For the past year and a half, several of us at Riggs Partners have immersed ourselves in the “better burger” fast casual segment of the restaurant industry. Through our work with two separate franchise owners, we’ve helped to open the first three South Carolina locations of Smashburger, one of the fastest growing restaurant chains in the nation. Smashburger’s corporate office in Denver places a strong emphasis on public relations with limited paid advertising supplementing the marketing effort.
Smashburger grand openings follow a formula established by their corporate marketing team. This tried and true plan has guided the company through more than 240 store openings in the US and several international markets. Our grand openings include four private events before the public opening: a “Friends and Family” preview event for the franchisees’ closest friends, associates and vendors; a media event for the “ceremonial first smash” with a local celebrity; a VIP event for local dignitaries; and an “Eat and Tweet” for local food bloggers and online influencers.
For each store opening, Smashburger’s franchise owners have partnered with a local charitable organization in their respective markets. In Columbia, the partner is Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Columbia. In Charleston, the partner is the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Children’s Hospital Fund. Our clients don’t just want to write a check; they want to have a long-term, ongoing relationship with these organizations that make a meaningful impact on the lives of children. For each of the first store openings in the Columbia and Charleston markets, the respective franchise owners agreed to donate $1 per Smashburger or Smashchicken sandwich sold during their grand opening month to their charitable partner, with a minimum commitment of $5,000.
One traditional component of a Smashburger grand opening is the “celebrity smasher.” For both Columbia and Charleston, the charitable angle opened the door to a wonderful tie-in for the celebrity smashers. In Columbia, we invited two pairs of “Bigs” and “Littles” with Big Brothers Big Sisters to be our smashers. A Big Brother/Little Brother pair and a Big Sister/Little Sister pair served as our smashers, which was the first time that children had served as celebrity smashers at any Smashburger. In Charleston, we invited a 13 year-old girl with a very rare disease who has been treated at MUSC throughout her life. She smashed burgers alongside the Mayor of Summerville, who just so happened to have worked as a short order cook one summer as a teenager. It was fun to see them in the kitchen smashing the store’s first official burgers together.
Each of the grand openings has been a “smashing” success with terrific media coverage and a smoothly executed series of events that brought hundreds of guests through each store during their preview events. The two Columbia stores combined have raised more than $10,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters, while the Summerville store raised $8,147 for MUSC Children’s Hospital as a result of the overwhelming sales in its first month.
Some of the lessons we’ve learned during these retail grand openings include:
- Practice makes perfect. Have a “dress rehearsal” to iron out the kinks beforehand.
- Get local. Find a charitable partner or some other community tie-in.
- Focus on quality over quantity. Packing hundreds of guests into the restaurant may build curiosity from the outside, but we’d prefer that guests enjoy a leisurely paced meal and an overall great experience.
- Make it fun. Be sure that guests aren’t just treated to free food, but also enjoy a festive atmosphere. We’ve hired balloon artists, ordered fun promotional items and given out coupons for repeat visits.
- Build ambassadors. By pulling back the curtain into the store’s menu and operations, we’ve secured a great deal of goodwill for the restaurant and its owners.
- Evaluate. Always take time to do a “post mortem” meeting during which you discuss what worked, what didn’t and how you can improve next time.
While Riggs Partners has developed a strong reputation through the years for our work in the nonprofit sector, we find just as much reward when we work with business owners who have a deeper sense of purpose – something that motivates them to develop and deliver upon a mission that may or may not be obvious to their customers. The next time you bite into that burger or slurp that shake, keep in mind that you just might be helping someone in need.