Ones To Watch: Larkburger, QSR Magazine, Judy Kneiszel, October 2014
The brainchild of renowned chef Thomas Salamunovich, this Colorado-based brand offers burgers with complex flavors.
Cofounders: Adam Baker and
Year Started: 2006
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Total Units: 13
Franchise Units: 0
If doing something on a lark means it’s adventurous or even daring, Larkburger is aptly named, say cofounders Thomas Salamunovich and Adam Baker.
The chef-driven burger concept was the first fast casual to open in the ski resort town of Vail, Colorado, they say, and it’s become a local icon now poised to grow beyond its home state. Salamunovich is the owner and culinary director of Vail’s fine-dining Larkspur Restaurant and Market, where he invented the Larkburger, the menu item that sparked his interest in the fast-casual burger business.
“The Larkburger was on the bar menu, and it was very successful and kept winning awards,” he says. “We spun off an idea that was a bit of a lark. We wanted a place where the Larkburger could be the star of the show.”
What makes Larkburger a star? Salamunovich says it’s the fact that everything on Larkburger’s menu, save for the brioche buns, is made from scratch in the restaurant. And everything on the menu, except the buns and chili, is gluten free.
Larkburger’s founders are committed to sustainability, too. The chain’s containers are biodegradable, utensils are made from potato and corn starch, and packaging is made from unbleached paper pulp. Used cooking oil is recycled to power vehicles, and all Larkburger restaurant interiors incorporate reused wood paneling. The restaurant purchases wind power credits to offset energy use, and in most locations, all packaging, cups, straws, and utensils are composted.
Larkburger opened its first location before green restaurants and gluten-free menu items garnered much press—and before the economy slowed. But the concept proved to be able to withstand the harsh economic downturn and “expanded right on through it,” Baker says.
“We were able to open our first location before adverse conditions, and our second opened during adverse conditions,” he says. “But the fast-casual market segment wasn’t as full as it is now. It was a new format. … We were a good option during harder economic times for the middle class trading down from more upscale dining.”
As one might guess, the chain’s bestseller is the original Larkburger. It’s a third of a pound of certified Angus beef that’s charbroiled and topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and the house lemon-Dijon sauce. The same burger is also available in a 3-ounce Little Lark size.
Other popular items are the Chicken Burger, made with an adobo-spiced grilled chicken breast, jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, and chipotle sauce, and the Tuna Burger, featuring grilled Ahi tuna steak, lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, and wasabi-ginger dressing. The Amy Burger, Larkburger’s meatless option, features a roasted portabello mushroom, topped with lettuce, tomato, griddled onions, and the house sauce.
Salads are also popular; options include the Bibb & Quinoa Salad with bibb and red lettuces, toasted tomato quinoa, carrot, cucumber, radish, red onion, and chickpeas with house vinaigrette.
“We simmer the chickpeas fresh in-house with kombu seaweed and a reduction of bay leaf until we obtain the perfect texture,” Salamunovich says. “And our vinaigrette is a classic French dressing with hints of sherry and Dijon mustard.”
Even fries at Larkburger are inspired by fine-dining chef creations. The Classic Fries are made from hand-cut, skin-on Russet potatoes, as are the Truffle & Parmesan Fries, which are tossed with grated Parmesan, Italian parsley, and truffle oil.
Menu items like the Truffle & Parmesan Fries and Bibb & Quinoa Salad give the menu a fine-dining feel, which may explain why Larkburger’s lunch-dinner split is 49/51.
“Our environment—the look and feel of our restaurants—is comfortable for night dining. And our menu is conducive to both dayparts,” Baker says. “We’re not a sandwich shop. People will go out for dinner and have a burger, a salad, and a beer.”
Salamunovich adds that the concept’s design was driven by a clean, mid-century modern aesthetic with minimal use of color and pale wood accents. The founding pair isn’t necessarily looking to build identical Larkburger restaurants across the country, however, and future units could have interiors that draw from the surrounding neighborhood.
The first market outside Colorado on Larkburger’s radar is New York City. “We’re still working on the details,” Baker says. “We think New Yorkers would love to have a Larkburger.”
And the founders agree that Larkburger will someday be a national brand. Though they don’t have plans to franchise, it’s an option for future growth plans. “We want to grow responsibly as long as it feels right, and we want to pick locations that enhance our brand in markets in which we’ll resonate,” Baker says.