Smashburger Cracks the Code on Menu Development

Menu development has become one of the most important operational aspects for fast-casual restaurants. But between sourcing consistent ingredients on a scalable level and ensuring top-notch distributors, it takes time, effort, and experience to do so efficiently.

So, we packed our bags for Denver and set out to talk to one of the pioneers of fast casual, who has been in the trenches of menu development for a long time: Tom Ryan, the chief concept officer at Smashburger, a concept that now boasts 350 locations around the world.

According to Ryan, menu development is a huge standout for consumers as their dining expectations evolve. “Food is becoming more and more topical; it’s becoming more and more integrated into people’s lifestyle, both at home and eating out,” he says. “And the demand of those customers and their discrimination is causing everybody in the industry to kind of up their game.”

By utilizing consistent, high-quality distributors, Ryan says Smashburger employees are able to focus more time on customer service and “smashing burgers perfect every time,” and less time being pressured to perform more and more internal prep.

“When we have builds that require constructed food, we would seek out high-quality vendors like Simplot to give us best-in-class ingredients that we can use,” says Ryan. “…And actually, they can do the job on this better than we can if we tried to do it ourselves.”

Menu Development Inspiration

Smashburger has a slew of core products on its menu and is known for its local regional burgers, which don a unique combination of local ingredients in sync with what’s trending in that market. For example, Smashburger’s SoCal smashburger, offered at its Los Angeles locations, features avocado, cilantro, red onion, tomato, lettuce and pepper jack cheese, and is topped with chipotle mayo and sour cream. Its Georgia burger features coleslaw, wicked pimina cheese, and bbq sauce.

There are a few different strategies Smashburger takes in developing its menu items. “Our distributors have a great sense of where the velocity is in the marketplace,” Ryan says. “We have a couple of burgers down south that have wicked pimina cheese — I wouldn’t have even known about that had we not picked up the phone and called our southern distributor and said, ‘Hey, what’s really hot?’” 

In developing the local market burgers, Ryan and his team peruse menus on a local basis, and he says it forces the team to have a lot of dialogue with local operators. “And then, last but not least, there’s just the general food trends,” he says. “I believe that the best and most successful menu innovations are ones that let you romance things that are already familiar with the people in a way.”

Burgers, which account for over 80 percent of Smashburger’s menu items, seem to be the perfect vehicle for romancing the familiar. The first step that goes into heightening the concept’s burgers is in its infancy. “We start with certified Angus beef — fresh, never frozen. Every morning, we ball them up into freshly made meatballs and when you order it at the counter, we actually paint our 385-degree grills with butter, smash our burger into the butter, which causes this great sear [and] great flavor development in a shell that keeps all the juices in,” says Ryan.

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Food Safety Prevention

“Food safety and the integrity of your supply chain have always been hugely important, and it’s really unfortunate when outbreaks happen,” says Ryan. 

He says the only good way to manage it is to have systems and processes and training in place to minimize the opportunity for food safety issues to take place. “Food safety starts with the individual ingredients at main ingredient suppliers, as well as further processors, but it doesn’t stop there.” Aside from distributors, proper management of quality, safety, and integrity within the four walls of a restaurant is crucial, he says.

Testing the Product

In this “Fast Casual Nation” episode, brought to you by Simplot Harvest Fresh Avocados, we explore a few items on the Smashburger menu, including the Spicy Jalapeño Baja with jack cheese, jalapeños, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, onion, and chipotle mayo on a spicy chipotle bun. “It gives you the heat and it gives you this rich, kind of tobacco-y flavor as well.”

The Baja Cobb Salad features fresh greens, sharp cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, sliced jalapeños, guacamole, tomatoes, and onions with spicy chipotle dressing.

Both products are popular and have been on the menu since Smashburger’s start in 2007. “And they continue to grow and mix over the years,” Ryan says, adding that avocado was added to the menu about three years ago with the Avocado Club (mayo, lettuce, tomato, fresh avocado, applewood smoked bacon, and ranch dressing on a multi-grain bun). 

“Avocado gives you this creamy richness, but it also prolongs all the flavors,” says Ryan. “So bacon stays with you in the mouth a lot longer when we add the avocados, so it really does sort of stretch the whole sensory experience, which gives you this really full flavor in every bite, which is really the hallmark of what we strive for in our recipes at Smash.”

On Smashburger’s back-burner are innovative combinations that have yet to hit the menu. Ryan says pairings like fried egg with avocado are really compelling, and finding ways to integrate avocados onto the menu are proving more profitable as avocado consumption continues to rise.

“The more we can focus on the things that define our brand in the main, and rely on the things that paint our quality story around the edges with others, the better our main will be,” says Ryan. “It becomes a blessing for guys like [chef] Andrew and I to have more and more great stuff to play with every day.”