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Wednesday, 06 November 2013 19:18

Q&A: Tom Ryan, Smashburger

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West Michigan native Tom Ryan is at the helm of a fast-growing burger chain that aims to take a very different approach from the competition typical in the fast food sector. Ryan is founder and chief concept officer of Denver-based “fast casual” burger and fry chain Smashburger, which has nearly 250 stores nationwide. Ryan, who now lives primarily in Denver, was recently back in Grand Rapids to receive an award from his alma mater, West Catholic High School. He also met with executives from Founders Brewing Company to plan burger and beer pairings for the four West Michigan stores in the Smashburger chain. Ryan sat down with MiBiz to talk about about the rapidly expanding fast-casual dining experience, craft beer and classic Grand Rapids burgers.

With all the places to get a burger and fries, what has made Smashburger a successful venture?

I think we are differentiated in a value-added way on really many dimensions. We took what I call an ‘occasion-based perspective’ from the very beginning. It wasn’t just having great food. It was having great food and a concept to wrap around the great food that let people use us for things at a time when burgers had kind of fallen off the radar. … I think Smashburger reflects the ability to have a highly social occasion and at the same time you can be here in a time-compressed lunch mode and get out of here in 20 minutes.

Whether it’s Chipotle, Five Guys or Smashburger, the fast-casual segment of the restaurant sector is taking off right now. Where do you see that segment going in the future?

I think the fast-casual arena is showing us that consumers are looking for a new way to eat. The amalgam of all the fast-casual concepts, their popularity and the fact that there is so much growth should be telling everybody that this is the way consumers want to eat. I think what they want is a higher level of food quality. I think they want a great deal of the speed and convenience that fast food has afforded them but not at the expense of the food. It is showing us that this (is the) way that the next generation wants to eat, whether it’s pizza, burgers or burritos. It’s the new way.

So growing up in Grand Rapids, where did you eat burgers?

My place of choice was really Mr. Fables. I grew up on the West Side and there was a Mr. Fables on Leonard and we loved that. It was like a treat. I grew up eating olive burgers, I fell in love with them and I’ve never forgotten them. I kind of can’t believe they went extinct for as long as they did.
What can you point to, having grown up in West Michigan, as things that guided you throughout your career?

A big part of of Smashburger is localizing our menu. (That’s) complex for operations, it’s difficult from a marketing point of view. Everything you put in a store has to be separately made for each market. But when I moved out of West Michigan, (I found out) there were really strong, flavor-based preferences in West Michigan that there were no place else. To not cater to that is a modern insensitivity. You can’t … do an olive burger in Detroit. But here, it’s the way to eat (a burger). So my biggest takeaway that actually spread out to other areas is learn what locals love and if you can possibly do it, do as much of it as you can. And growing up here really proved that, because we have a lot of great but idiosyncratic products here that are only relevant here.

Tell us about the idea of pairing local beers with your burgers.

We feel (Smashburger is) taking a next-generation burger concept and partnering with next-generation beer vendors. Founders stands really tall among those guys. We want to bring that together in a really value-added way for our customers. I think it’s just a modern way to enjoy it. Also, I really do believe that craft beer is kind of the new wine, but you’re not limited by geography. You’re only limited by imagination, so I give that sector a lot of credit.

Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes.

Read 3353 times Last modified on Wednesday, 06 November 2013 22:35

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