Michael Benoit has fond memories of growing up in California where family barbecues were a regular feature.
“Our dad loved cooking big burgers over an open flame,” he said. “We always loved that.”
A year after Benoit and his siblings arrived in Atlanta in 1991, they opened The Vortex, a funky bar in the basement of the Residence Inn on West Peachtree where food wasn’t the focus.
“But we didn’t want patrons to get too drunk and didn’t want them to leave if they got hungry,” Benoit said. “We thought burgers would be simple. In fact, in 1992, finding a high-quality burger in Atlanta was pretty difficult.”
So Benoit isn’t feeling pinched by the mushrooming numbers of burger restaurants around the metro area or the arrival of the latest entry, Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar, a Denver-based chain. In January, Daddy’s opened its first local outlet in Chamblee and most recently debuted in Smyrna, bringing the company’s nationwide total to 29. Plans are also in the works for locations in Roswell and Decatur. The new outlets join the 41 other burger eateries counted by the Georgia Restaurant Association as part of a continuing wave of gourmet burger joints that’s been washing over the metro area for the last few years.
“The first wave has slowed down a bit, but it’s starting to flow again,” said Greg Eisenman, senior director with Franklin Street, a retail tenant services real estate group. “We’re not going to see an explosion of new burger places necessarily, but restaurateurs believe people love burgers, and we’ll continue to see places with new concepts owners believe set them apart.”
Doing things a bit differently makes Bad Daddy’s stand out, said CEO Boyd Hoback. “First, we artfully craft food from a scratch kitchen with house-made sauces and flavor profiles you won’t find somewhere else, like the ‘Bad Ass Burger’ — deep-fried bacon on top of a turkey burger with grilled green apples and brie. We try to push the food envelope. We also have a ‘Bad Ass Bar’ with fresh-squeezed cocktails and local craft microbrews. And we’re committed to a full-service model.”
Hoback sees Atlanta as a perfect fit for the product that follows the company’s success in other Southeastern states. He cited a favorable labor market and economy, as well as a “sophisticated town where we can put 10 stores.”
“Chamblee/Brookhaven was a good demographic for us because we have an $18 per person average check — a bit higher than others,” Hoback said. “And in Smyrna, we felt an opportunity was there with the residential and commercial redevelopment along Atlanta and Spring roads.”
Location and differentiation are key to winning the burger wars, notes Alexis Kinsey, who co-owns four Stockyard Burgers and Bones restaurants with her chef-husband, Scott. In fact, it’s precisely why the couple tacked “bones” onto the name.
“We added the bones section intentionally to drive additional business,” said Kinsey. “We’re not just a burger place because not everybody wants to eat a burger two days a week. Having a versatile menu helps us get that repeat guest who wants ribs, a salad, a tuna burger, chicken or fish. And we offer full service, signature cocktails and craft beers.”
The first Stockyard on Marietta Square also filled a food niche, Kinsey said. The company’s first venture, Taqueria Tsunami on the square, taught her what the local diners wanted, and when a nearby space opened up, they took it.
“I think every community is looking to have a spot where a good burger option makes sense,” said Kinsey. “That’s why we went into Vinings Jubilee: We saw a need for a burger concept there. Our growth has been pretty aggressive, but it’s happened organically. And Atlanta has so many niche communities and is so spread out that I think it can support one or two concepts of the same thing. So it’s hard to say if over-saturation is happening yet.”
Along with a firm belief that diners can’t get enough of good burgers, many owners are tapping into Atlanta’s loyalty to the home-grown team. That loyalty has spurred the expansion of Grindhouse Killer Burgers from a tiny corner of the Sweet Auburn Curb Market to having seven locations where the average check is around $11.
“Atlanta is very supportive of the locals, so when out-of-town people like Bad Daddy’s come to town, that doesn’t scare me; we’re a local chain,” said Grindhouse owner Alex Brounstein, a former real estate attorney who traded contracts for crafting burgers after the recession. “What separates us from a Five Guys or a Burger Fi, or even Shake Shack, is we bring the food to your table and offer more variety, like the Dixie with a fried green tomato and homemade pimento cheese. We always have a full bar. From the beginning, we knew we needed to give more for our customers to become loyal and to create a fun environment where people want to hang out — that’s what it’s about.”
Brounstein also doesn’t see the burger wave ebbing anytime soon. “It’s nonstop, and that’s because burgers are the quintessential American comfort food. They’re everywhere. My local pub, the Albert, sells one of the better burgers in town. Even Superica [Chef Ford Fry’s spin on Mexican cuisine] has a burger on the menu.”
Burgers are also easy on the bottom line, a factor that plays into a restaurateur’s willingness to embrace the concept, said Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association.
“The high-end hamburger concept came about after the recession, when restaurant owners who were smart came up with a concept that could be executed with less labor and with cheaper cuts of meat,” she said. “You don’t need 18 cooks in the kitchen to execute hamburgers; people realized you can do this concept with a lot less labor and lower food costs, and still make a profit. So two people can go to The Vortex or Grindhouse and have a really good meal with a beer or glass of wine and get out for $25 — you can’t say that about many restaurants. It’s why The Vortex is still packing them in.”
Benoit acknowledges The Vortex is “doing something right. We’ve seen a lot of places come and go, and we’ve stayed relevant all these years. And as far as burgers go, we haven’t hit critical mass yet.”
But that point of saturation may be coming, predicts Eisenman. “I don’t know how close we are to it, but for restaurants that are burger-centric, there has to be a point. It happened with frozen yogurt and, to a degree, with pizza. Quality floats to the top, and I think we’re going to end up with one or two category leaders, and that’s all.”