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Ahead of the Pack

[ 0 ] Oct. 5, 2010 | SBO Editor

It seems as if everyone is out to build a “better burger” in the restaurant industry these days. “Better burgers” are fresh, never frozen and cooked when ordered. You can dress them just the way you like with a delectable array of toppings. It’s the to-die-for burger you would make if you were grilling at home – without all the work.

The better burger industry has grown considerably over the last decade, sprouting several success stories, but Elevation Burger founder Hans Hess believes his almost five-year-old fast-casual franchise concept has the right mix of ingredients to become one of the category’s leading brands.

While Hess and his wife April were spending three years developing the first Elevation Burger that opened in northern Virginia in 2005, they had a vision for fresh food that was better for their customers and the environment. It was a vision for beef that came from organically raised, grass-fed, free-range cows and fresh-cut French fries cooked in heart-healthy olive oil. It was a vision that said, “Ingredients Matter.”

“There is not a lot of differentiation among the better-burger players once you get past the fresh, never-frozen patties and your burger being cooked when ordered,” Hess said. “That’s really where Elevation Burger starts to differentiate from the rest.”

Elevation Burger sources 100% USDA-certified organic, grass-fed, free-range beef because it is nutritionally better for the consumer, has a significantly more pleasing taste and is far more respectful of the natural environment compared with conventional corn-fed beef. Elevation Burger’s cows are never given antibiotics and are raised in open, chemical and pesticide-free natural grass pastures. It is the most wholesome beef available to consumers. (See sidebars for additional information).

Elevation Burger was recognized as one of the nation’s first organic hamburger restaurants when its original location opened in Falls Church, Virginia, and is the only franchised burger chain serving organic beef today. The six-unit chain has franchise commitments to open another 45 locations across Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, northern Virginia, Washington D.C., New York and Florida. Elevation Burger expects to have 100 locations nationwide by the end of 2013.

“We are the poster child for doing it right,” says the 37-year-old Hess, a former real estate consultant and native Californian, who conceived Elevation Burger when he couldn’t find the “West Coast” burgers he’d enjoyed before moving east in 1999.

There couldn’t be a better time for “doing it right.” Technomic, a food industry consulting and research firm, recently reported that “burgers are one of hottest trends on today’s dining scene” after an online survey of 2,250 U.S. and Canadian consumers found that 91 percent eat a burger at least once a month and 44 percent have burgers at least once a week.

Elevation Burger is using an area developer model to enter new markets and establish a strong presence in existing markets. All of its current franchisees have committed to opening between three and five units over the next five years. Hess says the concept is also a good fit for investors who have experience in large-scale operations and are looking to diversify their portfolios. Investors are looking for ‘green’ biz.

“We are an ideal concept for investors who could operate 10 to 20 restaurants,” Hess said. “Elevation Burger affords larger operators the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a concept that delivers the 21st century’s version of a classic meal: a meal that tastes better and is better for you. Getting in now means having their choice of the best territories.

For a concept with a little more than a handful of locations open, Elevation Burger has been an attention-grabber, to say the least. AOL Small Business has called it the “Next Big Chain” and the concept has received sterling accolades in publications such as Washingtonian Magazine and the Washington Post.

The chain expects to open its first location in New York City by May, in the Union Square area of Manhattan. The franchisees are Fabian Rosario, who is co-owner of an IHOP in Brooklyn that is one of the top three in sales in the IHOP system and John Harris, who owns a popular Brooklyn bistro.

South Florida entrepreneurs Jeffrey Feinstein and Sam Ginsberg chose to invest in Elevation Burger after first considering another popular better burger competitor, because Elevation Burger “satisfies the love of burgers for the right price and with the health and environmental concerns that are important to consumers,” said Ginsberg, a former record producer who produced John Lennon’s last album.

“We’re looking for franchisees with strong business experience and enthusiasm, drive and passion for our concept,” Hess said. “We don’t consider ourselves in the buy-a-job category of franchises where an individual might have some cash and they’re essentially buying themselves a job.”

Developers like what Elevation Burger brings, too. It was the only burger concept awarded a site at prestigious National Harbor, a multi-use waterfront development outside Washington D.C. Elevation Burger will also have a location in Park Potomac, a new world-class urban village in Potomac, Maryland.

“Landlords want differentiation,” Hess said. “They want concepts that are unique in the marketplace because they are trying to sell a project. We bring that uniqueness in spades.”

In addition to serving nutritionally superior products, Elevation Burger is unique because of its sustainable approach to restaurant build-outs and operations. Restaurants feature recycled, recyclable and rapidly renewable finishes such as bamboo flooring and compressed sorghum tabletops.

Waste olive oil is converted into bio-diesel and Elevation Burger even aims to certify newly constructed restaurants under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system – the best known green building rating system in the United States – but a rarity in the restaurant industry. The streamlined equipment package consists of a deep fryer, a conveyor oven for cooking veggie burgers, two griddles and a spindle milk-shake mixer.

Elevation Burger’s management philosophy is based on a triple bottom line, according to Hess: Take care of people, the planet and profits. By doing things right, Hess has a clear vision for Elevation Burger’s future in the better burger industry. “We want to be in the top three,” he says. •

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Category: Magazine, Start Your Own Business, Start Your Own Business Fall 2010