BurgerBusiness got the scoop from Larkburger CEO, Adam Baker

“Larkburger’s State of Expansion”

BurgerBusiness, May 2nd, 2016

Adam Baker opened the first Larkburger a decade ago. Now with 12 units, all of them in Colorado, it maintains its menu focus on high-quality ingredients, including all-natural Black Angus beef burgers. But now Larkburger is leaving home: Early next year it will open in Overland Park, Kan., outside Kansas City. BurgerBusiness spoke with Adam Baker about the brand.

How significant is your move beyond Colorado?
It’s a really big deal for us. We’re tapping into a new market. We have some brand recognition there but it’s a market outside our span of control. So it’s an important step. Crossing state lines, it feels like getting your driver’s license when you’re 16.

Getting your license can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. Is it for you?
That’s exactly right.

What’s your focus right now? Is it broader expansion?
We’re been focused on our team and our operations, getting a strong, consistent team and then really streamlining our operations. We’ve been asking how do we deliver better, faster service while maintaining our culinary ethos and procedures. We’ve done some work on our messaging, too. We did a small ad campaign last year, but our focus has been operations.

We’ve made some menu changes including the option of smaller versions of all our burgers. We always had had smaller beef and turkey burgers available, but we expanded that to every burger.

Was that done in response to requests?
It was paying attention to what people were ordering and it was also in response to our longstanding commitment to wholesome eating. A regular-size burger and regular-size fries is a lot of food for many people. We wanted to offer something for those who don’t want to go all in all the time. I find myself eating the smaller burgers quite often.

What are talking in ounces for smaller and regular burgers?
The regular beef burger is 5.3 oz.; the smaller is 3 oz. They get the same lettuce, tomato and onion, and the bun is only slightly downsized, so the smaller is still a decent-size burger. And now we have smaller options for beef, turkey, tuna and vegetarian portobello mushroom.

Is your Black Angus beef burger still your top seller?
Oh yes. The Larkburger is the top seller and our Truffle Fries remain a fan favorite for sides.

Your menu is fairly streamlined already. Have you consciously kept it from letting it grow too much?
We’re coming up on our 10th anniversary and when I look back at our original menu I see we’ve added so many things: the tuna and chicken burgers; the salads expanded and became much more complex. We’ve added three cheeses: we started with just Cheddar.

Our original plan was to keep it really very simple. We got to a point where it felt we had added a lot and we’re revisiting to make sure that all the additions have been right moves. And we’re reassessing how to produce our menu more quickly.

The thinking behind limiting the menu was that if something was going to be on the menu it was going to be great. And if we didn’t add too much we would be able to make everything very well and very consistently. My experience is that the more you have, the more room for error you have. And our goal is always to deliver a great product that people love. It’s not easy working the kitchen in a high-pace environment. The fewer options, the better we can execute.

You’ve never expanded especially rapidly but are you looking at additional markets outside Colorado?
Sure. We’re doing Kansas City and that has all our attention—aside from running our Colorado operations—and we’ve looked at identifying additional markets. But until we get Kansas City up and running and successful, we won’t seriously be looking at new markets.

The burger market has gotten more crowded in your 10 years. Do you see trends that concern you?
I think there are just a lot of restaurants in general, and a lot in the fast-casual space. Sure, we’re aware of the competition and we pay attention to what’s happening. But I still think we occupy a unique place in the burger and fast-casual segments. I’m confident about our position.

What a restaurant is always evolves. What fast casual is has evolved. But I think the core principles haven’t changed. People still want to eat food they feel good about. They want to visit restaurants that they think are making good decisions on sourcing, environmental practices, and more.

Of course there always are evolutionary factors you can’t control, minimum-wage laws among them. Is that issue something you have to strategize about?
For sure it’s something we’re aware of. There’s no denying that [a higher minimum wage] would change how we operate and change the fast-casual segment. Adjusting for it now is challenging. It means a higher price point for the guest, so as the environment changes we’ll have to change with it.

I can’t say we’re looking at how to run our business with fewer people or how to get more productivity from fewer people. We ask a lot of our people now; they earn every penny they make. We want to stay ahead of the market with our wage rates. And if we go to a market where it shifts to a $15-an-hour wage, everyone will have to adjust and we’ll find ways to do it along with everyone else.

What’s your short-term plan?
It’s always going to be refining operations and executing well. I don’t think that will ever be done. That’s where our success will come from: executing on the fundamentals every day in every restaurant.

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