Burger’s Priest: You Don’t Need an MBA to Achieve Business Success

This seems to be The Burger’s Priest’s big week. I knew it was a popular place that made a burger that many people rate highly (I like their burgers as well but I don’t think I could have too many of them in any given month). But in the last couple of days I’ve read stories about the business success of this entrepreneurial start-up and about its recognition and high rating by Zagat.

Below is an excerpt from an interview of the owner and operator, Shant Mardirosian, by The Toronto Star’s John Goddard:

The success of his humble fast-food joint has passeth all understanding. Shant Mardirosian opened his take-away restaurant Burger’s Priest in the east end 20 months ago and expanded to the city’s north end last month. Real-estate agents are scouting a third location in an undisclosed part of the city, he says, “because I’m ready to go financially and I’m ready to go buzzwize.” The buzz comes from lineups down the block and a third-place ranking this week on the Zagat 2012 Toronto Restaurant Survey. Mardirosian confesses the secrets of his success to The Star.

Q: How has Burger’s Priest caught on so quickly?

A: The growth has been nothing but Biblical from Day One. I can’t explain — nobody can explain — what happened here. This doesn’t happen. I can’t attribute it to anything I’ve done. . . I have a lot of faith in God and He told me early on that this place is going to be big.

Q: What were your first ambitions?

A: My original thought was to find a place for as cheap as possible and sell 20 burgers a day and survive. The first day we sold 120. Between the two places, we now sell about 1,600 patties a day.

Q: How cheap was the place?

A: I found it on Craigslist for $27,000. It used to be George’s BBQ Chicken (1636 Queen St. E.). I started looking around in 2008 but couldn’t get a loan. I worked as a waiter. I worked breakfast and lunch at One Restaurant, in Yorkville, dinner at either Air Canada Club (at the ACC) or Ruth’s Chris Steak House (near University and Richmond Sts.) and at night — to make a little extra — Sicilian Ice Cream on College St., a great place that’s been there since the 1950s.

Q: You have a tag line, “Redeeming the burger one at a time.” What do you mean?

A: It’s tongue-in-cheek but at the same time it’s true. I’m a seminary grad. When I graduated the question for me was, “How do we redeem one section of culture?” and I chose this. In a culture of frozen patties and fast food that is done poorly, we don’t do that.

Q: What do you do instead?

A: Everything here is ground fresh every day. We have never sold a patty that’s more than three or four hours old. We make our own fries. We peel them and cut them. We try to make a burger that if God became human He would be pleased with it.

Q: Your menu features the $5.29 cheeseburger. How do you keep the price down?

A: Right now I’m taking a big hit on beef prices. They’ve really gone up. For the moment I’m comfortable with the margin and volume is playing a big factor in that.

Q: Do you feel pressure to expand the dining area?

A: People constantly want more seating, bigger spaces, but at the same time they want me to charge $5.29 for a cheeseburger. For the second location (at 3397 Yonge St., north of Lawrence Ave.) I tripled the size of the restaurant. The place is still small. Sixty per cent is in the back and you don’t see it. We went from four stools (on Queen St. E.) to a 14-seater, which was a compromise that I’m comfortable with. Next time we’re going to try to go a little bit bigger and still charge $5.29.

Q: Will you go beyond three?

A: People say, “Why don’t you go here? Why don’t you go there?” I can only grow as fast as I have good people to run them, because I can’t be in five places at the same time. Finding regular staff, I’ve been blessed. I have amazing staff. But finding managers in order to lead — that’s the hard part. Usually you need a GM and an assistant.

A: How would you sum up your success?

Q: I would say hard work, passion and a lot of luck.

As mentioned above, The Priest also showed up on the prestigious list of Zagat. As The Star’s Jennifer Bain reported on Wednesday:

One of Toronto’s favourite indie burger joints has muscled its way to third place on the crowd-sourced Zagat Survey. The Burger’s Priest has been awarded third best food in Toronto after upscale compatriots Scaramouche and Chiado/Senhor Antonio Tapas and Wine Bar.

“I’m blown away to be honest,” says owner Shant Mardirosian. “I never thought it would reach this level.”

He opened his “classic American cheeseburger” joint in a minuscule space at Queen St. E. and Coxwell Ave. in June 2010 to instant raves. With just four stools, it’s essentially a takeout shop where people flock for griddle-cooked burgers made from premium beef that’s ground on site several times a day. A second, larger Burger’s Priest with 14 stools opened in January on Yonge St. north of Lawrence Ave.

Zagat’s 2012 Toronto Restaurant Survey was released online Wednesday and covers 315 restaurants as voted on by 2,266 local diners. Ratings and reviews are at zagat.com and Zagat’s mobile app.

Started as a hobby in 1979 by Tim and Nina Zagat, Zagat Survey is now the world’s leading provider of consumer survey-based information on where to eat, drink, stay and play around the world. It revolves around crowd-sourced opinions and is owned by Google.

Entrepreneurs come from all areas of life and the owner of The Burger’s Priest is no exception. Shant Mardirosian is an Armenian-American from Los Angeles who moved to Toronto in 1984. Mardirosian was a Tyndale University College & Seminary graduate who planned to be a pastoral minister until he got the bug for running a small business. Bain writes:

All burgers start from a custom blend of “ultrapremium beef” that’s ground in-house several times a day and rolled into 4-ounce balls and seasoned with just salt and peppers. They’re cooked to order on a flat-top griddle, where they’re “smashed” into patties and transferred to small, soft, white, squishy buns that remind me of the 1970s.

On the written menu, you’ll find cheeseburgers and double cheeseburgers (a.k.a. the double). The Option is a veggie burger made of fried, cheese-stuffed Portobello mushrooms. The Priest is an Option plus a cheeseburger.

Off menu, the oddly popular Vatican City boasts two grilled cheese sandwiches (made from buns) and two cheeseburgers. Mardirosian is pretty proud of that one, but won’t discuss the High Priest, with its two beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese on a non-sesame seed bun. Holy Smokes is a double cheeseburger with panko-coated, deep-fried jalapeno rings. You can order anything “with smoke.”

The Pope (double cheeseburger plus Option) becomes the Tower of Babel when you add the Vatican City bun. There’s the Noah’s Ark (an Option with chili, cheese and onions) and the Religious Hypocrite (Option plus bacon). The Judgment Day (two Options in a cheeseburger) becomes an Armageddon when you ask for two cheeseburger patties.

Try keeping all that (and more) straight.

But this I urge you to order: a cheeseburger or double cheeseburger “Jarge-style.” The beef ball is coated on the bottom with yellow mustard and smashed so the mustard cooks into the meat. It’s topped with fried onions mixed with special sauce.

Mardirosian won’t give up sauce details, but will gladly discuss how his friend Rob’s nickname has become a “Toronto culture phenomenon.” Jarge is a made-up word/sound (sort of jarz-sh) that Rob once made in Whistler when he was cold. Rob/Jarge is also “an animal,” says Mardirosian in an inside reference to the “animal-style” secret burger at In-N-Out featuring a mustard-cooked patty with extra “spread” inspired by that gaudy pink Thousand Island Dressing.

It’s a bit of a chore figuring out the secret menu. But not downright exhausting as it was for Mardirosian to create Burger’s Priest. He spent nine months in New York City in 2007 working at burger joints. Then he waited at four Toronto restaurants for 20 hours a day to raise money to buy the Queen St. building.

He hoped to sell 20 burger combos a day. He does about 400 orders a day on Queen St. and 600 a day already on Yonge St. (An order can be anything from a Coke to a dozen burgers.) He has 45 staff.

 



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