or supplier did you use? — all of those things were elements of rejection.
And our seasoning is pretty proprietary. Our seasoning is kind of cool. 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? In the patties? When the patties are on the grill?
A: First of all, if you season meat prior to 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. Every morning, we get Certified Angus Beef — fresh never frozen — in 10-pound increments. The teammates open up the bags and break the beef up into loosely packed meatballs, at the weights of our burgers. And when you order it, we paint the grill with butter, put the burger on the grill, smash it with the tool, and when we peel that off — there’s parchment in between — we season just the surface. And you would think that that would result in this layer of saltiness.
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 actually our burgers baste in their own juices. The juices cook up into the burgers instead of out the sides.
What happens is that when we season right after the smash, as the juices bubble up through the patty, it actually dissolves the seasoning and pulls it back down, and when we flip the burger it 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 Beef Reaction flavor, it all kind of goes all the way through the burger by the time we’re done. It’s a uniform, all-the-way-through flavor because of the way the burger cooks.
Q: What cut of beef goes into Smashburger patties?
A: We use chuck.
A: Most Certified Angus Beef, it has to meet several requirements. It has to have a certain percentage of genomic match back to the original Scottish herds, and it has to grade out at either choice, prime or better. The focus of Certified Angus Beef is steaks, and the next biggest-sized muscle on the animal is chuck.
We target to an 80/20 meat blend, and that’s another reason why we use the whole chuck, because it’s generally very close to that. Sometimes the cattle don’t agree with you, you get 78/22, so you blend in some lean. We use Certified Angus Beef steak trim.
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, proud how popular it has become.
Q: Smashburger specializes in region-specific burgers. How do you go about creating a region-specific burger, like the Twin Cities Burger?
A: Look, I’m from here, and everyone was like, “You’ve gotta 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.
What I did know is that people here like cheese, so our Twin Cities Burger is both Swiss cheese and bar cheese, which is an Upper Midwest old supper-club thing. The insight is that people love onions here. I don’t know that that’s widely known in the community. 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.
Q: And the answer was onions? Really?
A: Believe it or not. But a lot of Scandinavian and Germanic dishes are really onion-heavy. Instead of doing a Jucy Lucy, I wanted to do a double-cheese, double-onion thing, to satisfy both Joneses, if you will. And so it’s an onion bun, with grilled onions on top of two different cheeses.
All around the country, we try to find a local ingredient that has never been celebrated on a burger. We do fried pickles on our burgers in Oklahoma, where fried pickles are really popular, but no one had put them on a burger before, as far as I could tell.
Sometimes we find an ingredient that is just indigenous, that’s celebrated, but we try and do something that’s interesting, and novel. Probably my favorite example is Boston. We have four stores in Boston, and what do you do in Boston? It’s baked beans and lobster, none of which is going to work on a burger, right? So you have to go to the second tier of inspiration. We just started looking into Boston cuisine, and what is the state of Massachusetts known for? We landed on Ocean Spray cranberries. We found a cranberry Stilton that’s made in Massachusetts, and we crumble that, and use the same grilled onions, and then have a big-old smear of Ocean Spray jelly cranberry sauce, it comes out like a cranberry chutney. We sell a ton of them.
In Michigan —that’s where I grew up, the western side of Michigan — we resurrected the Michigan olive burger, which is a classic western Michigan-only thing, and it’s one out of every four burgers we sell in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.
It depends on what the local food scene is, but we try to find something that we can talk about, and that it resonates with local customers. Either they go, “Of course I love that,” or “Ooooh, I know that’s from here, and I’ve never had that on a burger."
Q: The famous smash tool. Did you design it, 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.
I don’t know if you know who George Motz is — he wrote “Hamburger America” — George and I just did a PR event last week, at one of our Smashburgers in New York. He’s launching a new cookbook, and I presented him with one of our smashing tools, because he’s been coveting one of those since we met five years ago.
Q: Why is a toasted bun important to you?
A: It’s important a couple of different ways. We use unsalted butter, it gives us that nice grilled cheese kind of flavor.
This is a true story. Nothing cooks out of our burgers, it stays inside. In an 80/20 cooked burger, a lot of fat is liquified, and if you put that into a bun that doesn’t have its own barrier properties, it actually wicks all of those juices into the bun so you get this soggy bun, and people give you the “Your buns suck,” or “Your burgers are greasy.” So we learned early on. We use a butter wheel, which is a really old-school thing, and a compression toaster.
I told you that there’s a lot of engineering in our food that’s not obvious. Our buns are actually are laser-guided, so if the height of a bun goes higher or lower, it gets kicked out, it gets air-jetted off the line. That’s because in order to get the kind of toast that we want, size of the bun, and the compression, and the toaster, that all has to be engineered. It’s cut with a water knife, so that the dimensions of the top — which we call a crown — and the dimensions of the bottom — which we call a heel — are really tight parameters. Without that, the burger gets sloppy.
Q: Did you pick up all of this engineering from your work at McDonald’s?
A: I’m actually a food flavor chemist by training, so it was actually an amalgam of things from all of the places I’ve been. But 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.
That’s something you learn quickly when you’re at a big-scale restaurant like Pizza Hut, or Quiznos or McDonalds. It’s universal to the business. A lot of people forget that, particularly in this new realm of fast-casual.
As simple as it seems that we’re making burgers, burgers are a little bit harder than scoop-and-shoot tacos, and a lot of things have to come together the right way, and in three minutes. So there’s a lot of engineering. There is always this three-sided triangle: What do we want to achieve from a culinary point of view, how do we want things to work operationally and then how does it fit into the business model?
I think the wisdom of our aggregate team is that we have always made it a point to co-develop those three things in tandem with each other, instead of getting two of them right and working on the other one later. And quite honestly, when people don’t do that, that’s why you see so many great concepts that don’t last. They’re either hard to do in scale, so they stick around with one, and then people get bored with it and they close it. Or they’re great, and people love them, but you can’t make any money.
The bottom line is that we learned that those are three things that you have to manage. You have to be able to say “Yes” to your customer, “Yes” to your operators and “Yes” to your shareholders, and that’s our operating philosophy every day.
Read the second installment of my interview with Tom Ryan in next week’s Burger Friday.