COLUMBIA, SC — As an executive at a major fast-food chain, Tom Ryan had seen the surveys. In many cases, where a consumer went for a burger came down to whether it was a right turn or a left turn to get into the parking lot.
It was that apathy that sparked Ryans idea for Smashburger a new kind of burger that is actually smashed with a patented smashing tool on a flat grill to seal in its juices. Ryan opened his first hamburger restaurant of the same name in Denver in 2007.
South Carolina gets its first Smashburger restaurant today at 4601 Devine St., across from the Gamecock Bi-Lo. It is a fast-casual concept that allows customers to order at the counter but stay seated the rest of the meal as servers bring out food and refill drinks.
But back to the smashing.
You might think all of the ways to make a burger would have been invented years ago. But Ryan and his team found a way to seal in the juices of the burger in the hopes that every bite would be flavorful, he said.
It works like this: Take a large, loosely molded meatball and drop it onto a buttered grill. Cover it with wax paper and smash it, holding the patented tool in place for 10 seconds. Once the tool is lifted, the juices are sealed in. There are none running off the grill and, in fact, they can be seen bubbling up in the cooking burger, which is seasoned and flipped. The whole process takes about three minutes.
The next key to the burgers success is the bun, which has to be cut in exact dimensions to fit in a specially designed toaster (but only after both halves are coated by the butter roller). The process gives the bun the texture of the outside of a grilled cheese sandwich, which keeps it from soaking up all the juices. (Otherwise, it would just be a soggy mess).
The simplicity can be seen in other menu items, too.
The Smashfries are cooked in rosemary, olive oil, garlic and sea salt. Veggie frites are uncoated flash-fried carrot sticks and green beans. The classic hot dog comes with mustard, ketchup and relish. Then, there are Haagen Daz milkshakes and microbrewery beers.
Ryan has been successful in bringing excitement back to the burger a growing category in Columbia, with American Roadside Burger and Burger Tavern 77 both opening nearby in recent months. Smashburger was named the most promising company in America last year by Forbes magazine, which credited the chain for having more interesting fare than its competitors and a (small) dash of ambience at a reasonable price premium.
The average ticket price is about $8 or $9 if you take kids meals out of the equation, Ryan said, about half the price of a typical sit-down restaurant.
Chuck Mayfield, an owner and general manager of the Columbia franchise, said he and his partners are looking to open two more Smashburgers in the Columbia area, one by next fall in the Lexington or Irmo area and another possibly in Northeast Richland.
They chose the emerging Devine Street-Garners Ferry retail corridor, near the recently opened Whole Foods, because it is a vibrant area and a natural fit for the brand, Mayfield said.
If the chain is successful in Columbia, it could open in Charleston and Greenville next, owners said.