Quick-service restaurants’ critics need to meet K&N Management, owner of the three-unit Mighty Fine Burgers, Fries & Shakes chain in Austin, Texas. This month it became the first foodservice company to receive the Texas Award for Performance Excellence (TAPE) award from the nonprofit Quality Texas Foundation.
It’s no small achievement, and one that began with the submission of a 50-page application outlining how the company follows the seven guidelines used for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (leadership; strategic planning; customer focus; measurement, analysis and knowledge management; workforce focus; process management; results). A four-day visit by TAPE judges determines whether or not a company really commits to quality operations as it claims to do.
K&N partners Ken Schiller and Brian Nolen owned the Austin franchise for Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q (they have three Rudy’s units) when they decided Austin also needed a top-quality burger joint. Mighty Fine’s menu is minimalist. There are half- and quarter-pound burgers ($4.95 and $3.55) and cheeseburgers and a Chopped Chili Dog in plain or cheese varieties. That’s it. But the burgers are beef chuck that is free of hormones, antibiotics and preservatives and humanely raised. The crinkle-cut fries are cut in-house with customized equipment the partners say can’t be found elsewhere. The milkshakes are hand-dipped; the lemonade is hand squeezed. The chain has trademarked the phrase “Quality is everything.”
“Our approach is simple. We will always be driven by quality,” says Schiller. “We’ll charge what we have to charge to maintain that quality and we will never cut corners.” Mighty Fine will continue to open new locations “at a slow, measured pace,” Schiller says, but it won’t be through franchising because he and Nolen aren’t convinced they’ll find partners who “will think as long term as we do and who’ll let quality define every discussion.”
Mighty Fine units do about $4 million apiece in annual sales, which is impressive. And they do that with a menu that has no chicken, no veggie burger and no salads. Premium toppings are limited to bacon and jalapeños; condiment choices are “Red, Yeller or White.” “We plan to keep it that way,” Schiller says. “There’s no way we can serve the number of burgers we do with consistency and quality without a limited menu. We’re going to do a few things perfectly instead of a lot of things just average.”
What does Mighty Fine’s Ken Schiller put on his burger? We asked him the “10 Burger Questions”:
1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you like burgers?
I’d say 10. If I had to pick only one food that I had to eat every day, I’d say a burger.
2. Grill or flattop: what’s the best way to cook a burger?
I prefer a flattop. That’s what we have [in Mighty Fine].
3. Highest price that should be charged for a burger?
I’d say whatever the marketplace dictates. There’s no limit.
4. Favorite burger topping?
Mustard. Yellow mustard.
5. What should never be on a burger?
A veggie patty.
6. Favorite non-beef burger?
Really, none. I don’t like nonbeef burgers.
7. Favorite burger beverage?
Coke in a glass bottle on ice. Not poured over ice; the bottle in an ice trough.
8. Best restaurant burger you’ve ever had (other than yours)?
Kincaid’s Hamburgers in Dallas and Fort Worth.
9. Best restaurant that doesn’t get enough recognition?
I’d just say that it’s any restaurant that walks the walk on quality without attempting to portray quality through marketing spin.
10. If I weren’t a restaurateur/chef, what would I want to be?
Doing this is the only thing I’ve wanted to be. I studied aviation and I have my pilot’s license, and I briefly did commercial insurance, where I had clients who were restaurateurs. That’s how I discovered this business and I’ve never wanted to do anything else.