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Tampa's Front Burner banks on burgers

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  • | 1:51 p.m. September 21, 2011
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Bob and Mark Johnston of Front Burner Brands Inc. are masters in the art of franchising. The brothers painted North America with more than 140 licensed Melting Pot locations and plan to do the same with a new brand.

The newly christened Front Burner, a Tampa-based restaurant management company formerly known as TGS Restaurant Management, is leveraging success of its Burger 21 prototype into an aggressive franchising strategy expected to yield 30 contracts over the next 12 months.

Front Burner's stature in the restaurant business, reflected in expected restaurant revenues of $250 million this year, will draw reticent franchisees, says CEO Bob Johnston, younger brother of Mark. He tells Coffee Talk there is room for a new burger franchise in the fray. “The demand is there,” he says.

Bob Johnston explains that Burger 21 melds the better-burger approach of a Five Guys-type eatery with high-end burger restaurants like Bobby's Burger Palace. The elder Johnston, chief concept officer of Front Burner, says it shakes up the burger world — and attracts franchisees — by creating a new category between them.

One change to existing concepts Mark Johnston made was to ditch TV sets in the restaurants. This appeals to the family and aged demographics by bringing in a diverse customer profile, says Bob Johnston. “When you walk into our restaurant you hear conversations,” says Mark Johnston (See "...And Burger Makes Three," Dec. 3, 2010).

Bob Johnston says the government's stance toward business will affect franchising growth. Incentives for restaurant franchisees to make the commitment, and for banks to free up credit for small businesses, will be key in Burger 21's growth, he says.

Finding the perfect location is another obstacle for Burger 21 to gnaw through. The excess of commercial real estate doesn't necessarily help this cause. “Businesses at good locations didn't go under,” says Bob Johnston. But, Front Burner hired a Jim Sullivan as vice president of real estate last month to bite into this problem.

Even with the challenges ahead, the brothers relish their role in the chronology of the small business owner. Says the younger Johnston: “It truly is the American dream.”


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