Throw another hamburger chain on the grill. Burger 21, a new restaurant in Tampa's northwest corner, aims to offer chef-created menu items along with various sweets and adult beverages in an upscale setting, but without the upscale prices.
The new fast-casual dining concept is the third offering by Front Burner Brands, a Tampa-based franchisor that also operates The Melting Pot and GrillSmith. Mark Johnston, one of three brothers who own the company, is partnering with noted Clearwater chef Chris Ponte on Burger 21.
The new restaurant, in Westchase Plaza at 9664 W. Linebaugh Ave., occupies 2,800 square feet and immediately built a buzz earlier this fall by creating 40 jobs. With the Tampa Bay area unemployment rate currently near 12%, hundreds of applications were filled out and local television stations touted the opening as good economic news.
Entering competition with current burger places such as Five Guys, Square 1 and Red Robin, which operate at levels above the bigger drive-through chains, Johnston says Burger 21 will differentiate itself by offering reasonably priced entrees (between $5 and $10) and offering a bit more imagination. For example, its burger menu goes beyond ground chuck to include chicken, turkey, tuna, shrimp and veggie, all ground the same as traditional hamburger meat.
“They have their own style of burger, and we have ours,” says Johnston, who has been in the restaurant business with brothers Mike and Bob since opening their first Melting Pot location in Tallahassee in 1979. Hot dogs and salads, shakes and floats, and beer and wine are also on the menu, allowing diners to eat and drink as healthy or decadent as they want, he says.
Ponte, who opened Cafe Ponte in Clearwater eight years ago, says he designed Burger 21 to fit squarely between Square 1, which offers an upscale atmosphere, and Five Guys, popular for its big-bag fries cooked in peanut oil.
“We want to position ourselves between the two,” Ponte says. “We want to create our own pie, so to speak.”
Johnston's wife, Arlene, who is also partnering with him and Ponte in the new concept, adds that Burger 21 is intended to appeal to families — especially women, who may be reluctant to go to a place specializing in hamburgers, even gourmet ones.
“A lot of times women will say, 'A burger place? What am I going to eat if I go there?' There's a little bit of everything for everybody,” she says.
Launching a new restaurant concept in a weak economy isn't a risky proposition, according to Johnston. The pricing at Burger 21 should appeal to diners on a budget, he says, adding that the major burger chains, once a cheap choice, have raised their prices in recent years without necessarily increasing the quality of their food.
“It's easier to open this kind of restaurant right now,” he says. “The market is demanding high-quality food at a reasonable price. We're not inexpensive, but we're not so far out of reach.”
Johnston envisions opening at least 1,000 Burger 21 locations over the next 10 years through franchising. He says he's already scouting other possible locations in the Tampa Bay area beyond the first, and will eventually look farther south along the Gulf Coast.
“I feel like this is an opportune time to do a concept like this,” he says. “I hope we're right.”