Editor’s note: This month, we’re sharing the stories of small businesses that have successfully navigated the startup process, and taking a look at what challenges they faced during year one and beyond.
We wanted to know: What growing pains do business owners face once they have opened their doors? What are their struggles and successes? Check back in next week—we’ll be telling the unique story of another small business. You can find our previous installments here and here.
When Garrett Kirsch and his wife Felicia founded NorthWest Burgers in 2014, their business plan’s guiding principle “was to always keep it simple and never stray away from our original goal.”
NorthWest Burgers began by taking over a defunct burger joint’s space and equipment in the “International Cafés” area at the Fifth Street Public Market in Eugene, Oregon. Since then, the Kirsches’ endeavor has paid off with a devoted local following and “best burger” accolades in local media, and they have been able to hire six employees. Through it all, the Kirsches have stuck close to their focus: making fresh food from scratch with high-quality ingredients.
“Our vision was to take something as simple as a burger and make it phenomenal,” says Kirsch. “Nothing has changed.”
Experience drove simplicity
Kirsch distilled his simple vision from his education and over 15 years experience in the restaurant industry. He got his start at 16, working in pizza restaurants and later a Subway. From there he moved up to more upscale restaurants, and into management, with duties including operations as well as grand openings for restaurants throughout the Eugene/Springfield area.
In 2007, Kirsch completed his associate degree from the culinary and hospitality management program at Lane Community College (LCC) in Eugene. His future wife was a fellow student in the culinary program, and he credits LCC with teaching them the basics on how to operate small to large businesses.
Kirsch’s combination of education and experience honed his vision for what his business would become. He developed perspective on the challenges of getting attention and building regular customers in the food world, and also learned the nuts and bolts of managing the operations, personnel, equipment, supplies, and finances of a restaurant.
After working at another Fifth Street Public Market eatery during early 2014, Kirsch understood the possibilities in the International Cafés space. He and Felicia knew they wanted to start their own business, so they began keeping their eyes out for available spaces in the popular, competitive café area.
Above all, Kirsch began to realize where he and his wife could create a business that truly stood out.
“We’re both professional culinarians,” says Kirsch. “This is what we do best.”
Make (and grind) it in-house…
NorthWest Burgers focuses solely on burgers, each made by hand from local, grass-fed beef (though salmon, chicken, and vegan options are also available). “We make almost everything in house,” says Kirsch. “We grind our own beef, and make all our sauces from scratch, including our ketchup.”
While demanding and time-intensive, that focus on working with ingredients—instead of, say, pre-made burger patties—has also given the Kirsches the ability to create burger combinations that have attracted devoted fans and regular customers. Nothing typifies this more than NorthWest Burger’s signature Bork, a combination of ground beef and ground pork that’s mixed with bacon and blue cheese from Oregon’s historic Rogue Creamery. Topped with a chipotle aioli and served on a bun made from local bakery Reality Kitchen, the Bork has become a local legend.
Making their own sauces has further enhanced their reputation, and making their own allows them to constantly refine, tinker, and improve—such as a current project to research the origins and experiment with different sugars and soy sauces for their house teriyaki (they’re also refining the beer batter for their onion rings). The beef, however, is what really separates NorthWest Burgers.
“We were different because we make all our own sauces and we grind our own beef,” says Kirsch. “There’s a lot of restaurants, not strictly burger places, that grind their own. But strictly burgers, you don’t see that.”
…but don’t over-complicate things
Starting a restaurant is intense—not the least because of all the equipment investment, remodeling, and decision-making.
Unless you do an end-run around that, and simply take over the space of a similar eatery that went out of business.
When a burger place in Fifth Street Public market closed in 2015, Kirsch immediately got in touch with the Market’s leasing office to open NorthWest Burgers. Building on that strategy and relationship, when another eatery left the Market later that same year, Kirsch jumped on that opportunity as well. A month later, he and Felicia used that second space to launch another restaurant, Made From Scratch. Looking back, Kirsch realized that instead of keeping things simple, they had made a complicated mistake.
