How Burgatory plans to build a burger empire

There's nothing in limbo about Burgatory. With three spots in the Pittsburgh area and four scheduled to open in coming months, the local burger chain is in its prime.

The original Waterworks location near Aspinwall opened in January 2011 next door to sibling restaurant Uncle Sam's, a sandwich shop. A stand in the Consol Energy Center opened next, followed by the restaurant at The Pointe in North Fayette last September.

Burgatory's next restaurant will open in the Waterfront (299 W. Bridge St., West Homestead) in December or early January, followed by another in the Blue Spruce Shoppes in Murrysville. A North Shore location will follow, located within the 120,000-square-foot development that's being built between PNC Park and Heinz Field. Finally, a Burgatory is planned in the Gardens at Market Square on Forbes Avenue, Downtown, now expected to open in 2015.

What's fueling the growth of this burger joint into a local chain? Let's face it, burgers are nothing new.

Location is key, said co-owners Mike Hanley and Jerry Dilembo, who also own Joe Mamas Italian Deluxe and Fuel & Fuddle, both in Oakland. They've placed Burgatory spots in the suburbs or in urban entertainment zones.

Mr. Hanley also said service and social media are important variables that have had a big impact on sales.

Add to the mix Herky Pollock, executive vice president of the commercial real estate firm CBRE, and Burgatory's potential rises to the heavens.

With a hand in many developments, particularly those that have helped revitalize Downtown, Mr. Pollock signed on as partner in October. Mr. Hanley and Mr. Pollock have known each other for more than 20 years.

"We are in a position to go national," said Mr. Pollock. "The restaurant has legs to grow a broader distance than we dreamed."

The goal is daunting, said Mr. Hanley. "He makes Jerry and me uncomfortable. That's part of his job description," he joked, citing Mr. Pollock's ambitions for the restaurant. "Herky thinks bigger than we have since the day we opened."

On the menu

Burgatory delivers infinite variations of burgers through "custom creations," with choices of burger meat, rubs, bun, cheese, sauce and toppings. Prices range from $9 to $15.

"People fill up on burgers and shakes," said Mr. Hanley, which is why, despite an ambitious beer and cocktail list, the restaurant's food-to-booze profit is 80/20 -- unusual as many newer Pittsburgh restaurants are relying on alcohol as a money maker. Its location draws more children and families than restaurants within the city.

Burgatory goes through 3,000 pounds a week of its "proprietary mix," said executive chef Brad Kohut. It's one of several meat options, with a 78/22 ratio of meat to fat ground from chuck, brisket, sirloin and short rib.

"There's no filler," he said of the burger he rounds into a loose patty. "And we try to handle it as little as possible." Mr. Kohut has been working at restaurants owned by Mr. Hanley and Mr. Dilembo for a decade.

As far as sourcing, beef has not been doctored with hormones, but it's not local. It is processed by a local butcher who grinds and delivers meat daily. The restaurant also sources locally from Wild Purveyors based in Lawrenceville.

It's not just Pittsburghers who like the burgers. In April, the restaurant won the best burger nod over Ted's Montana Grill in the national A.1. Steak Sauce Burger Bracket. And earlier this month in Las Vegas, Mr. Kohut took home sixth place in the signature burger category at the World Food Championships for his burger with smoked sea salt, goat cheese, jalapeno jelly, arugula and Granny Smith apple on brioche browned with shallot butter.

Systems and service

Mr. Hanley said from opening day, the Waterworks location was much busier than anticipated. And even though the restaurant featured entrees, customers wanted to build their own burgers. The kitchen was overwhelmed.

"Brad and some other key people came to us after the first few weeks and said, 'We don't know if we can do this.' "

They installed a better computer system that helped streamline orders and the fix was in.

"Could you imagine doing paper orders for all these variables?" The partners also pared the menu by dropping some entrees.

Burgatory staff also attended seminars held by the Union Square Hospitality Group in New York to improve its service. These seminars are hosted by the group behind restaurateur Danny Meyer of Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack, as well as author of "Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business" (Harper Perennial 2008).

"They really helped us to create a culture to take care of our guests," Mr. Pollock said. The results have also translated to a high return rate among employees, he added. Servers make money so they're staying in their jobs.

Social media

More than 13,000 Facebook fans, 5,000 Twitter followers and a presence on Instagram have also helped build Burgatory's reputation. Having spent no money on advertising, the partners cite social media as the connector between customers and the restaurant.

"People appreciate a quick response," said Mr. Pollock. "Word of mouth is so amplified because of it."

Social media drew attention to the restaurant's participation in burger contests.

It's where it tempts regulars with "burger of the day" announcements, displaying ingredients that tower between slices of brioche. It's where photos of neon gummy worms dangle from a Scarehouse Shake.

The restaurant also is targeting sports fans. With a presence in the Consol Energy Center, restaurant owners are building a relationship with the Penguins and want to expand that to the Pirates and the Steelers.

They believe by tapping into sports fans -- here and beyond -- the burger chain may capture the appetites of the Pittsburgh diaspora as it attempts to expand across the country.

"We are putting the systems in place to go national," said Mr. Pollock. "And yet with service and food that resonates with customers, we want to make them feel like it's local."


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