Lark­burger hun­gry to taste ex­pan­sion

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Em­i­lie Rusch

Lark­burger has served more than 7.2 mil­lion burgers, 883,000 milk­shakes and 3.2 mil­lion pounds of pota­toes over the past 10 years.

But it all started with just one burger, a steak au poivre-in­spired take on the Amer­i­can clas­sic first fea­tured at chef Thomas Sala­munovich’s high-end Lark­spur restau­rant in Vail in 1999.

“When we opened Lark­spur, I wanted to have a ham­burger in the menu that was truly mem­o­rable in a straight­for­ward man­ner,” Sala­munovich said.

It was so mem­o­rable, in fact, that a ver­sion of that Lark­burger — made with all-nat­u­ral Black An­gus beef and topped with tomato, let­tuce, onion, pickle and house-made lemonDi­jon sauce — got a restau­rant all its own in 2006, with a fast-ca­sual spin.

“It was re­ally ap­proached from a culi­nary point of view,” Sala­munovich said. “We weren’t a com­pany that said, ‘We want to make money, so let’s make a ham­burger restau­rant.’ ”

Fast for­ward to to­day, and Lark­burger is cel­e­brat­ing its 10th an­niver­sary — hav­ing grown from one restau­rant in Ed­wards to 12 lo­ca­tions in the state amid in­creas­ingly fierce com­pe­ti­tion in the “bet­ter burger” world.

With a new CEO on board, the Colorado-grown burger con­cept is poised for even more growth in the fu­ture, in­clud­ing, as soon as next year, its lon­gan­tic­i­pated first out-of-state lo­ca­tion.

“To­tal global dom­i­na­tion,” Sala­munovich said, with a laugh, when asked what his goal was for Lark­burger’s next 10 years.

“Our real goal is to ex­pand Lark­burger to be able to of­fer more com­mu­ni­ties a place to gather, break bread and share with friends,” he said. “We’ve put a lot of time into work­ing on our sys­tems. It’s now time to take this baby on the road.”

New CEO Todd Co­erver, who suc­ceeded co-founder Adam Baker in Septem­ber, is an im­por­tant part of the brand’s growth push.

Be­fore tak­ing the reins of the Den­ver­based burger con­cept, Co­erver was chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer at Taco Ca­bana, a 171-unit fast-ca­sual Mex­i­can chain based in Texas. Be­fore that, he led mar­ket­ing and in­no­va­tion ef­forts for Whataburger.

“We’re go­ing to grow only as fast as we can repli­cate the magic,” Co­erver said. “There’s a long list of brands that grew way too fast. You can lose your sense of iden­tity along the way.”

One thing Co­erver did af­ter tak­ing over this fall was tap the brakes on a pre­vi­ously an­nounced ex­pan­sion to the Kansas City area to give him time to get up to speed with the brand.

“We’re in the tail end of re­ally com­plet­ing that process, that anal­y­sis,” he said. “We have ev­ery in­ten­tion in 2017 to grow out­side of Colorado and hope­fully in­fill in­side of Colorado too. We’ve got plenty of room to grow in the home state, as well.”

In­creased com­pe­ti­tion in the fast-ca­sual world — and the “bet­ter burger” seg­ment, in par­tic­u­lar — could make

that a chal­lenge, though, an in­dus­try an­a­lyst said.

Five years ago, fast-ca­sual burger con­cepts were see­ing dou­ble-digit an­nual growth in traf­fic, said Bon­nie Riggs, restau­rant in­dus­try an­a­lyst at The NPD Group. For the fis­cal year end­ing in Septem­ber, vis­its were up only 1 per­cent.

“The bloom is off the rose so to speak,” Riggs said. “The space has got­ten too crowded.”

Colorado alone is home to na­tional play­ers such as Smash­burger and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, as well as Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar, Park Burger and smaller one-off con­cepts.

Over­all, quick-ser­vice restau­rant vis­its — which make up 80 per­cent of all in­dus­try vis­its — de­clined for the first time in five years dur­ing the third quar­ter, she said.

“We’ve got more res­tau­rants than we’ve got bod­ies to fill them,” Riggs said. “It’s a real battle for mar­ket share. Our fore­cast for next year is a nogrowth sit­u­a­tion.”

Den­ver restau­rant con­sul­tant John Im­berg­amo said it will be in­ter­est­ing to see if Lark­burger’s cul­ture and ori­gin story can trans­late into new mar­kets that don’t have the same home­town con­nec­tion.

“There are very few chains that orig­i­nate from a sin­gle item in a fine din­ing restau­rant like Thomas did with Lark­burger,” Im­berg­amo said in an email. “Many years later, I think that chef ori­gin past still shines through.”

Co­erver said even in a crowded field, those roots in fine din­ing — but at a more ac­ces­si­ble price point and en­vi­ron­ment — make Lark­burger spe­cial.

That in­cludes ev­ery­thing from its toma­toripen­ing cab­i­nets and tech-for­ward grills to its com­mit­ment to biodegrad­able pack­ag­ing and use of re­claimed cy­press wood in its decor.

“No one else is com­ing at it from that an­gle,” Co­erver said. “It’s a beau­ti­ful lit­tle con­cept that’s still in its in­fancy and has noth­ing but up­side po­ten­tial.”

Joe Amon,, The Den­ver Post

Lark­burger em­ployee Ernesto Gar­cia de­liv­ers an or­der at the Wash­ing­ton Park restau­rant on Wed­nes­day. The Colorado chain, which is cel­e­brat­ing its 10th an­niver­sary, has 12 res­tau­rants in the state and plans to ex­pand out­side it.

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