“I was stretching myself out too much,” says Kirsch. “One of the reasons NorthWest Burgers is successful is my wife and I can pull as many hours as we’re able to. We do 80 hours a week. When Made From Scratch came out, I had to take myself away from NorthWest Burgers and hire someone else to step in. I was still doing both though. It became too much.”
After six months, the Kirsches closed Made From Scratch to focus solely on NorthWest Burgers. It was a painful decision, but a good one that returned them to their plan to keep things simple.
“Try not to expand too quickly,” Kirsch suggests. “Just because you have one place that’s successful doesn’t mean you can walk away and go into another avenue.”
Instead of pursuing commercial loans—an area where he has seen others struggle with terms and payback—the Kirsches focused on a combination of bootstrapping, self-financing, and securing personal loans from family and friends. The flexibility gained gave the Kirsches breathing room for the first few months of operation, and has helped them keep the finances healthy.
Growing pains and challenges
Innovation is never easy. Burgers remain one of the most popular foods in the U.S., and from fast food to upscale gastropubs, there is no shortage of places that are happy to sling meat between two pieces of bread. Kirsch acknowledges that one of their biggest ongoing challenges is standing out from other popular and more established local burger spots. NorthWest Burgers leverages word-of-mouth, Facebook, and Instagram to stay front-of-mind with customers.
“Getting people in the door is always the hardest,” says Kirsch, especially in winter. The cold, wet winter of 2016 was especially difficult. “Ice and snow always kill business for Oregonians,” he says.
However, the solid location has proved to be an asset. Fifth Street Public Market is a popular local retail space; this visibility, coupled with NorthWest Burger’s easy-to-understand vision of handmade quality, continues to help them grow.
The model also has other pros and cons. “This is an owner/operator business, which you don’t see a lot of in the burger world,” says Kirsch. Being on site every day keeps him in touch with customers, but it also adds demands on his time, which he and Felicia continue to figure out how to navigate.
“My wife and I really focus on the larger burger establishments in our area,” says Kirsch. “We follow all the trends that seem to work out for them and put our own spin on it.”
An intensive focus on making things from scratch is only partially about the ingredients. It’s also about the people. Finding a great team has been key in helping the Kirsches work through their growing pains and keep the business moving forward.
“Your restaurant is only as good as your team,” says Kirsch. “We have five out of six employees that have stayed with us since we opened the doors. Keeping them happy and excited about work is hard but so rewarding in the long run. We treat them like family.”
Over the next three years, the Kirsches plan to expand NorthWest Burgers into a bigger establishment, with dedicated space for parties and other events, where they can serve more people. They also plan to expand the menu, but just slightly, so as to stay true to their original plan and focus.
Advice from a DIY restaurateur
The thing about simplicity, though, is that it doesn’t allow for complacency or stagnation. The key to a successful, simple business is to constantly refine and improve. “Just because you’re doing well doesn’t mean you stop inspiring yourself and your customers. You can never step back because you feel like you’re being successful,” says Kirsch. “You have to keep striving, keep going, and still always act like you have just opened the business.”
All told, the key to success for the Kirsches has been sticking to their plan to make hand-made, simple burgers, but always looking for ways to innovate. Here’s some advice they offer for others:
- The people you hire make a big impact in your business. Look to those you’ve worked with in the past for hiring and referrals, but when the time is right, don’t be afraid to expand your search beyond your immediate network.
- Building a long-term customer base takes more than just good food. “A lot of people just open and expect people to show up and want to try their food,” says Kirsch. “That’s not enough. Restaurants need to know how to separate themselves from who else is out there. They can’t just know it themselves, they have to be able to express it in their service, advertising, and marketing.”
- Be present. Kirsch believes that when the owners are present in the thick of day-to-day operations, quality, behavior, and morale improve and are more consistent. “If you leave,” says Kirsch, “that leadership leaves too.”
- Have daily sit-downs with your partner or management to discuss how the day went and where you can improve.
- Keep up with what’s happening in your area and with what’s trending, but stay true to yourself and represent your business as you want your customers to perceive it.
- Treat employees like family. Keep them engaged, empowered, and motivated. Offer raises, bonuses, and other perks and incentives. The Kirsches sit down with each employee every three months to discuss performance and where they can improve.