A Massachusetts native, Frank Scibelli has been a successful restaurateur in Charlotte, N.C., for many years. He already operated Mexican spot Cantina 1511 and Italian dinnerhouse Mama Ricotta’s when he decided to also ride the upscale-burger wave. He and Dennis Thompson (founder of the Lone Star Steakhouse chain) opened the first Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar in Charlotte in 2009. The full-service restaurant’s recently revamped menu spans Irish Nachos, Stella’s Greek Salad, the signature double-patty Bad Ass Burger and the Bacon Cheeseburger on Steroids, as well as a build-your-own-burger option, an extensive breakfast menu and a full bar. There are three Charlotte locations (plus a downsized unit at Charlotte International Airport) and one in Raleigh, with more to come. BurgerBusiness.com spoke with Scibelli about Bad Daddy’s concept, growth and prospects.
Looking at your menu, you certainly seem to have all the burger-bar bases covered here.
Oh yeah. Have you seen our new menu? We’ve got an Edamame Cashew Burger. You can eat healthy or you can come in and go completely decadent with the Bad Ass Burger. We have a custom beef blend that’s chuck, brisket and hanger steak, and then we grind in bacon, too. So it’s two patties with our buttermilk fried bacon, our artisan Cheddar, lettuce, tomato and horseradish mayo.
How many times have you managed to make it all the way through a Bad Ass Burger?
I have never eaten a whole one. I have a 13-year-old son who can eat it. We get a lot of requests to make one with just one patty.
We just craft a lot of great food. We’re even kicking around the idea of making our own American cheese.
Has the menu expanded or changed much since the first Bad Daddy’s opened?
It hasn’t changed much. We had a stuffed burger when we first opened and I really liked it. But we struggled with it on speed of service. There’s a place called the White Hut in Springfield, Mass., where I’m originally from, and we also did a bit of an homage to them. They have these small burgers with onions and cheese and we did a stacked version of that. And there were some other things; we’ve played around with the menu a bit and let it evolve.
The free-range chicken is a new burger. There’s a free-range chicken supplier in North Carolina called Ashley Farms that supplies us all-breast-meat [ground] chicken. As we grow, I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue getting that product, though. We used to have more hot dogs, including a Kobe hot dog, but none of them has sold well for us. Salads have done well.
Looking at your menu, I can tell I’m not ordering a hot dog. Not with all the great burgers you do.
Yes, but I thought we would have gotten more of a mix. But live and learn. And I wanted soft-serve like I had when I was a kid. I was thinking of the old, old Carvel. Old Carvel was very good when it was still owned by the father. I wanted to figure out how to make that so Kriss Harvey [a renowned pastry chef who has worked with Joël Robuchon and others] came in and created the recipe for us. It’s a cream base with a bit of vanilla that we use to make great shakes and other things.
But Bad Daddy’s isn’t a retro, ’50s-style burger-and-shakes concept, is it?
No. I’m a ’70s kid, born in 1964. A lot of the décor is stuff from the ’60s and ’70s; comic books and stuff. It’s just a look with a broad appeal.
How large are your restaurants?
We will be about 3,500 square feet. The original store is 2,000 square feet and the Raleigh store is 4,000, but that’s unusual.
What’s the average check now?
We’re about $15.
Initially the brand was Big Daddy’s, but you changed to Bad Daddy’s in 2011, right?
We did. We looked at all the Big Daddy’s all over the country and realized that if we went into a market that had a Big Daddy’s Diner or something, they could fight us on the name. Even if they don’t own the name, if they’ve been operating in a market it can be a problem. So we just said let’s deal with it now. It was a big, quick education in intellectual property.
Did it stall your plans to have to rebrand?
Not at all. We did that in 2011 and I still have people now still saying, “Hey, when did you change the name?”
So last year, after opening four in the Charlotte area, you opened your first in Raleigh, N.C. How big can the concept be?
Well, we’re getting ready to do a ridiculous amount of growth. We’ve signed our first deal for Greenville, S.C., and we’re getting ready to be multi-state.
Will that involve franchising?
We already have franchises, but we may be doing it with a public company that’s in this business to really grow our business. I can’t say more now.
What makes you confident you can carve a space in this very crowded burger market?
There is a lot of competition and I’ve gone all over the country looking at burger concepts and there are a lot of them that frankly aren’t that great. If we execute, we feel we can compete just fine. There are a lot of them that aren’t as good as I expected. They may have a look but it all goes to the food. And our beef is just fantastic.
How many versions of your chuck/brisket/hanger steak grind did you consider before settling on what you offer?
A lot. We met with food scientists and tried a lot of different grinds. Burger Maker does it for us. Really it’s the taste profile that sets it apart. I like that chuck profile with brisket. I didn’t want it to taste too steak-y. Add too many steak tails in there and that’s what you get.
We feel like someone is going to be the big dog in the category and we’d like to be in the competition for that top-dog spot. Our location in Charlotte International Airport has been open for about a year. HMSHost operates it and we’re considered one of their hot concepts. Coming from them, I think that says something about us.
Who have you seen that you think is strong?
Well, certainly Five Guys and Smashburger have expanded amazingly fast and become national players.
I don’t see Smashburger as a competitor at all. First, we’re full-service, which is a big deal. I don’t think people want to go have a big meal in a fast-casual setting. And I think we’re a lot more culinary and that’s what it’s about. We have chefs. Nobody else that I know about is tinkering around making their own American cheese.
When it’s all said and done, this is the food business. People forget that.
What’s your top-selling burger?
The Classic Southern [seasoned with bacon salt, topped with jalapeňo bacon, applewood-smoked bacon, Monterey Jack cheese, house-made bacon mayo, lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles]. The Frenchie [turkey burger with brie, applewood-smoked bacon, grilled apples and garlic mayo] is up there, too.
And our Mama Ricotta’s Burger is an example of what I’m talking about. We make our own mozzarella for that. People don’t do that. Candidly, I don’t know that we’d be able to do that everywhere as we expand.
You know who I like? 5 Napkin Burger [in New York City, Boston and now Miami]. I think they do a great job.
And what also sets you apart is a breakfast menu that’s almost as ambitious as your burger selection. Is breakfast going to be a part of the concept as it expands?
We’re talking about that now. Really, I think it will be dependent on location.
What kind of breakfast business do you do?
It’s not a big moneymaker for us, but we’ll do anywhere from $500 to $1,500 a day at breakfast. Some days more. We’re looking at adding a Bloody Mary bar.
What share of sales come from alcoholic beverages?
We’re at about 15%, which I think is low. I think it should be a little higher. North Carolina’ making some great beers right now.
Do you want to move the concept more toward bar and away from burger?
No. I’m a food guy. My Italian restaurant was in Zagat’s Top 1,000 Italian Concepts. Midwood Smokehouse, my BBQ place, and Bad Daddy’s are in Zagat’s Top American restaurants. So I’m a food guy. That’s not going to change.