The name says burgers (for now at least), but 5 Napkin Burger is much more. Its six locations—three in Manhattan, where it began in 2008, with another opening soon; one in Yonkers, N.Y.; and one each in Boston and Miami Beach—have an eclectic menu where burgers star but sushi rolls, steak frites, tacos and entrée salads get plenty of attention. BurgerBusiness.com spoke with 5 Napkin Burger CEO Robert Guarino about the concept.
The “better burger” arena is crowded, with many concepts serving good burgers. Where does your confidence come from that diners will find and choose 5 Napkin?
With our brand, we really are a restaurant. We’re in the burger arena and are built around burgers, but we really see our segment as being the next-generation bar & grill. That’s what our background is and what our brand is. The 5 Napkin Burger [a 10-oz. patty with Gruyère cheese, caramelized onions and rosemary aïoli on a soft white roll] is our hero but we have a full menu built around that, beautiful interior design and full table service with big beverage service. The latest store [in Yonkers] has 16 draft beers and 50 bourbons on the back bar; great music; and a 60-item menu. So what’s unique about us as a burger brand, if that’s the term you want to use, is the quality we bring to the entire package. That’s our differentiation.
You intended to be a restaurant in style and not just a burger bar from the start?
There are three main partners in the business; myself, Simon Oren and Andy D’Amico. Simon has about 20 restaurants in Manhattan; Andy and I are partners in many of them. The 5 Napkin Burger itself was created in 2003 in a restaurant on the west side of Manhattan called Nice Matin. The burger was Andy’s creation but he created it for a fine dining restaurant. That dish stole all the press at the opening so we always had in the backs of our minds that if we wanted to do a burger restaurant we had the name and the dish to build it around. But when we first conceptualized the restaurant, we were creating a one-off restaurant. Our plan wasn’t to create a brand; it was to create a great restaurant for the corner of 45th Street and 9th Avenue.
Simon has nine French brasseries so really 5 Napkin is our American brasserie. We brought everything to the brand that we always had done in our French restaurants: beautiful décor, big beverage service, casual-fine-dining service and all the other pieces.
Somewhat inadvertently we ended up with something that is a much different take on the burger category than most others. I think that was what resonated with people and still does today: the burger’s clearly the hero but the whole package is what makes the brand.
Is it possible the brand could become just “5 Napkin” to reflect the breadth of your menu?
Yes. It’s definitely a possibility as we evolve. For our latest opening, at Ridgehill in Yonkers, we are using the name 5 Napkin. We’re interested to see how it affects the menu mix and people’s ordering. We’ve been open only a few weeks so it’s a limited data size, but I think potentially [the name 5 Napkin] will help guide people’s perception and give us credit for all the things we do so well. Sometimes we don’t get credit for the amount of work and care and love we give to all the items that are part of this package.
All the elements you have—including a bar and large kitchen—must require a bigger footprint than the average burger concept. Does that negatively impact your ability to find the right spaces for expansion?
What we’re looking for now is in the 5,000- to 6,000-square-feet range. The store we just opened is 5,600 square feet. That really is the box we’re focused on. I think it’s a great size because of our menu and because we do so much scratch cooking. We need to have a pretty high unit volume to support our labor model, and to do that we need a certain number of seats, so I think [5,000 to 6,000] is probably the sweet spot for us. That’s what we’re looking for.
What’s your average unit volume at core locations?
Let’s just say significantly higher than your average burger restaurant or casual diner.
But will the real estate model slow expansion?
It’s part of the equation and certainly our build out is a factor. For the two new stores we had floor tiles made for us in Vietnam. We had a lot of custom millwork done; there’s a custom zinc bar. So it’s an elevated décor package. I don’t think the plan is ever for us to be opening hundreds. If we get to where we’re opening two or three a year over the next couple of years we would be excited. But we don’t feel pressure to open too many. And the quality of the real estate is definitely part of the brand.
You’ve opened in Boston and Miami Beach. Will future opening fill out the New York area or are you looking everywhere?
