After 35 years in fine dining, Michael Namour was ready to try something casual. With $275,000 and a lot of elbow grease, he opened Buns with partner George Ash in May 2008 across the street from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). The name, chosen to grab customers’ attention, isn’t the only thing that’s catchy about the pair’s concept.
While other restaurants cut quality and portion sizes to stay afloat, Buns serves customers 6 ounce Angus Chuck burgers on buns made fresh daily at a local bakery. A towering side of hand-cut fries, gourmet dipping sauce, and a soda complete the store’s combo for less than $8.
Buns’ beef, turkey, and veggie burgers, prepared without a freezer or a microwave, brought the concept almost instant success. But Namour and Ash will tell you that it takes more than a good product to run a successful independent operation.
Although the Chapel Hill area is usually a revolving door of storefronts, Namour and Ash turned a profit only six months after opening Buns. The pair credits market research, carefully thought out pricing, and strong community connections. And they did it without the help of a corporate office.
QSR followed Namour and Ash for one day, from pre-opening to close, to give you a first-hand account of the challenges independent operators face.
Namour and four of his 16 full-time employees have been at Buns for half an hour already. One forms hundreds of beef burgers by hand while another seasons salmon and tuna steaks.
Namour’s day started long before 8 a.m. Although he and Ash chose to open the store in Chapel Hill because the nearby university offers a captive audience, Namour commutes into town two to three days a week from his home in Denver, North Carolina. The ride takes three hours. He spends another day or two each week at the restaurant’s office in Hickory, North Carolina, where a bookkeeper manages paperwork and performs cost analyses. But making it out to the store regularly is important to Namour.
It allows him to be intimately involved in operations—counting the money in the register, tasting various products, taking inventory. Whatever is necessary to prepare for the day’s 11 a.m. opening.
“It’s exactly like running a play,” Namour says. “When the curtain goes up, you’ve got to be ready.”
Jennifer Robbins, the cashier for today’s lunch shift, arrives. After running to a nearby bank to deposit last night’s earnings, she fills the condiments in the dining room.
Robbins has been with Buns since the beginning, about two months before the store opened. She’s not the only one.
The restaurant’s staff is almost identical to what it was the day it opened 13 months ago. Only two staff members have left, which puts Buns at 12.5 percent turnover. That’s 87.5 percentage points below the industry average.
Namour is used to outstanding retention. At a former concept, he had staff members who stayed with him for 19 years.
Despite the fact that the UNC campus is so close, Namour and Ash shy away from hiring students, who often don’t make a quick-serve job their priority. That leaves Namour with employees who depend upon their job for their livelihood. He tries his best to accommodate this, refusing to release employees early when business is slow and offering them competitive wages.
“You can’t compete with the franchises because the franchises have 401Ks and health insurance,” Namour says. He gives employees regular raises to keep them from being lured away and promises health coverage after a year.
“It’s really a hardship on an independent to provide that, but in order to keep them ...” he says.
After Namour hires employees, he removes all temptations for them to steal or cut corners, decreasing the likelihood of firing them. Security cameras transmit a live feed to his Denver home, he offers them free food, and he jumps on anyone who strays from standard protocol—even slightly.