David Grossman is the President and CEO of Epic Burger, a Chicago-based restaurant chain focused on crafting “a more mindful burger.” An expert in business development, David knows exactly what it takes to grow a successful brand. Throughout his 30-plus years in the restaurant industry, David has led organizations like Subway and Freshii to incredible success, opening more than 150 stores combined for the two franchises. His latest venture is building Epic Burger into a dominant burger chain in the Midwest.
Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:
- David Grossman shares how he found his calling and ultimately fell in love with the restaurant industry
- The real estate secrets David learned from working with Subway Founder Fred DeLuca
- How David got his start as a franchisee and grew Freshii to 40 locations in the Chicago area
- David explains the three components necessary to grow and succeed in the restaurant space
- What motivated David to join forces with Epic Burger and buy a majority stake in the company?
- David shares what makes Epic Burger a unique brand
- Exciting improvements Epic Burger is making to take the restaurant chain to the next level
In this episode…
It’s a simple but painful truth: You can’t be everywhere at once. No matter how much attention you give your business, no matter how hard or how long you work, success often hinges on factors outside your control. But how do you know what areas to focus on to set yourself up for success?
When David Grossman teamed up with Epic Burger, the brand was struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. But, by leveraging his restaurant experience and implementing his expert business strategies, David transformed the restaurant chain into a one-of-a-kind brand that is now leading the burger niche. Now, David is here to share the key components that helped him take Epic Burger to the next level.
In this episode of the SpotOn Series, Chad Franzen chats with David Grossman, the President and CEO of Epic Burger, about his strategies for scaling a restaurant chain. With 30-plus years in the restaurant industry, David shares his expert advice on real estate selection and negotiation, transforming a restaurant during a pandemic, and more. He’ll also make your mouth water as he describes what’s next for his Chicago-based burger joint.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
- David Grossman on LinkedIn
- Epic Burger
- David Friedman on LinkedIn
- Chad Franzen on LinkedIn
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Welcome to the Top Business Leaders Show powered by Rise25 Media. We featured top founders, executives and business leaders from all over the world.
Chad Franzen 0:20
Chad Franzen here co-host for this show where we feature top restauranteurs, investors and business leaders. This is part of our SpotOn Series. SpotOn has the best in class payment platform for retail and they have a flagship solution called SpotOn Restaurant, where they combine marketing software and payments all in one. They have served everyone from larger chains like Dairy Queen and Subway to small mom and pop restaurants. To learn more, go to SpotOn.com This episode is brought to you by Rise25 We help b2b businesses to get ROI clients referrals and strategic partnerships through done-for-you podcast. If you have a b2b business and want to build great relationships with clients, referrals, referral partners and thought leaders in your space there’s no better way to do it than through podcasts and content marketing. To learn more, go to Rise25.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Grossman is President and CEO at Epic Burger. He is a Chicago native and lifelong player in the restaurant industry. After having success as a franchisee David knew the next step was to grow and develop his own brand. Epic Burger has eight locations, six of which are in downtown Chicago, and they offer the perfect mix of a quality product, a simple operation and scalability. David, thanks for joining me, how are you today?
David Grossman 1:34
I’m doing great, thank you. Good.
Chad Franzen 1:37
What are you up to?
David Grossman 1:39
I just walked into an Epic Burger, we are actually checking out some new menu board designs, we are going to add a couple of new burgers to the menu. We recently took some amazing pictures of all of our burgers, chicken sandwiches, adding a new veggie burger to the menu as well. And we’re going to see how the images look on our menu board. So we’re going to get rid of a lot of the descriptions. And we are going with pictures. I always feel like people eat with their eyes. And we’re going to hopefully make our ordering process easier. And super excited about it. So that’s what I’ve got planned for this morning.
Chad Franzen 2:23
Very nice how much work goes into something like that?
