The Shula name is well-known to Floridians and football fans. And if the steak and burger restaurant company has its way, burger aficionados across the United States will know it, as well.
The first Shula Burger, a fast-casual concept that employs several upscale twists, opened in November 2011. Since then, the brand has expanded to four locations, all in the Sunshine State, with a fifth on the way. Shula Burger is owned by 31-unit Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Shula’s Steak Houses LLP, which also operates the upmarket flagship Shula’s Steak House.
The company is named for Don Shula, the former Miami Dolphins coach who won back-to-back Super Bowls in the early 1970s. Celebrated as the “winningest NFL head coach ever,” Shula is a member of the National Football League Hall of Fame.
Scott Nietschmann, president of Shula Burger, said Shula has always been known for excellence on the field, and that excellence has been translated into his company’s restaurant operations.
Nietschmann said Shula Burger was developed during the last recession, when many customers of the upscale steakhouse restaurants could not afford to dine there as frequently. While Shula’s restaurant family also includes three casual-dining concepts — Shula’s on the Beach, Shula’s 347 Grill and Shula’s Bar & Grill — the company decided it needed to enter the burgeoning fast-casual segment.
Shula’s executives realized where the economy was going, Nietschmann said, and they wanted to launch another brand that would reflect the same quality found in the company’s steakhouses but would also provide more affordability for consumers.
Bev Cain, an analyst with foodservice market research firm Sandelman & Associates, said Shula’s executives were wise to respond to their customers’ needs during the downturn.
“When the recession hit and stayed, there was a strong movement away from full-service restaurants to quick-service restaurants because it enabled consumers to have that feeling of eating out without plunking down more money than they thought they could afford,” she said.
Several higher-end elements from Shula’s Steak House are employed at Shula Burger, Nietschmann said. Wines at Shula Burger are chosen by the steakhouse chain’s sommelier, real silverware is used, and several handcrafted local beers are available.
“It’s an exciting concept because I think we’re creating a niche that’s really fast casual-plus,” Nietschmann said. Competitive differentiators also include bussed tables and “food runners” who are trained to take care of guests from the time they sit down until they leave.
More steakhouse, less fast food
The burger chain’s menu also helps to set it apart, Nietschmann said. Popular items include the French Onion burger, made with caramelized onions, Gruyère cheese, garlic mayonnaise and crushed garlic croutons; the Wine Country burger, made with roasted peppers, tomatoes, goat cheese and balsamic greens; and The Don, a classic cheeseburger topped with onion sauce and a split hot dog.
According to Matt DeBusk, Shula Burger’s director of franchise development, the burgers are made with a proprietary blend of short rib, chuck and brisket beef.
“We’re taking a segment that we have specialized in for 25 years, which is premium excellence in beef, and we’re putting it into a fast-casual concept,” he said.
The menu also includes the Shula’s Steak Sandwich, Grilled Chicken Sandwich, Veggie Burger, Sweet Potato Tots, Fried Pickles, Blue Cheese Chips, and several salads and milk shakes.
Given those added elements, DeBusk said, Shula Burger doesn’t necessarily view better-burger chains like Five Guys Burgers and Fries as direct competition. Shula Burger is more steakhouse than fast-food joint, he said.
“At the end of the day, the guest is looking at the bottom of that check and deciding on whether that price was worth it,” Nietschmann said, adding that a great dining experience is the linchpin of that value perception.
While a new franchised location is slated to open soon, DeBusk said that the growth of the Shula Burger chain will be slow and measured.
“This is a brand that needs to aspire to be excellent in all facets of the word,” including in food, service and quality environment, he said. “That’s what’s more important to us than rapid growth and expansion.”
The company currently has two corporate restaurants and two franchised locations. The brand is focusing on growing in the Southeast in coming years. However, DeBusk said, if the right partner comes along, Shula Burger would open anywhere in the country. Deals for New York’s Times Square, Chicago and Arizona already are in the works, he said.
“It’s really about forming partnerships, not just finding franchisees,” Nietschmann said.
As an established brand in a hot segment, Shula Burger should be ripe for growth, Cain agreed.
“I think the better-burger segment is the segment of the hour,” she said. “There is a lot of focus on it, not only from franchisors and the industry, but consumers are looking for better burgers for more options.”
Cain said that while there are plenty of competitors in the segment, there is still room for everybody. Burgers have long been the largest segment overall, she said, and fast casual hits a sweet spot for consumers.
“[Shula Burger] offers a wider variety of menu options than some of the other better-burger chains,” she said. “I think that might help it.”
Besides, she added, football is huge in the Southeast, and the fact that the 1972 Miami Dolphins were an undefeated team certainly couldn’t hurt the Shula brand in southern Florida.
BY ERIN DOSTAL