Larkburger hungry to taste expansion
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.”
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.