On beef and business: Burger entrepreneur hopes to achieve same success as he did at Pizza Hut and McDonald’s

This BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger (with fries) is as American as freedom.

Tom Ryan is the guy who came up with the idea to stuff cheese into a Pizza Hut crust and tuck McDonald’s egg, meat and cheese into sweet maple pancakes. His stuffed-crust pizza and McGriddles now are considered icons by fast food intelligentsia.

Ryan now has a new project: his growing Smashburger brand.

With 20 years of experience in food and a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance chemistry, Ryan brings an interesting take to the burger business.

Smashburger operates 200 locations in 29 states and four countries and plans to open another restaurant in Henderson by the end of the year. Since it began, the company has generated more than $250 million in revenue.

A day before opening his seventh Nevada location, a shop at 9460 S. Eastern Ave. in Henderson, Ryan sat down with VEGAS INC to talk burgers and business:

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Austin “Chumlee” Russell and George Wallace on the grill at Smashburger.

On whether smashing burgers is an art …

It’s a little bit of art. But it’s probably more precise. There’s a lot of precision built into what looks easy to make.

On where the idea for Smashburger came from …

When I decided to build a burger, we really had two things that we were trying to do overall.

No. 1: Create a juicy and delicious burger you could taste in every bite. The smashing piece came out of that.

Second: Put burgers back into people’s lives. I think for a long time, because burgers were so relegated to the big three fast feeders, it became a commodity product. I thought we were missing having a place you could go and really enjoy a burger and do it in a social atmosphere.

On Smashburger’s proximity to competing In-N-Out Burger restaurants ...

Coincidental. Although it’s not coincidental.

It has very little to do with In-N-Out, but it has a lot to do with the general philosophy of places that want to sell a lot of food.

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Joey Fatone at Smashburger in Fiesta Rancho.

We chase really key things like everybody else does. You want to have a high workplace density and be in a place with a high rooftop density because you want a strong two-part business: lunch and dinner. You can’t just be a place that has one or the other. You want high visibility. You want ample parking.

We are a different animal than In-N-Out Burger. We don’t do drive-thrus. But that density is a universal value for anybody. You don’t put a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and hope people come to it.

On the Smashburger experience …

We’re not glitz and glamour. We’re not over the top. We’re slugging out really great service and really great burgers for people to have across a broad range of occasions.

Instead of taking a product-centric perspective, I designed this around occasions. So my unit of commerce is really a visit. If the service is off, if the cleanliness is off, if the price point is off, if the product is off, that diminishes the overall experience.

On what makes Smashburger different than other burger joints …

People manage three things in their lives: their money, their time and the quality or quantity of their aesthetic. I think we have a very unique balance of those three things.

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Burgermeister and former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman works the grill at Smashburger to celebrate National Burger Day on Tuesday, May 28, 2013.

It’s fast casual, so you order at a counter. But we serve our food open-faced. It’s not wrapped in paper. You’re not eating out of a bag. We don’t call you back on a microphone. You sit, you get a number, we bring the food back to you.

Our average check for an adult is about $9. It takes about 25 minutes to get in and out. And our food rivals food that costs 50 percent more. That’s our unique balance. We are reinventing burgers for the next generation

On how you smash a burger …

When you order at the front counter, your Smashburger is an Angus meatball in a drawer. You put a little unsalted butter on the grill, put the burger on the butter and use parchment paper to keep the burger from sticking.

We have three sizes of our patented smashing tool. We go right on top of it (pressing the tool down) gently, until it’s metal to metal, and hold it there for 10 seconds.

On why you smash a burger …

Three things are happening. No. 1: I’m caramelizing the bottom, setting up a tremendous amount of beefy, steaky flavor. The second thing I’m doing is spreading it out and setting up this really loose texture, so when you bite, it releases everything at once. The third thing is I’m forming a shell. That sear on the bottom of the burger is like a physical shell. It’s holds everything in there.

On when a Smashburger is done ...

How do you know when to flip pancakes? They bubble.

Much like a pancake, because this meat is so loosely packed, you start to see these little channels. That’s the indication it’s time to go.

It's bubbling because the juice can’t get out the bottom. Our burgers basically baste themselves in their own juice.

On seasoning …

Top secret: kosher salt, black pepper, garlic and a little bit of natural magic to bring out the certified Angus beef flavor.

On staying creative in the burger business …

Existing brands have so many required equities that you can only be creative to the extent that the equity defines itself. There are things that are very McDonald’s-esque, and things that aren’t very McDonald’s-esque, and it’s really hard to cross those lines. Nine times out of 10, you shouldn’t.

And the one time you should, it’s hard to get the organization to do that with you.

But typically the creative envelope you have to work with when you go into a Pizza Hut that’s been around for 30 years, there’s a Pizza Hutness you have to live within to do anything creative. Versus starting with nothing, I could decide the color of the grout if I really cared to.

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