Tell me the story of Grassburger and what prompted you and your husband Ed to get started in this business.
It actually has everything to do with family. Two of our three boys have severe food allergies. Going out to eat became an enormous challenge. Whether we were traveling or even in our hometown, we had our designated places. But it always seemed to come down to burgers. That was the safe food, for the most part, and the boys loved hamburgers. So I started really looking at diet and nutrition and the differences in burgers and meats and what have you. And grass-fed beef kept coming up — not just grass-fed beef, but other livestock and cage-free eggs as well. Raising animals this way changes the composition of the meat and it’s much better for the creatures and for human consumption.
As a result of what we were learning, we went exclusively to grass-fed beef at home. We even started having burger parties at our house and people were, like, “Boy, this meat is so delicious!” That evolved to, “If we’re going to go out for a burger, wouldn’t it be great if we could find a grass-fed burger?” Once we started looking, it was very difficult to find. Or if we found it, it was $20 for a burger. That wasn’t a sustainable price model for us to go out to eat. We’re a family of five. So one day Ed and I sat down and wrote the entire manifesto for Grassburger: what we would want it to look like, how it could be allergy-friendly, how it could be the most nutrition for the least amount of money, trying to keep it really pocketbook friendly. It fell right into that fast-casual restaurant model.
Had you been in the restaurant business prior to this?
Absolutely not. I wanted to have a ranch and raise grass-fed beef. But Ed grew up on a farm and he was opposed. He said, “I’m not spending my weekends working.” Of course, we opened a restaurant and that’s all we do on the weekends, so I don’t know if we’ve succeeded in that arena. But I think we did succeed in creating a burger model that is healthier, more sustainable and price-conscious. In the lab, if you take a sampling of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef, the scientific difference between them is astounding. Grass-fed beef is higher in good fats (Omega 3s) and lower in bad fats, lower in calories, higher in amino acids and vitamins such as CLAs, Vitamin A, E, etc.
When did you start Grassburger?
We opened the Durango store two years ago, July of 2014. We opened the second one in Albuquerque, in the Northeast Heights area, in March of this year (2016). It’s a beautiful store. It’s so fun having a restaurant that’s brand new — everything’s still shiny and clean.
It took us about a year to lead up to writing the business plan and then about six months to get the financing and plans in place. Albuquerque was much faster. That was super speed.
Do you think you benefitted in some ways during planning by not having prior experience in the business?
Probably beneficial and detrimental, all wrapped up on one pretty package. Ignorance is bliss. I think that having a fresh perspective has been great. But, boy, our learning curve was so big, in terms of equipment and ordering and inventory and the actual mechanics of running a business. Initially we hired a restaurant consultant. He was really helpful because we didn’t know anything about the equipment and how to make an ordering list, etc. We hired good people – that makes all the difference in the world. We have a great team and staff and managers. We learned from them. And we continue to learn and pivot as needed.
Finding good people is tough. How do you do that?
Luck and determination and advertising. I don’t know outside of that. We’ve certainly had our share of mistakes in terms of hiring. The restaurant industry is volatile and hard for employees and employers. You have a lot of turnover. Durango is challenging because a lot of the staff that work in the restaurants are in college. They’re looking for part-time work, and while they’re motivated because they want to pay their rent, they also all have break at the same time; they tend to go away for the summer. So you have these distinctive hiring times. There are times when you go from 100 percent coverage of your shifts to all of sudden you have 25 percent coverage — and nobody’s available.
How long were you open when you decided to open another location in Albuquerque?
About six months. Ed was talking about it very, very quickly. His background is commercial development. When we were writing the business plan for Grassburger, in our minds we had a model that would be replicable. We tried to create systems that would be able to be reproduced easily. We consider Durango our flagship, and Albuquerque is a foray into what that looks like on a larger scale. It’s been very interesting having this sister store. In very short order, it has showed us where we have work to do, and where we succeeded.
What is an example of something where you realized you have work to do?
Our employee training program. We were still really evolving that in Durango when we opened up Albuquerque. And then suddenly Albuquerque was ramping and we had three different managers, two in Durango and one in Albuquerque, and they had really different management styles. We were trying to finalize a training system in Durango and in the meantime the Albuquerque store staff is getting trained in a different way out of necessity. We had to pull that back, quickly finalize our process in Durango, and then implement that in Albuquerque.
Why did you choose Albuquerque as a second location?
Part of it is drive time. It’s really close compared to a Denver or Colorado Springs or some of the other larger metropolis areas. You can be back and forth in a day if you have to.