We just opened is in Yonkers, north of the city, so we opportunity in Westchester County, Long Island and New Jersey. Those certainly are areas on our radar. We are building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at 70th Street and 2nd Avenue and that should open in late September or early October. And then we’re looking all over the country.
We’d love to do more in South Florida and the East Coast. We’ve been building the infrastructure and the team to run great restaurants anywhere in the country. That’s part of what we’ve doing over the past two years: focusing on infrastructure to be sure we execute at the quality level that we demand.
Will your growth involve franchising?
As of right now it’s a company-store model. We’re closely held now and see that continuing for the next several years. There are a lot of elements to what we do. We’ve taken the burger concept and made it complicated, so we see it as a company-store model.
How do you guard against spreading yourselves too thin or not properly exporting the 5 Napkin culture?
We opened the Boston and Miami stores in 2011 so we’ve spent the last several years focusing on people and practices there. We took a pause after we opened 14th Street in Manhattan in 2012. We wanted to be sure we understand this brand, the real estate model and the [operating] systems. I see us having a long future and I’m confident we’ll see those few years as the wisest investment we ever made.
That’s the challenge. Everything about the brand is made with care and love, and it’s all meant to be great, so it needs to be executed everywhere at the same level.
Are you considering an IPO to fund expansion?
Certainly not today but who know what will happen in the future. We’re just opening a few great restaurants a year at this point and we’ll see how far that can take us.
You have brunch. Are you considering breakfast?
That’s something that’s in our background, our DNA. Three of those French restaurants that Simon owns are open 24 hours. But we have a great brunch menu [at 5 Napkin] on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s our regular menu supplemented with great breakfast items. We do very well with brunch; breakfast is something we talk about but we haven’t implemented it anywhere yet.
How important to total sales is the bar?
It’s a big part. Our beverage program—with craft beer and hand-crafted cocktails and well-curated spirits—is certainly part and parcel of the brand. Our mix falls in line with what you’ll see at a casual-dining restaurant; it’s not a bar mix. Food is the main driver; I wouldn’t call us alcohol heavy. But as far as full-service restaurants go, I think we’re pretty close to the average.
Our newest unit has a U-shaped zinc bar in the middle of the room that has 20 stools. And it’s certainly a centerpiece. But it’s not as though there’s a bar area or separate bar crowd. It’s more about people waiting for a table or choosing to eat at the bar because it’s a great place.
Is that design element something that will be in future openings?
A bar is in all our stores, but physically on this one we were able to do a horseshoe bar in the center. In our Manhattan locations we’re not blessed with or willing to pay for quite as much space. So we have straight bars that are off to the side, but I don’t think we have less than 14 stools at any of them.
Is the food-to-bar mix at a percentage you’re happy with?
I think it’s right. I think it’s where it should be. We don’t necessarily talk about it in terms of how to change the mix. We launched new specialty cocktails at the beginning of this year. We worked with folks from Bar Lab in Miami Beach. We wanted to work with people who could help us elevate the bar program. The conversations didn’t focus on the mix but how we can over deliver for the guest and ensure our cocktail program is something guests can’t get next door and that drives return visits.
Are you satisfied with the menu? Do you expect to add or subtract items?
Well, we’re always tweaking. It’s one of the benefits of having such a talented chef as Andy D’Amico. We’re all used to seasonal menus and seeking out interesting ingredients and tailoring menus to locations. We have four dishes that are only on the Yonkers menu [including Four Cheese Ravioli and a Petite Strip Steak], and each store has dishes that are specific to it. Again, it’s not the easiest way to do it, maybe, but [culinary expertise] is such a part of our backgrounds that we think it’s necessary to leverage it.
Looking ahead, what concerns you most? Is it wages, food costs, healthcare needs, real estate?
With out brand, I think labor is the biggest focus. The landscape is shifting on all those fronts, but our success is going to depend on our ability to figure out and manage labor. We do so much by hand and that’s part of what makes the brand special. We cut our own fries in house, and hand patty our burgers and so on. When we even think about deviating from that, we always, “But that’s not our product.” Our goal, as I say, is to do enough volume so the labor costs fall in line and everybody wins.