Burger 21 president on why it's 'not always better' to be 1st

Editor's note: This is just one story in a recurring series that features interviews with top-level execs in the fast casual industry. If you would like us to feature a specific exec, please make your request in an email to Cherryh Butler at cherryhb@fastcasual.com.

The "better burger" concept isn’t new to the fast casual market, but Burger 21, launched in 2010, is one of the segment’s newest players. Even with all the well-established competition, however, Mark Johnston, the brand’s chief concept officer, is confident he has a winning brand.

"Arriving later is not always a bad thing in the fast casual world," said Johnston, who is also CCO of Front Burner Brands, the restaurant management company behind Burger 21 and The Melting Pot restaurants. "We were able to see what consumers were saying about other restaurants and capitalize on the successes and failures of existing better burger places. Our menu variety really sets us apart in the segment."

Burger 21 offers 21 varieties of burgers — 10 beef and 10 non-beef — including chicken, turkey, veggie and seafood burgers, as well as one featured burger that rotates on the 21st of every month. The menu also includes hot dogs, salads, shakes and hand-breaded chicken tenders.

Mark Johnston

With seven locations open in Florida and New Jersey, Burger 21 plans to end this year with a dozen or more units open in six states along the East Coast. Although the chain is only three years old, it's already proving to be a leader in the industry. It recently took the the 22nd spot on FastCasuals.com's list of Top 100 Movers & Shakers, and its gluten-free menu took the No. 1 spot on the list's top menu innovations. Johnston, himself, was named one of the industry's Top 20 leaders.

Johnston shared with us his growth strategy and how the use of marketing and technology will help him carry it out.


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Q: What’s your growth plan?

Johnston: With nearly 30 years of franchising experience with The Melting Pot fondue franchise, we have the infrastructure in place to grow this brand throughout the country quicker than most young brands. Throughout 2014, we expect the Burger 21 brand to expand westward.

We see the brand, with our chef-inspired burgers and menu variety, changing consumers’ expectations of the better burger category.  We want smart and steady growth with solid franchise partners and also want to be known as a leader in the category.  Being a leader doesn’t always mean having the most units compared to other burger competitors. 

Q: What type of advertising do you most rely on? Print ads, social media, word of mouth, etc.?

Johnston: We rely on grassroots and word-of-mouth marketing as well as social media, public relations and digital marketing through our website and email club. The Burger 21 marketing team loves getting out into the local communities to spread brand awareness from participating in charity events to handing out promotional cards. We are very active on social media and engage with our online community on a daily basis. We also use social media to secure franchise leads. The team puts time into public relations efforts that include landing local and national media hits regarding various newsworthy topics.

Q: What technology do you see as a 'must have' for fast casual operators?

Johnston: A point-of-sale system that is quick, simple and accurate is very important to the success of a fast casual restaurant. Although we are not a 'build your own' burger concept, our customers still like to add or take away an ingredient or sauce to our burger recipes. For example, our Ahi Tuna burger can be ordered with extra caramel soy and without pickled cucumber. The simplicity of our POS system allows us to achieve that customizable piece. In addition, our back-of-house team is able to utilize the POS system by obtaining financial data, quantifying promotions and even adding new recipes.

Q: Do you have a loyalty program? If so, how does it work?

Johnston: We do not currently offer a loyalty program, but it’s definitely something that’s in the pipeline for 2014.

Q: What types of technology do you or will you use soon?

Johnston: The brand utilizes all types of technology including online ordering, social media and an upcoming website and mobile site revamp. The website and mobile site will be updated over the next couple of months and will include a content management system, so our franchisees can manage local pages. Guests can even shop online through our website for some brand gear like T-shirts and hats. The brand places an importance on social media because it’s a great tool to reach a large number of guests as well as potential franchisees. We also have digital screens in the restaurants that scroll through current promotions and new menu items.

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