But we really like Albuquerque, more than anything. It has a strong but fresh farm-to-table — we call it “farm-to-families” — movement. There are some interesting demographics in terms of people’s awareness of food, and what they’re eating. I was really intrigued by being at the forefront of that, whereas in some of these other cities that is so established and our concept is really old news.
What do you offer other than grass-fed beef?
Our menu was very, very simple to begin with. But we’ve added Applegate chicken hot dogs, which are all natural — no nitrates or fillers. We just added taco plates, green chile beef and vegan black bean/quinoa. We also do a vegan black bean quinoa burger, which we make in-house. And we make all of our salad dressings and chipotle mayo from scratch. The reason we do that is because then we can make foods that have no corn syrup, no fillers. It’s all 100 percent olive oil and good mustard and apple cider vinegar, cage-free eggs — high quality ingredients – the way we cook at home.
We also serve hand-cut french fries and sweet potato fries. We keep our fryers dedicated to those items — we don’t allow any other food items because we’re trying to keep them gluten free, and also make sure that they’re not contaminated with any dairy products or any nut products. We’re avoiding cross contamination wherever we can to keep it simple for people who have allergies. It’s difficult to go into a restaurant with a food allergy and figure out what’s safe and what isn’t. The same is true if you are avoiding gluten or eat paleo or whatever you may have in terms of dietary restrictions. Our menu is designed to make that process simple for users.
We source our greens from local farmers. We get as many parts of our salad from local producers as we can. We can’t do that all year; in our climate, when we start to get into winter I have to buy organic produce through our vendors. But as long as there’s someone growing in the area, we’re interested in supporting them. We have a backdoor farmers’ market going on.
Was it difficult to find vendors and processes to use clean local produce?
Yes and no. It’s difficult from a cost standpoint. By purchasing vegetables from the farmers’ market versus from the grocery you pay more. Yes, you are supporting those farmers and that local piece, and that’s so important. But there is that step up in cost. When you’re building a restaurant model, cost is a huge part of whatever your margins are. The way we have worked it out with our salad piece is that we blend our margin. We know that local organic produce isn’t available all year-round so we do a blended back margin in our books. The months of the year we’re buying from vendors have a significant decrease in cost — and then that enables us to pay more in the seasons that it’s available.
Is your consumer base educated about what you are doing?
It depends. Durango is a foodie town. We have more restaurants per capita here than San Francisco. But Albuquerque is a much bigger melting pot. One of the issues that came up in Albuquerque is the value of our pricing. People are used to going to a place like Freddy’s, which is a local burger/shake place that’s really a step above McDonald’s in terms of pricing. You get this massive amount of meat. People who don’t know or never heard of grass-fed beef are going, “Well, why am I paying this for this when I can go over here and get that?” We’re really having to address the WHY of grass-fed beef: all the pieces that make it special: better for the animals, better for our bodies, better for the planet.
The other thing that has come up for us is the size of our patty, because we serve a quarter-pound patty. That’s part of our ethos. According to the USDA, four to nine ounces of meat is what a person should be eating in a day for protein. So, four ounces is a healthy and appropriate portion. We offer a quarter-pound and a half-pound patty. We’re really trying to wrap in this idea of, “Okay, this is an appropriate, healthy and satisfying amount of meat.”
What does the future hold for Grassburger?
We’re still stabilizing Albuquerque. We really are intrigued with Albuquerque. We’ll see what happens. If you were to talk to Ed, he would say, “Let’s start looking around and finding our next spot.” I’m the one who is going, “Hold on, hold on.” We have that dynamic.
What’s been the most satisfying part of Grassburger?
On a personal note, I love feeding people. I love cooking and making meals, so the best part for me is being out on the floor of the restaurant and talking to people who are eating. We get a lot of positive feedback about the taste of the meat. We won the Durango Herald’s Reader’s Choice Award for “Best Burger and Fries” last summer — we weren’t even a year open. That was a huge deal, because the burger designation in this town is fiercely competitive and we won it by a landslide. I have a lot of pride around that because we were so new. But it wasn’t about me, it was about the meat. Talking to people and seeing their faces when they take that first bite? It never gets old.
On the flip side of that, what’s been the biggest challenge that you’ve had to overcome in the last couple years?
The biggest challenges are really more about just simply business things. Learning this industry, staffing and training and consistency and communication, all those parts. I feel like we’re really solid on our intent and on our product but the everyday restaurant things that come up are always surprising.
Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly, a company that provides restaurants with web-based staff-scheduling and communication software. He is the author of Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.