David Grossman 2:25
Oh my god. I mean, besides the creation of beach burger. It’s updating our app, updating our website, updating our POS system. It’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of planning, you just don’t simply just you know, change your menus. There’s a lot that goes into it. When I do gramming A lot of time. Yes.
Chad Franzen 2:48
What about getting the images?
David Grossman 2:51
Those images, we’ve got an amazing photographer in Chicago. And you know, we we set up a photo shoot. And every time we add a new burger, or like I mentioned this new veggie burger, we bring him out and he brings a stylist with him. spends roughly a half a day to maybe get four great shots. So yeah, it’s expensive, but it’s worth it because again, I think people do eat with their eyes and good photographs, good imagery, will help sell product.
Chad Franzen 3:23
Very nice. We’ll get more into Epic Burger in a moment. I want to find out a little bit more about your background. You’ve been working in the restaurant industry since at least the 80s. What was your first job?
David Grossman 3:35
So my first job was a pizza delivery guy at a place called Mario’s Pizza suburb of Chicago and really learned the business helped out me, you know hot dogs and burgers on the grill. Italian beef sandwiches filled fries handed out food. But I really delivered pizzas. I thought it was the greatest job in the world got to listen to some music crews around town, deliver food and really kind of caught the bug. Went on to college I helped a buddy open up a Chicago style hotdog stand in Lawrence, Kansas. I went to KU University of Kansas and Lawrence. And then I came home and my first real job was with Subway development, worked for a guy who had the rights to Subway and helped him open up probably about 120 550 locations all over Chicagoland went to Subway training in Milford, Connecticut. Just an amazing experience working for him. Meeting the founder of Subway Fred DeLuca taught me a ton about the restaurant business about real estate about franchising about people. So yeah, that that’s kind of my path.
Chad Franzen 4:53
What is it about the you said you caught the bug? What does that mean? What is it about the restaurant industry that’s so invigorating for you
David Grossman 5:01
There’s so many things I mean, you know, honestly, I love to develop people. I mean, I love to eat. So that’s, that’s a given. But I love to develop people I love to see people come on board, maybe as an hourly worker, become a shift lead, become an assistant manager, become a manager, become an area director, become a director of operations, maybe become a partner of mine. So I love to see people grow, I love to develop people. And that’s a big part of the business. And then I love doing deals, you know, I love the real estate component, I love going out and finding a site, negotiating a lease, designing a store, building a store, and just love the energy around a grand opening. I love how many things need to come together in such a short period of time. There’s 1000, things that need to get done before a restaurant opens. And just the teamwork, the togetherness, the sweat, sometimes the tears. It’s awesome when it comes together, and it works. It’s just so gratifying. And I just can’t wait to do it again. And again. And again. That I like to I like to do I like to open units, I love to find a concept that I can scale that I can find the simplicity in and simply grow it.
Chad Franzen 6:25
You were the director of leasing at Subway, in the most of the 90s. It looks like what what went into that you said you opened over 100 restaurants, or you helped open 100 restaurants. Yep, yep, my
David Grossman 6:36
primary focus was really to find the site, negotiate the lease, design the store and get it built. And really, once it filled, I handed off the store to the operations team. But I gave a handful of seminars, I sold franchises, met with franchisees drove around with them to help them find a location. And you know, that was a very tedious process to find the right site takes time, you think you may have found the right site, and you find out that the space is just too big, or you find this great site. And maybe the rent is too high or you find this great site, and you find out that the landlord will not do any more food, just because of maybe some parking issues. Or maybe there’s some exclusivity in the center, where somebody already has an exclusive on food. So you really need to be patient, you need to be diligent, if there is a site that you like, or that you know, somebody likes, my advice to them is to be patient. Eventually, either it will become available, because you know, businesses change and, and