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Blog: When is a Hamburger Not Just a Hamburger?

It’s not a Zen-question, but really addresses the challenge of market and competitive positioning. How are you different from all the rest?

I recently went to the opening of a new hamburger restaurant called “The Counter” over by the Mother’s Market at Jamboree and Michelson.

This Santa Monica based franchise opened their third location in Orange County run by the OC master-franchisee. I had the pleasure of speaking with the owner, Liam, who also operates store #2 right here in Newport Beach at Irvine Avenue and Westcliff at the Westcliff Plaza Center. The first was opened in Irvine in 2007 and they plan to open two more.

I was raised on hamburgers from an early age, literally before McDonald's became so common and the Golden Arches proudly proclaimed the number of burgers sold in the millions, not the billions. As much as I love the idea of being a vegan or limiting my meat intake, I’m a carnivore, so I’ve grown to accept that.

The focus of this piece is “when is a burger joint unlike other burger joints?”, and I break down the various burger establishments into categories:

  • Fast food, ala, McDonald's, Burger King, Jack in the Box, etc… , all self served with few luxuries and very low cost.
  • In the middle you have your mid-range burgers, like Johnny Rockets, Fatburgers, The Habit, Five Guys, and scores of others. Usually higher in quality and price they are sometimes self-serve and some times full-serve.
  • And over the past few years, luxury/ gourmet burgers have become more popular, like Umani and Slater’s 50/50, along with The Counter, which falls into that category. I’m focusing on hamburger specialty restaurants which precludes hundreds of high-end establishments that offer burgers in the $10 and up price range as part of their menu.

The Counters’ unique spin is offering totally customized burgers with over 310,000 combinations between four different types of meats, about a dozen or so cheeses and scores of condiment and sauce combinations. They are totally full-service and the new location had something which prompted me to write this: a full liquor bar. I asked Liam what percentage of sales come from liquor and he said, “It was very small, but it is a good reason to bring a date!” That intrigued me since it does address the question of competitive positioning. If I were on a date and wanted a hamburger, would I go to McDonald's? Not if I wanted to impress. Any of the mid-range burgers? Maybe on a third or fourth date. But if I wanted to have a good burger that garnered favors from the beginning, then The Counter could be an option.

So how do you “sell” that concept? How do you distinguish yourself from all the other burger joints? How do you distinguish yourself from all the other Realtors, insurance agents, consultants, dentist, attorney or a host of hundreds of other fields were we are viewed the same.

Thoughts? Please share.

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