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Tom Ryan, Founder of SmashBurger Talks About Localizing Menus and Integrating Craft Beer Pairings

Tom Ryan is the founder of the Colorado-based chain SmashBurger, a quickly expanding "better burger" chain. His commitment to the food world is hard to question: he has an undergraduate degree in food science, a master's degree in lipid toxicology (the study of fat-induced toxins in the diet), followed by a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance chemistry, all from Michigan State. A Michigan native, Ryan has 20 years of experience in marketing, branding, consumer research and product development for package goods and restaurant companies. While food did not play a big role in his upbringing, Ryan made it his world. Part of Ryan's professional experience includes working for fast food giants Pizza Hut and McDonald's where he created blockbuster dishes like Pizza Hut's stuffed crust and McDonald's Dollar Menu and the McGriddle.

In 2007, SmashBurger was created ready to set a new standard for fast-casual restaurants in general and burger joints in particular. Fresh meat, high-quality ingredients, respect to the context of each location, and a hip overall vibe turned SmashBurger into the fastest growing burger chain in America. There are 19 locations in Colorado and more to come.

Localization seems to be at least one of the ingredients leading to this company's success. Eater sat down with Tom Ryan to ask him about the fairly recent partnership with craft brewers in the different local markets. He shared how the partnership came about and why burgers and local beers are key to SmashBurger's appeal.

What was it about a beer program that appealed to you? When we set out to build SmashBurger in general, one of our goals were to differentiate the brand from all others on an ongoing basis, but also to requalify burgers for occasions that burgers have not been qualified for before. Alcohol and beer in particular plays a big part of that. There is a very distinctive occassion that calls for the burger and beer. The burger is America's favorite food and beer is America's favorite adult beverage and they always go together in a very simple format: eat this, drink that. So, for us, as a burger place, we were born with beer.

Where and how did you start SmashBurger's local beer pairing program?SmashBurger was born in 2007 with the commitment of localizing on menus. Last spring we started talking about how to take our localization in each market to the next level. From several ideas, we said, maybe we should pick one-single craft brewer from each market who is known and loved in their area and pair our food with their beer. The idea was that we would pair our core menu items with these beers, which are really diverse. We now have eight different markets that we have launched this in and four more are in the process.

Where and where was this idea first launched? We started this in Colorado last year. The launch was last fall. We chose to partner up with New Belgium Brewing and now some of our Colorado stores have up to eight sandwiches and beer pairings. We are doing beer pairings all over the country and we will continue to expand that program. I think of SmashBurger as a new generational company. Localizing menus, partnering with craft brewers- we get to define what next generational concepts should be and could be and this program is part of that.

Why did you choose New Belgium as your partner for Colorado? Why wouldn't we? They are Colorado's favorite beer and a very popular beer nationwide. They are a great partner. They are passionate and knowledgeable and their product line works great with our food, whether it is the 1515 Black Lager or the Sunshine Wheat. All those things work like a charm with the SmashBurger.

What is the biggest benefit of a your beer and wine offerings? Well, in a world where we are trying to develop concepts to cater to occasions, instead of thinking ourselves as a product-centric entity, I think of SmashBurger as an occasion-centric entity. We are focused on burgers- sure. But many of the other elements- the ambiance, the vibe, the music - adds up to requalifying us for occasions people didn't have. And those occasions involve alcohol - whether it is boys' night out or girls' night out, a couple before a movie or after a movie, or even family dinners with little kids where the parents are done with work and want to have a beer. For me, just having beer and wine was a differentiator from the places where most burgers are sold. Those places don't have the beer and wine option. Even newer places in the burger world don't have that.

Does the alcohol bring in a large percentage of your revenue? Not really. In markets where we have liquor licenses, 95% of our stores, the revenue ranges from 2% to 10%. It isn't huge. We're not a bar. But when you start to think about it a different way- like how much of our total revenue is associated with alcohol, this gives you an idea of the occasion part of the equation- what you get simply because you have the alcohol on the menu, it goes closer to 20%. So to me, it is a clear differentiator from other burger places in general and it qualifies us as a destination for occasions guests want to celebrate. Also, I always say- don't confused mix with success-the mix is only an index of how much you sell, but the real success comes from how many more burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, salads, and more you sell because someone wanted a beer. That has been great.

Do you see the alcohol part of fast-casual restaurants as a trend? It should be. I can't tell if it is or not. I don't see a lot of people quite frankly doing it. There aren't that many people in our category. In fast-casual, there are a few. Chipotle sells beer and Qdoba sells beer, but Five Guys doesn't sell beer. Others like them don't sell beer. It's a bit of a mix. What plays to our advantage is the fact that we sell burgers and that is a perfect combination. Burgers and beer: you can almost say it without even thinking about it - so it makes perfect sense for us.

Is localizing difficult from the perspective of a high-volume chain restaurant? If you create something that has localizing in its DNA, if you are born with that commitment, it is not necessarily difficult. They don't know the difference. If you are trying to retrofit the menu and all of the sudden have all of this diversity, it would be really hard for chains that haven't done that. We were born with it. We don't know any different. Does it create complications? Of course. Every time we print a menu, we need to make sure that menu reflects what's in that market. But more than problems, that localization creates opportunities that others don't have. We can go to a new market and talk about the fact that we custom-tailor to the taste of that market. That's why we can talk to and partner with these local craft brewers. To me, having the nimbleness of customizing to a specific market has more benefits than drawbacks.

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