things change or something within really close proximity will become available. So the real estate process you know, I love I love to go out and study a site go there morning, noon, and night go there on weekends. Weekdays, see the traffic, see how the competitors do like to observe the volumes at a Starbucks nearby or a Chipotle or a Noodle and Company or Potbelly or any other burger chain for that matter. Obviously, I want to be insights where the average volume is higher than then than most other averages for, you know, the various other food concepts in the area. So I love the real estate component. There’s so much that Subway taught me. One thing that I like to share with, you know, anyone who I speak to Fred DeLuca taught me something that resonated with me. And anytime a landlord quotes or rent the first two words out of my mouth, and the first two words of anyone’s mouth, who is looking at a site should be sounds high. And what that does is it puts the landlord on the defensive. And a, he either will defend his position, he could literally say What are you talking about the sound tie, this location is unbelievable. The altar is doing, you know $9 million, and it’s number one on the chain that Chipotle is doing $3.2 million. It’s number one in the Chicago market. Chick fil A is doing, you know, $6.2 million. It’s the you know, so they’ll defend themselves and they will describe how significant dislocation is. And you didn’t lose anything. You just made him defend his position, or the other common responses. The landlord will say, well, it’s negotiable. So quota rent, you say it sounds high and he comes back right away. He says, Well, that’s that’s negotiable. That’s my starting num. Tell me what you think is fair. And he’s already come down on the rents without you doing much work. So Fred DeLuca said whether you’re buying a house, a car, a boat, or anything, anytime anyone quotes you a number. The first two words out of your mouth should be sounds high, even if, even if it really doesn’t. Even if it doesn’t, I mean, if the landlord’s gonna say what do you mean it sound tight? This is this is a below market rent. Yeah, you know, I just thought it sounded high. So, yeah, it’s it’s helped me negotiate deals again, not just for real estate. But whether I’m buying a car or boat or doesn’t matter what it is. Those are two great words.
Chad Franzen 10:42
That’s great. Great advice. So, you know, with all that experience, you were probably a perfect candidate for a franchisee What was your first experience as a franchisee
David Grossman 10:53
as a franchisee? Well, my first experience was really with subway, okay, again, a store had never closed in the Chicago market while I was with subway from 89 to 96. And then a franchisee was struggling was going through a divorce and wanted to close the store and just go ahead and sell his equipment on the street. And I’m like your equipments really not going to be worth much. Why don’t you you know, give it some time. Let me try to find a buyer for the store and hang in there for a couple more weeks. Well, maybe a month went by couldn’t find a buyer. He said you know what, I’m going to close it some days my last day. So I said I’ll tell you what, you know, what do you want for the equipment I’ll buy it. So ended up buying the store, increasing the sales, added some signage, added a new operating team ran it for about seven months and sold it for about two and a half times what I paid for. It was an amazing experience as a franchisee I learned a lot about the business I learned a lot how hard it is to run a business. And then it you know, it’s gonna just help to me have the confidence, which is so important and anything you do, whether it’s playing golf or business, or certainly raising a family to do it again and again and again. So when I got involved with Freshii I left general growth shopping mall developer. And here was that was 2008. Got involved with Freshii in 2008 Freshii had four locations in Toronto salad concept super healthy area that I wanted to dig into I thought it was a cooler, hipper version of subway, real simple operations, no cooking, no grease, no hoods. There was no stores in Chicago. So I bought the rights for Chicago opened up two stores within two weeks of each other. And it was a great experience. And then I went ahead and opened up about 40 Freshly locations in the Chicagoland area and ended up doing that for about 10 years and I sold my territory sold my stores in 2018, which was a great exit form
Chad Franzen 13:22
4040 Is is huge growth what what are the keys to making something like that as excess rather than, you know, that has the potential to be a great success or a colossal disaster?
