Smashburger gets its first taste of North Jersey

By: Joan Verdon; NorthJersey.com

Smashburger, a Colorado-based restaurant chain trying to take a bite out of America’s $100 billion appetite for burgers, has opened its first New Jersey location, and expects to open as many as eight more restaurants in the state this year.

A New Jersey-based restaurant business liked the Smashburger concept so much that it signed on as one of the first franchise owners.

That company, Mascott Corp. of Hillside, launched the first New Jersey Smashburger in Montclair in December, with an unadvertised debut, and will hold grand opening events next week.

Scott Gillman, president of Mascott, said he hopes to open a second location in Florham Park by June and is negotiating leases in half a dozen other northern and central New Jersey locations, including Paramus, Morristown and Morris Plains.

Smashburger’s name comes from its method of cooking burgers. Loosely formed balls of meat are “smashed” on a griddle using a stainless-steel tool that sears a crust on the burgers and keeps the juices inside the meat, according to Smashburger fans. The burgers are made from Angus beef and are priced from $4.99 to $6.99.

The chain also sells chicken, hot dogs, salads, fries and veggie fries – fried asparagus, green beans and carrots.

Smashburgers in other states sell beer and wine, but the Montclair restaurant doesn’t. Future New Jersey restaurants also most likely will not, because of high cost and limited availability of New Jersey liquor licenses, Gillman said.

Smashburger is going after what some have dubbed the “better burger” market, and joining chains such as Five Guys, In and Out Burger and Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace in catering to customers willing to trade up from fast-food burgers, but still looking for quick, affordable meals.

Customers who grew up eating fast-food burgers but now have more grown-up tastes are feeding the burger boom, said Scott Hume, editor of the BurgerBusiness.com digital publication. “It’s people who don’t have kids anymore, so they’re not interested in Happy Meals, or they’re willing to pay a little bit more because they’re making a little more,” Hume said. “They’re saying, ‘I’m happy to pay $7, $8, $9 for a burger if it’s going to be much better quality.’ ”

Scott Crane, president of the parent company Smashburger Master LLC, sees lots of room for growth. In the burger market, he said, better burger sales and chains such as Five Guys account for only about $500 million in sales, or half a percent market share.

“It’s the largest [restaurant food] segment in the United States,” said Crane. “It’s still growing at 5 percent a year, and any piece of a $100 billion segment is a pretty large piece.”

There are 43 Smashburger restaurants, with plans to open 60 to 80 in 2010. Crane said the company is only accepting as franchisees businesses that own other franchise chains. Franchisees must have assets of at least $2 million and liquid assets of at least $500,000.

The top player in the better burger battle is Five Guys, which has about 450 restaurants nationwide. Five Guys has a narrower menu, focused on burgers and fries.

Crane said Smashburger hopes to do for burgers what Chipotle Mexican Grill did for Mexican food. “It’s basically that same platform, if you will,” he said. “You come in, you read your menu board, you walk up to the counter, order at the counter. We make everything cooked to order.”

Smashburger creates a specialty burger for each state where it opens restaurants, and the New Jersey Smashburger features applewood smoked bacon, crispy onions and blue cheese.

“To be every city’s favorite burger place is our mantra, and to do that we take the time on the front end to talk to our franchisees and do some research on the area and find out what the local flavors are,” Crane said. “So we’ve added a salad in New Jersey, the diner salad, the Italian dog, with onions and peppers. And it’s the only restaurant out of all 43 to have sweet potato fries.”