Hut biting off big challenge
In the late 1970s, Jim and Priscilla Williams had a vision: to open their own restaurant in Chico where people could enjoy a fresh burger in a friendly atmosphere. Four stores and 29 years later, they are now giving other families the opportunity to take a bite of their success by franchising the trusted Burger Hut name.
It’s a big step—and a risky one—for a small-town operation to take, but the Williamses are optimistic. Their restaurants have been hugely popular locally and have withstood competition from powerful national chains. The franchise program launched in early July, and already the company is getting nibbles, some from far afield, Jim Williams said.
The original Burger Hut was established in an old ice cream shop on Nord Avenue in 1978. The family later opened two more stores in Chico and one in Yuba City.
“Everywhere I turned, someone asked, ‘Why don’t you open a Burger Hut here?’ “ Williams said.
But four was enough stores to manage, so in October 2006 the family decided to proceed with a franchising program. They figured it would sell because their franchise fees would be lower than those of national chains like Burger King, said Rick Kusie, who is married to the Williamses’ daughter Erin and is now vice president of Burger Hut.
The program’s initial target areas will be California, Nevada, Oregon and Arizona. Kusie said he hopes to bring in up to 10 new units in the first year—though the family’s main focus is quality, not quantity.
“For us it’s not about selling 100 units; it’s about building on our reputation and our tradition,” he said.
Aside from their distinct “Fresh Fixin’s” bar and huge french-fries portions, Kusie said there are other reasons why Burger Hut will stand out, no matter where it’s located.
“Burger Hut is different—it’s not fast food, it’s good food made fast,” he said. “High quality, fresh and delicious ingredients cooked to order—that’s what makes us unique.”
Franchising a small business is risky, Williams said, and the initial meeting with potential franchisees will say a lot about whether they are ready to carry on the Burger Hut name. The most important criterion is a good fit with the Williams/Kusie family.
“We are very family oriented and pay close attention to detail, quality and service,” he said. “Our franchisees will, too.”
Though Kusie said he is excited to see new Burger Hut locations open, he acknowledges the chance of failure and the potentially bad “track record” that franchisees could create. Not all stores will be “home runs,” he said.
“Going into it, we certainly are going to give our full effort to approve a site that has every chance of being a success,” he said. “But it’s really up to the individual to run a successful business. There are no guarantees out there.”
Initial costs for supplies, development and build-out will be between $293,000 and $433,000, Kusie said. This includes the franchise fee of $29,500, leasehold improvements, furniture and fixtures, equipment, supplies, computer hardware, building signage, professional fees and rent, among many other things that are necessary to open a new restaurant. The franchisees will also pay a 5 percent weekly royalty fee to the Williams/Kusie family.
Pita Management Inc., which provides ingredient-buying programs for the existing locations, will be available to all franchisees to ensure that customers can enjoy consistent menu items no matter which store they visit, Kusie said. To guarantee that each location closely replicates the original Burger Hut standards, the owners plan to visit each new store frequently, Kusie said. Though the present Burger Hut locations have evolved and changed throughout the years, there are key concepts that must remain the same.
“Customer-service relationships are No. 1 and will continue to be that way,” he said. “…Our new locations will be community-based businesses just like ours, a family business that they will put their blood, sweat and tears into.”
Kusie said there are many nearby locations where the family would love to see a new Burger Hut, including Redding, Rocklin, Roseville, Natomas and Sacramento—but to have one as far away as New York City would be a dream come true.
No matter where the future Burger Huts are located, Williams isn’t afraid of the competition. “We’re giving people all over the country a chance to have a great burger,” he said. “I think it’s a great concept!”