David Grossman 13:34
Well, you know, I would say three things, I would say first, you need to have some capital, you need to have access to a little bit of money, which I was fortunate enough to have some great investors to help me along the way. Number two, you need to be surrounded by some good people because you can’t do this alone. You know, you can be in one restaurant at a time. But to have two or three or four or 40 You really need to have an army of support operations people, managers, general managers, people who trust people that you take care of people that you give reinforcement to people that like you people that want to come to work. It’s critical to be surrounded by good people. And then the last thing, of course, I think is the real estate play. You’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to find the right site. You can’t expand too quickly. You can’t reach for locations that might be too big or too expensive. You’ve got to you’ve got to know how to say no, I’m going to pass on that location and maybe wait for something else to become available. But I would say you know having some money, having some people and taking care of the people knowing how to treat the people knowing how to hire the best people how to develop them, how to motivate them. And then of course being patient is the third thing waiting for the right Real Estate and being really smart and strategic on where stores open. And I wrote a brand.
Chad Franzen 15:08
Yeah, we talked about Epic Burger a little bit earlier. What made you decide it was time after your success with expanding Freshii and as a franchisee at Freshii? What made you decide it was time to start your own brand?
David Grossman 15:21
Yes, so I didn’t start Epic Burger. Epic Burger was started in 2008 by a guy named David Friedman. I was at the opening, I knew David, we worked out at the same health club in Chicago, David and I go way back. And then Coincidentally, the money partner behind Epic. As a company called cueball. out of Boston, there was a Freshii connection with cueball. I met these guys also probably in 2009. And had a relationship with cueball since 2009. So I knew Epic Burger, I knew the founder, I knew the partners. And we kept in touch over the years about how they were growing, and what they were doing. And we shared successes over the years. And then about a year ago, the operating partner for Epic wanted to move on and go do something else. So Epic reached out to me, this was in the middle of COVID, things were not good in many locations, sales were really down. And Epic reached out and they said, Hey, listen, we need some help. Can you help us make a decision of the future of our company? Can you help us make a determination if he should continue to operate, we operate eight locations, seven locations, one location or no locations. So I said sure, came on board. And they said basically, if you think there is a path to move forward, we would like for you to become a part of this company and either buy into it or figure out a way to become a significant partner in the company. So right away, I went to all eight landlords, many of which, who I knew had a relationship with because of all my years in Chicago, which I think was helpful. Always being upfront with them being transparent being who I am, was able to renegotiate and restructure all eight of the Epic leases. sales were down, they knew they were down COVID hit traffic was down in the city, Chicago, and was able to renegotiate all the leases. At the same time. Operationally, I saw that the product and some recipes had changed from the original opening of Epic, the the operating partner and try to shrink the patty shrunk the bond to tomatoes on a burger to pickles on a burger quit putting whipped cream on milkshakes, they try to skimp and try to you know, make some money. Over the years the website was down. So the truth is without trying to bash the previous operating partner, the company had been neglected, I saw that it was neglected. I knew it was a great plant at one time had a phenomenal product and a great loyal following. And I really believe that I can resurrect it. So I said to cueball I will buy 51 to 100% of the company, you tell me how much you want to stay in, I need to have control, I need to have the majority ownership. I will roll up my sleeves and fix this. But I’m not going to do it in a minority position. And they said we believe in it as well. We believe in you. We will take 49% We will give you 51% Let’s reach a deal, which we did relatively quickly. And long story short, I bought 51% of Epic burger. And the goal is to grow it the goal is to fix it and grow it. We’ve made significant changes to the menu, one of which I just talked about earlier about the menu. Product is where it needs to be. The people are where they need to be. I promoted a number of individuals. And we’ve got a phenomenal team. We’ve got great culture here. Our real estate is good, our places look good. And we are actively looking for new sites. We’re actually looking to to buy another burger chain here in Chicago, which I cannot get into details because the deal is not done but would be great to buy this chain and can These units to Epic Burger. So we’ve got a lot of great things going on some great promotions, you’ve got some great things on social Instagram, Facebook, the number of followers has increased our material and images have been just outstanding on the promotional side. So supercharged super, super excited every day about coming into stores, talking to customers, talking to our staff, and just making this a great product, which, which once was, which was neglected. The goal is to grow it in Chicago land, and then go pick a second market, maybe Detroit, maybe Milwaukee, and continue to grow this thing throughout the Midwest and become a dominant burger chain. throughout the Midwest,
Chad Franzen 20:52
what about Epic Burger is so unique that you were such a big believer in it and you know, obviously continues to still be unique?
