For Killer Burger, 2022 set up things to come in the next five to seven years.
The fast casual significantly upgraded its tech stack, including a transition to Olo for online ordering and Paytronix for loyalty membership. It also switched its accounting software and began using a new real estate analytics tool for more predictable growth. CEO John Dikos and vice president of finance Adam Sanders are fairly new to the brand as well, with Dikos joining in July 2021 and Sanders following in December of that same year.
“Across the board, everything's been upgraded, so really putting all the systems in place and team in place to let us grow going forward and facilitate that growth,” Sanders says. “I mean financially it was a challenging year a little bit because of that, but I think a necessary step.”
After making those investments in systems and people, Dikos says 2023 is the year to start showing improvement in terms of efficient processes and unit economics. After jumping from 50 percent staffing levels to 80 percent and opening three restaurants in 2022, the goal is to double development to six openings, which would put Killer Burger at around 25 locations.
Additionally, this is the year of the chain’s first leadership summit since pre-COVID. Dikos says the meeting is crucial for alignment purposes. Executives can discuss goals and meet inside restaurants, but nothing compares to getting an entire group together to digest the long-term roadmap. The highlight of the meeting is returning to hospitality, the CEO says. Pandemic-forced circumstances pushed Killer Burger to be more of a digital business, but at its core, serving a customer face-to-face is in its DNA. The concept wants to elevate execution and develop team members so it can drive that point home to new and existing guests.
The momentum is already present. Same-store sales were positive to end 2022, and that continued into the early part of this year. Sanders expects high single digits to low double digits.
“It helps us get to a point of better financial stability and the ability to start growing organically a lot faster,” Sanders says.
Founders: TJ Southard
Headquarters: Portland, OR
Year Started: 2010
Annual Sales: $21.96 million, 2023 system sales projected at $26M
Total Units: 20
Franchised Units: 8
Killer Burger is part of a swiftly growing fast-casual burger segment—one in which differentiation is table stakes. The box is typically 2,400 square feet, but the brand can dial that down to 1,500-1,800 square feet for its digital-centric, pickup locations with fewer tables and chairs. Although Killer Burger’s unit count is small, it’s already demonstrated success in multiple venues, including two locations in prominent professional sports facilities (Moda Center and Providence Park), a freestanding unit with a drive-thru pickup window, and a handful in high-end suburban neighborhoods, urban locations, endcaps, and inlines.
One of the first things Dikos did when he joined Killer Burger was move to an architectural company with experience in designing and developing restaurants across the country. More importantly, everyone—company and franchisees—is using the same architect. As Dikos explains, this allows the concept to evolve the prototype in the same direction with every store it builds. This makes it easier to perform follow-ups and work with the ops excellence team to explore what could’ve been done differently. Time and motion studies are completed to ensure employees aren’t taking too many steps or reaching too far or high.
“What can we do to make the next prototype a little bit better? We're all chasing the same footprint in fast casual these days,” Dikos says. “We've got a lot that we’re learning from, and I think the goal is making sure we know exactly how to take our approach to real estate portfolio development and test and learn a little bit … We've got a lot of exposure in the portfolio today to learn from so that when we build these next six to eight restaurants we have really nailed the best unit economics and guest experience.”
Dikos describes Killer Burger’s atmosphere as “a little bit more of a party vibe.” Employees and the menu having a rebellious streak, like the company’s name suggests. The motif, whether it’s the color, fixtures, or furniture, is reminiscent of a watering hole. Dikos wants to be clear, it’s still a fast-casual restaurant and family-friendly. But as a result of its approach, some stores have bars and alcohol mixes 4 percent.
The brand has a campaign that refers to its food as “the burger your momma warned you about.” The menu was engineered to create burgers that don’t fall apart when you eat. And while other concepts have build-your-own options, Killer Burger has 10 crafted signature creations. One of its best sellers is the Peanut Butter Pickle Bacon Burger. Dikos says the brand plates the food similar to a casual-dining gourmet burger.
Killer Burger has become more PG lately, but historically, the operations manual said if a guest asks to turn the music down, the instruction was to turn it up. And when a customer ordered a salad, employees responded with an over-the-top burger.
“Maybe we go back and find some of our roots and get a little bit more edgy that way, but that's a little bit about how we're different,” Dikos says. “It’s whether you ate food or walked into one of the restaurants, you can tell you're not in one of those other places. All due respect to those other brands, but we're quite different and it's that Northwest vibe and we just want to take that same thing to these other markets. We think there's a real demand for that in our customers.”
To best describe how Killer Burger separates itself in the marketplace, Sanders prefers to use a musical analogy.
"A lot of our competitors are very like the sterile 50s, 60s diner. We're classic rock,” Sanders says. “We're like going from that to Led Zeppelin where it's you want to come in and you feel this different vibe here and look at some of the murals on our walls. They’re more kid-friendly than they used to be, but I mean they're there for a reason. The tone and atmosphere. The music's a little loud. We want you to have a good time and experience the whole vibe of Killer Burger.”