Fast-casual burger chain Meatheads celebrates its fifth anniversary today (1/28), which means it is young enough to remain true to the quality commitment on which it was founded but mature enough to concede that a few tweaks could be made to the concept.
One departure from custom is the decision to offer a special birthday deal: Today only, customers can enjoy a one-third-pound Meathead burger with regular fries and a drink for just $5. For a concept where “chef inspired” signature burgers run about $6.75 (in Chicago) and the average check is about $8.50, that’s a huge deal. But don’t expect one like it next week.
“We don’t coupon. We don’t discount, don’t do Groupon or LivingSocial,” says Meatheads Marketing Manager Joe Sanders. “We price our food fairly and let it stand.”
Meatheads’ commitment to quality ranks far ahead of “Open lots of stores” on its to-do list. It has 10 restaurants open now, half of which it opened in 2012. But it’s not accelerating that trajectory: This year it plans on opening another five, all in the Chicago area (the first opened in Bloomington in central Illinois). Concentrating on one market will allow it to do more marketing, possibly including TV.
The urgency comes from Sanders’ understanding of how crowded the fast-casual restaurant category has become. Meatheads’ location in the Roscoe Village neighborhood on Chicago’s north side is just yards away from a Chipotle Mexican Grill. Around the corner in the same shopping center is a Wingstop. “We’re all fighting for the same dollar,” he says. That’s not to say multiple competing concepts can’t all succeed. They can, says Sanders, but they have to know what they’re about.
One of Meatheads’ midstream tweaks has been to drop the “Burgers & Fries” descriptor from its logo. Signage now defines the concept as “Meatheads: Thoughtful food by caring people.” That accomplishes several important things, Sanders says. It keeps consumers from writing Meatheads off as just another burger concept. “We don’t want them to think, ‘Yeah, I’ve been to Five Guys. So, thanks,’” he says. The new line also puts food quality front and center.
Sanders believes Meatheads’ burgers are as good or better than any competitor’s. But he doesn’t want it judged just on burgers. “Whether we succeed or not depends on service,” he says. “We want you to experience Meatheads; experience the quality and the service. That is what makes us stand out in this marketplace.”
Burgers are 100% Certified Angus Beef. Diners can build their own (third-pound or half-pound beef patties or a chicken breast) or choose from the half-dozen signature builds. The most popular is the Californian (Angus beef, pepper-Jack cheese, cucumber-wasabi sauce, avocado, lettuce, tomato). Fries are not just hand-cut in-house, they are first blanched and then fried to order. Chicken tenders are cut, breaded and fried to order. Kids meal options include a small burger, a New England Style Hot Dog (on a split-top bun) and grilled cheese on Texas Toast. “That Texas Toast tells Mom that we care about that grilled cheese for her child. We could have just used a bun or bread, but we chose Texas Toast that kids like,” says Sanders.
“Sometimes it’s innovative to be simple,” he says of the menu. But Sanders also knows that menus can go stale. To avoid that, he’s considering adding limited-time burger specials to keep the menu fresh. But no more often than quarterly: Clutter is the enemy of innovation. Also under consideration is the addition of salads. The chain already has a 50/50 customer split between men and women.
Many of the decisions on the look and feel of Meatheads were made with women in mind, according to Sanders. This includes going to a more-feminine all-lower-case logotype, choosing melodic in-store music that women prefer and using booths as well as tables because booths facilitate keeping small children in one place. Positioning Meatheads as a family restaurant rather than a teen-hangout burger joint was another reason “Burgers & Fries” was dropped, Sanders says.
Family-friendly community programs are important parts of the Meatheads brand. Large boards in each unit give up-to-date major-sport scores for surrounding high schools. Coaches are invited to give “Meathead of the Game” vouchers to athletes who perform well. The chain’s “Voracious Readers” program rewards kids who read five books with a free kids meal.
Sanders says Meatheads isn’t interested in franchising now because it needs to ensure that all tenets of the brand personality are maintained. Certainly it could grow faster by franchising, “But that’s not us,” he says. Going public isn’t an option under consideration either.
Neither is it interested in adding “low-cost entry items” like McDonald’s Dollar Menu. “There’s a market for that, but that’s not our market. We can’t do things just because someone else does. If we provide our quality and value and service and community involvement, I think we’ll keep doing fine.”