David Grossman 21:00
Yes, so good question. The tagline at Epic Burger is a more mindful burger. The founder of Epic thought of that, then, and the reason it’s a more mindful burger is because he really believed and cared on how the food was raised, and processed, and how the animals are fed, whether it was our turkey or chicken, or beef. So all of our chicken and all of our beef is Hello, I don’t know if you know what the law is. But allow is a is a standard that the Muslim population lives by. It’s similar to kosher, which then Jewish people will eat meat, but it is the way that food is raised. It’s a more humane way of feeding, raising, processing, slaughtering animals. And that is something that Epic Burger has always done. And our beef and our grilled chicken is a while. And again, it’s just one little example on how we care about our food. We care about all of our ingredients are fresh tomatoes, lettuce, onions, avocado, there, as much as you can grown locally. We try to buy from local farmers. And that is probably our biggest difference is our food quality. Premium Wisconsin cheeses our buns are big everyday here in Chicago by a local bakery. Everything is really, really cared for in terms of our food, or menu. no antibiotics, no hormones, no GMOs. So our menu is is really unique in that way. And it goes down to the way we hire and treat our people as well. So the tagline of more mindful Berger, answers your question about what makes us unique. And it’s really about our food, our people. It’s how we even build stores. We don’t have dishwashers to try to use less energy. We don’t use harsh chemicals. Everything Epic Burger is well thought of our packaging is biodegradable. And we really try to think about the environment. Think about our people. And certainly how our food comes in into our restaurants and how it’s served as well.
Chad Franzen 23:38
I mentioned in your intro that it’s it’s a simple operation. What Why would you call it that?
David Grossman 23:45
Again, we’ve got a pretty limited menu. We’ve got burgers, we’ve got a grilled chicken and we’ve got a crispy chicken sandwich we serve a beyond meatless Patty, we do serve beyond chicken tenders, which is a plant based chicken tender. And then starting I believe tomorrow we’re going to bring in a guard veggie burger. Pretty simple. We’ve got two bonds. We’ve got some french fries and sweet potato fries and some onion rings. A bunch of great milkshakes again, we use organic ice cream and organic milk and our ice creams. So it’s just simple. It’s not complicated. Our equipment is relatively simple. And the way our food comes in the way it’s prepared. Our beef is never frozen are Turkey, same way. It’s really a simple operation. Not a lot of moving parts. Not a lot of you know recipes. We don’t need to hire chefs. We can hire high school and college kids. We can teach them how to cook our burgers. We weigh them out. We create these great balls. We refrigerate them, bring them on the grill, we smash them down we turn them once put some cheese on it. And it’s served. It’s pretty simple and easy to clean up, close down at the end. We don’t have any booze. But it’s pretty simple man, you’re in a pretty simple operation.
Chad Franzen 25:13
We talked about some of the the huge progress that you’ve made since you’ve taken over Epic Burger. Is there a milestone or a couple milestones that you’re particularly proud of?
