Every time David Jones opens a Blazing Onion Burger Company, the bar grows. Jones, CEO of the Pacific Northwest gourmet burger chain he founded with his wife, Lorri, says he is still searching for the right hybrid of fast-casual restaurant and full-service bar.
In 2007, the first Blazing Onion opened in Mill Creek, Washington, 20 miles northeast of Seattle. The 2,500-square-foot location serves beer and wine.
“We recognized that our customers wanted more than beer and wine, so in July of 2008, we opened our second Blazing Onion in Snohomish, Washington, and this time the concept grew to 3,500 square feet,” Jones says. “We added a small sports bar, which added a full-service element to our brand.”
With the second location, Blazing Onion customers had the choice of fast-casual counter service in the main dining room or full-service dining in the bar. The response was so positive that the third Blazing Onion, which opened in 2009 in Gig Harbor, Washington, included 4,500 square feet, boasting an 80-seat sports lounge.
All three Blazing Onion locations serve local beers and wines from the Northwest to give customers a local flavor.
“We have 16 beers on tap, including craft beers,” Jones says. “But only two traditional domestic beers.”
The two newest locations also have a cocktail list that includes house-specialty mixed drinks with a local flair, like the Snohomish Sunset, a blend of rums with orange and pineapple juice, and the Dangerous Dave, named after Jones.
Jones says 30 percent of Blazing Onion sales come from alcohol. The split between full-service and fast-casual customers is nearly even, he says.
“The restaurant has quicker turnaround, but the bar has higher tickets,” he says.
A large menuboard featuring 25 gourmet burgers greets customers who choose counter service at Blazing Onion. The beef burgers are made from all-natural ground chuck, delivered fresh and pressed into patties each morning in house. Burger choices extend to a homemade turkey burger, a veggie burger, and a meatloaf burger.
Burger prices start at $8.79 for the Classic Cheeseburger with melted cheddar, the All-American Burger with American cheese, and the Blazing Onion Burger with grilled onions. Prices go up to $9.59 for the popular Bacon Cheeseburger and $10.49 for the Lamb, Buffalo, and Wild Boar Burgers. All burgers are served with french fries.
CEO/COFounder: David Jones
HQ: Lynnwood, Washington
Year Started: 2007
Annual Sales: $5.9 million
Total Units: 3
Franchise Units: 0
The menus at both the counter and the bar also include appetizers, salads, sandwiches, kids’ items, desserts, and other entrées like Fish & Chips, Sirloin Steak, and Chicken Fried Steak. Many Blazing Onion offerings are made from scratch, including the Outlaw 3-Bean Chili, Peanut Butter Pie, and Mudd Pie, as well as the BBQ Sauce. Despite the vast array of choices, Jones says 80 percent of food sales are burgers.
“People come in for burgers,” he says. “But we didn’t want to be red and white and fast, fast, fast, like other burger places. We wanted to be a fast-casual burger place with a nice atmosphere.
“As we grow we might simplify and eliminate a few dinners and sandwiches and let the fact that we have 25 burgers set us apart.”
Combining quick service and full service has been carefully thought out at Blazing Onion, and systems are in place to make sure everyone gets the experience they want.
“Ordering at the counter allows us to get your food on the grill right away, but it doesn’t mean that service is over,” Jones says. “You can choose to close your check out at the counter or leave it open to add more cocktails or dessert.”
He says once guests choose a table and sit down, the entire staff is responsible to help with the dining experience.
“If guests need anything, they put up the red, stop-sign-shaped ‘Service Alert’ sign on the table. We call it ‘service on demand’ because we’ll be there in 30 seconds. There’s no looking around for a waiter.”
Since the restaurant is a fast casual, customers who choose counter service aren’t expected to tip, but Jones says many do.
“I’m very surprised at how much tipping goes on,” he says. “People know they can come in and not tip, but some people tip just like it was full service, so people are often earning $3–$4 on top of their wages, which helps to keep employee turnover low.”
Three more company-owned locations are set to open between now and June 2013, and Jones is working on the paperwork that will enable him to start franchising—first in Washington, then in other states.
As for long-term growth, he says he could see 20 company-owned and 50 franchised locations in operation 10 years from now.
“I don’t want to expand too quickly,” Jones says. “I don’t want to go into a market just to go into a market. I want it to make sense.”