Square 1 Burgers & Bar is ready to kick it up a notch, as Emeril Lagasse would say. With eight Florida locations open and two more opening in the state soon, the full-service concept is ready to explore franchising to accelerate growth. It also recently launched a “Beyond the Bun” initiative that broadened its menu. BurgerBusiness.com spoke with the Tampa, Fla.-based chain’s CEO, President and Executive Chef Joanie Corneil, who developed the concept with her husband, Bill Shumate (whose Oklahoma roots are reflected in the menu).
Tell me about “Beyond the Bun.” I hope it doesn’t mean you’re not turning your back on burgers!
We’re not. We started “Beyond the Bun” six months ago with four new items. I just added one more so we have five and that’s probably where we’ll stay for a while.
I’m a chef by trade, and creating new things is what we chefs like to do. But also we found that a lot of people were ordering some of the many proteins we offer off the bun—on greens or separate. We played around with the idea of different entrees and did some weekend specials with center-of-the-plate type of things. They were very well received.
You’ve operated Bella’s Italian Cafe in Tampa since 1986. Did the new entrees come from the Bella’s menu?
Just one of them: Romano-crusted chicken. But the others—flash-seared sirloin with caponata aïoli; an Oklahoma meatloaf recipe with American Wagyu beef; and sesame glazed salmon—weren’t. We just added Country Fried Steak with Biscuits, and I made an incredible Tasso ham gravy that goes over it.
We also have added two new burgers. One is a Kobe Red Wine & Bleu burger with applewood-smoked bacon, Cabernet-braised sweet caramelized red and creamy bleu cheese aïoli. And then a Double Bacon “Boomer Sooner” burger. That’s been well received, too, as you can imagine.
Who is the audience you’re looking to attract with a broader menu?
It’s families. I’d say 60% of the groups who come in have children with them. A main reason people like Square 1 is that if they have kids, we’re their favorite place to eat. Adding these entrees offers more options for the adults. We have lots of craft beers and cocktails and wine. They want a real dinner and their kids are happy to eat here, too.
We’ve both seen burger bars that have tilted more to bar than burger. Are you staying away from that?
We’re full-service with linen napkins and all. I’m not a fast-casual gal: I want to be waited on. Our bar sales are less than 20% of sales; maybe 16% to 18%. Our beer sales are 10% to 11%; wine is maybe 2.5% of sales That’s not a lot. At Bella’s the bar is 28% but we sell so much wine there. We’d love to have higher bar sales [at Square 1] but we’re more food-driven than some other concepts.
We want the family business. After we opened in 2008, we got requests for another side option for kids. We had coleslaw and baked beans and french fries. Some parents didn’t want them to have fries so I put on steamed broccoli and more than half the children’s meals that go out have broccoli on them. Parents love that. Their child gets a burger, maybe, and a healthy side too.
You haven’t expanded as quickly as some other concepts. What has your growth strategy been?
We opened in 2008 it was great until the market crashed. S we didn’t open our second location until September 2010. We have eight open now. We’re opening soon in Lakeland, Fla., and from there we’re going to Winter Park in Orlando. We’ll have that open in the fall.
We have done this with private money and taken our time and built up our team up. Five years ago we bought on an operations exec, [VP-Head of Operations] Bill Milner. My husband and his partners have the Outback Steakhouse franchise in the Pacific Northwest and Bill Milner worked with him there.
Since Bill [Milner] came, we’ve spent a lot of time building our management team. And I’ll say I think we’ve done that very well: We have some great managers onboard and we keep them ready to open the next store.
Darren Foyle, who has been with us since the beginning is the opening manager wherever we go. He gets the stores off to a great start and gets everybody trained, which is so critical. I think for every dollar you spend on training you get several dollars back in labor savings.
All locations are company owned?
Yes. But we are at the point now where we’d consider franchising and all the options out there. We had said we needed to get eight or 10 open before we franchised and we’re right there.
Would you consider a request to open the concept in a fast-casual format?
It wouldn’t work. It’s too involved with all the proteins, which each take a different cook time. It’s tough. I thought it was going to be so easy doing burgers after my Italian restaurant, where we make everything in-house. I thought this would be a breeze. Boy, was I wrong.
You do offer a lot of proteins. Are Angus burgers the majority of orders?
Yes. Angus and buffalo are the big sellers. That’s what sets us apart: we have all these proteins—including Kobe Wagyu beef, lamb and salmon burgers. We rub and smoke our own pork for the pulled pork sandwich. We have our own mix of chicken and turkey that we have custom ground for us. So many chicken burgers have a lot of fat in them but ours are white and dark meat and they’re fantastic. We also have our own vegan burgers. We have something for everyone.
Does the vegan burger sell well?
It does. One of my sons is vegan so I worked on that recipe for a year before he gave it his stamp of approval.
Back to franchising: Where are you looking to open?
I know that some fast-casual concepts will sell one store at a time but we wouldn’t do that. Our menu is complicated, so we’d be looking at market development deals. I want to keep my hand in the concept, which is why we’ve spidered out from Tampa until now. I like to keep them close enough to be controllable. If you have them everywhere, you need more people and it’s more expensive. I like to go into the stores and see.
We had someone who wanted to put one in Lincoln, Neb., and I said no. I’m not going to let someone do one store. That doesn’t make sense.
Do you see the burger market continuing to expand or will there be shakeout in the future.
We’ve had a couple more burger concepts open in Tampa recently. I can’t even remember their names. Everybody is doing a burger restaurant and I think there definitely will be a shakeout. Not all these concepts can survive. Just like not all steakhouses survive.
There are just so many options. We’ve got a half dozen different fast-casual options right around us. I have to think people will choose their favorites and some won’t make it.
We’re different. Yes, we are a burger concept but we’re so not fast-casual.