David Grossman 25:24
Well, again, I menu launch was, was really a big deal. Because Epic Burger has always been like a build your own concept come in. Choose your patty, whether it’s beef or turkey or chicken or beyond. Choose your bond, whether it’s brioche or we choose your toppings do you want to add any premium toppings like an egg, bacon, avocado or some cheese, choose your sauces, and that’s the way Epic was founded. And that’s the way Epic really was until just a few months ago, when we created our own like Chef design burgers. So we created the farmhouse, which is everything you’d see on a farm. It’s got bacon, egg cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle onion. It’s just an incredible burger. We created the cowboy burger, which is a bacon barbecue cheeseburger. It’s awesome. We created the hot honey chicken sandwich. It’s a crispy, kind of a Nashville hot chicken sandwich which is super popular today. We created the Cali chicken Club, which is a grilled chicken sandwich with bacon, cheese, grilled onions. So we created about eight burgers. And we’ve made the ordering process simple. We actually entered a contest in Chicago. It’s the hamburger hop contest. There were 75 restaurants that entered. And we just found out it was probably less than 30 days ago that we were the winner of that contest. A chef created a jalapeno cheese bomb burger, which is an absolutely incredible burger. It’s a double burger with bacon with fried shallots. That’s jalapeno cream cheese that gives it just this delicious creamy spice. Tomatoes are Epic sauce, pickles, and we won the city wide competition. Super proud of that. And then if I can add one more thing, the next thing that we are about to launch is a basically a food challenge. It is called the Epic AF challenge. And basically it is to double cheeseburgers in order fries, border onion rings, a border of sweet potato fries, some chicken tenders and a milkshake. It’s a tremendous amount of food and looks awesome. And we’re going to sell it for $20.08 2008 was the year Epic Burger started. And if you finish this in 20 minutes and eight seconds, we will give you a $20.08 cent gift card. So basically, your food will be free. And we’re going to give you this really cool t shirt and you’re going to be up on our Epic AF policy. So we’re going to launch this little food eating competition come to Chicago. So we’re also going to offer a plant based version, which will be our beyond burger or chicken tenders. And we’re going to offer halaal version that will not have begun. And we’re super excited about people coming in. Again, food should be about having some fun. Come on in, eat some burgers, bring your family there’s something for everyone. But if you have a huge appetite, and you want to have some fun with your buddies, come to Epic and try the Epic AF challenge. And see if you can make it onto our Epic AF Hall of Fame and walk out with a T shirt you pronounce.
Chad Franzen 28:52
Nice. That sounds great. Brilliant. Couple more questions for you. We’re big fans of publicly acknowledging people who have been influential for you. Who are some people in the industry that you have respected and look to for advice that have helped you along the way? Yeah,
David Grossman 29:07
good question. You know, first person that comes to mind, not necessarily in the industry as my father. He taught me to be my own boss. My father had his own accounting firm. And he said, doesn’t matter what you do. I want you to be your own boss. I don’t care if you open up a flower shop, open up a garage where you fix cars. I chose the restaurant path but he wanted me to be my own boss. And that’s advice that I cherished and certainly me and my brother followed that footsteps. And I love the idea of being my own boss and creating my own schedule. And being an entrepreneur. Second person is my boss at Subway, a guy named Phil Macy, who I still talk to all the time. Phil taught me a ton about real estate in front of our franchise and a ton about people. He was an amazing mentor taught me a lot about this business that I think about all the time. And I try to think of a third person again, not necessarily in the business, my wife, she’s been super helpful, super supportive. Knowing that sometimes I work seven days a week knowing that sometimes I’m not going to be home for dinner, knowing that sometimes I might need to draft an email that might be a delicate subject. She’s been super helpful, super supportive, and helps you with some things that maybe I’m not as polished at. And she’s been great.
Chad Franzen 30:36
What’s your favorite burger?
David Grossman 30:40
I favorites, the farmhouse that I’ve mentioned. It just has an amazing flavor. I love the egg combination of all of those flavors of bacon and cheese. It’s awesome.
Chad Franzen 30:52
All right. Hey, I really appreciate your time. David, where can people find out more about Epic Burger?
David Grossman 30:56
Come to Chicago, come check out our locations. We’ve got a handful of stores in the city a few in the suburbs. Hopefully we’re going to continue to grow to a neighborhood near you go to EpicBurger.com, order on our app. Come check us out. Come try the AF challenge. Come in and try our new veggie burger, come and check us out. We’d love to have you and we’d love your feedback.
Chad Franzen 31:21
Okay, great. Sounds awesome. I’m starving. I appreciate your time. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Yeah, thanks. Appreciate it. Take care. You too. Thanks for calling everybody.
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