Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Ones to Watch | By Judy Kneiszel

Elevation Burger
Healthy ingredients attract consumers to Elevation Burger.

Hans Hess was a life-long fan of hamburgers and hamburger restaurants, but in the back of his mind he was always critiquing them and taking mental notes on what he would do differently if he had the opportunity.

Then in 2002, Hess, a former real estate consultant, and his wife, April, combined business knowledge with an interest in healthier food and a better environment. They created a restaurant with the lofty goal of “elevating” the classic meal of American burger and fries to a new level.

The first Elevation Burger, which opened in 2005 in Falls Church, Virginia, quickly became a hit with people who wanted fast food without a side order of guilt. So Elevation Burger teamed up with the Alexandria, Virginia–based franchise development company Fransmart in 2008, and has since opened six more locations in five states: Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Another 35 Elevation Burger units have been sold to 11 franchisees in those states, along with one in New York City. Each franchisee will open three to five restaurants over the next five years.

Elevation Burger’s slogan, “Ingredients Matter,” reflects Hess’ commitment to offering burgers made of 100 percent, USDA-certified organic, grass-fed, free-range beef that is ground on premises several times a week. The buns are vegan and what Hess calls “an appropriately sized bun that doesn’t compete with the meat.”

“People can tell the difference in the taste,” says Chris Lambert, Elevation Burger’s director of restaurant development. “The beef tastes richer. Different sources have beef fed on different grasses. Our supply is eating a diverse array of naturally occurring grasses and that balances out the flavor. Our burgers have less fat but are still juicy.”

The french fries are cooked in olive oil, a monounsaturated fat shown to have health benefits. Traditionally, olive oil is not used for deep frying because of its higher cost, lower flash point, and the flavor it imparts, but Lambert says Elevation Burger’s two-step patented process for cooking fries in olive oil produces “incredible” results.

The fries are also made fresh to order. In fact, there is not even a holding bin for french fries in the kitchen.

“The fries are cut in house and then sit in water until they are blanched and then cooked in the olive oil,” Lambert says. “They are cooked when the meal is ordered and we’ve got our time down to four minutes.”

When a customer’s order is up, his name is called. If the restaurant isn’t crowded, staff will bring the food out to the customer.

“Customer service is a huge component of what we do,” Lambert says.

Despite the combination of organic beef, olive oil, and high customer service, the prices are competitive for the segment.

Lambert says that, depending on location, a double-patty Elevation Burger is about $5.70 and fries $2.50. While it’s a higher price tag than a Happy Meal, Lambert says Elevation Burger makes stomachs happier.

“If I eat a typical fast-food-burger meal I feel kind of sick afterwards but not when I eat at Elevation Burger,” Lambert says. “And I’ve heard similar comments from a lot of customers.”

The Elevation Burger menu is simple with offerings limited to burgers, fries, veggie burgers, and a salad option. Shakes and malts round out the menu.

“OK, so maybe we’re more into quality than healthy,” Lambert says. “We still have milkshakes. But they are made with ice cream that is hand-scooped and made from milk produced without hormones or antibiotics.”

He says the milkshakes are made right in the cup because the old-fashion metal cups used for mixing results in too much wasted product.

Waste is definitely something Elevation Burger is trying to eliminate. The company’s commitment to environmental sustainability goes beyond the beef. It uses Energy Star–rated appliances and high-efficiency lighting that turns off when the sun shines into the restaurants. Its restaurants are finished with renewable, nonpolluting materials and surfaces including bamboo flooring, compressed sorghum table tops, acoustic ceiling tiles, and bead board made of recycled and recyclable materials.

CEO: Hans Hess

HQ: Arlington, Virginia

Year started: 2005

Annual sales: Undisclosed

Total units: 7

Franchise units: 6

www.elevationburger.com

Elevation Burger is also pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, a challenge in the cost-conscious fast-casual segment. But environmentally friendly design does not mean cold, minimal décor.

“When you go into an Elevation Burger it feels very comfortable and domestic like you are at home and not in a typical restaurant,” Lambert says. “It’s what we call well-appointed.”

All seven Elevation Burger stores went into existing spaces in strip centers and downtowns. They range in size from 1,800 to 2,400 square feet with seating varying from 40 to 100.

“We are a family friendly concept and our demographic is affluent, highly educated consumers,” Lambert says.

“We want to be in areas where there is a good balance between daytime, evening, and weekend traffic. Right now we’re focused on the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, but we could really go anywhere in a major population market.”

Elevation Burger