The untold truth of Smashburger

Since opening its flagship location in Denver, Colorado in 2007 and being named one of America's most promising companies by Forbes in 2011, Smashburger has now built over 300 locations across seven different countries. It's an international entity serving up a classic American favorite. In addition to its signature smash burgers, the fast-casual chain also offers chicken concoctions, vegetarian-friendly items, and multiple side options. You've got your pick from tater tots and onion rings, to crispy Brussels sprouts and sweet potato fries. Don't forget milkshakes made with legit ice cream (Häagen-Dazs for the win). Oh, and salad… they've got salads too, if you're into that sort of thing. 

What's behind Smashburger's magic and how did they garner an avid fan base for a product that's arguably the most readily available food in America? The restaurant definitely touts some unconventional approaches to marketing, and some genius strategists operating in the corporate office. We did some digging to uncover the truth behind the smash hit (couldn't resist, sorry) burger joint.

Smashburger's co-founder is a chain restaurant legend

Smashburger's co-founder and current CEO, Tom Ryan, is an iconic figure in the world of classic American chains. You have this man to thank for Pizza Hut's stuffed crust pizza and McDonald's McFlurries — bow down, we are not worthy. In addition to his executive roles at Pizza Hut and McDonald's, he also worked at Quizno's and shaped their menu by creating two of their best selling subs. So by the time he rolled his sleeves up at Smashburger in 2007, he knew a thing or two about what grub entices the average American consumer to open their wallet. 

Ryan has an actual PhD in flavor and fragrance chemistry so, in addition to really knowing how to run a pizza/sandwich/burger joint successfully, the man knows the addictive power of good smelling food. Ryan's scented expertise has to be one of the reasons why the Smashburger signature burger recipe is so dang delicious.

The Smashburger founders tested recipes at an already established burger restaurant

Since Smashburger co-founder Tom Ryan had extensive experience in the food business prior to starting the chain, it's not surprising that he was smart enough to test the recipes in the field first. And by "in the field," we mean at a restaurant that was already up and running, Icon Burger. Before opening Smashburger, Ryan and his co-founder Rick Schaden purchased the Denver-based restaurant in order to serve potential menu items to the regular patrons there, and discover what they liked and didn't like in a burger restaurant. 

While they knew this strategy didn't guarantee success, it was certainly an efficient way to do some research. A Smashburger CEO from the early days, David Prokupek, told CNBC, "We used a lot of wisdom and knowledge about the food market and burger market overall, but really backed it up with the consumer insight that told us this is really what you need to do in order to win." Considering Smashburger's popularity, their approach is certainly a testament to the importance of really honing in on what the restaurant's overall mission and taste will be prior to opening.

Smashburger's original marketing targeted millennials, and it worked

From 2007 to 2013, Smashburger built over 200 restaurants. One of the chain's original co-founders, Tom Ryan, attributed the bulk of their rapid growth to their unique marketing tactics. In short, Ryan knew social media was the true route to the average millennial's heart. So rather than a ton of traditional advertising on TV and radio, Smashburger really set its sights on social media gimmicks. For example, in the spirit of people celebrating holidays we never knew existed prior to Twitter, the restaurant served up free beef to any individual who had the words "berger" or "burger" as part of their surname on National Cheeseburger Day.

Ryan really does put a lot of stock in what this particular generation thinks, and touts their presence within the workings of the company as another secret to Smashburger's fame. He told CNBC in 2016, "…we combine ourselves with what I call the 'immortals,' young people in their 20s and 30s who are just dying to get involved in something that they can become passionate about." So, have millennials on your staff and subtly advertise in millennials' most beloved social media platforms, and you might have yourself a beloved burger joint in the making.

The burgers at Smashburger are literally smashed

It turns out the name "Smashburger" is quite literal. Smashing is an actual culinary technique that's been beautifully perfected by the food geniuses at Smashburger. When making the restaurant's burgers, workers smash hand-packed balls of fresh (never frozen) beef onto a piping hot, buttered, pre-seasoned grill, fast cooking the meat. Employees use a precise burger smashing device, and the result has been described as being akin to a beef balloon or shell that envelopes the seasoning and juices. We'd venture to say there is probably something oddly satisfying about the splattering of a mound of 100 percent Certified Angus Beef onto a sizzling grill but we can only speculate, or get a gig flipping burgers at Smashburger of course.

While this technique or type of hamburger is not necessarily innovative (it's been around since Americans started getting burgers from drive-thrus to eat in their car), Smashburger might be the first to execute the process well enough to claim the name.

The secret ingredient in Smashburgers' burgers is chicken

Part of what makes Smashburger burgers so divine is the addition of a surprising ingredient: poultry. Tom Ryan, Smashburger's co-founder, confirmed with Franchise Times, part of the special seasoning that goes onto the hamburger patties is ground up chicken skin. The burgers are seasoned with the usual salt, pepper, and garlic powder but when asked about the contents of a seemingly mysterious spice in the Smashburger kitchen, Ryan said, "It's actually triple roasted chicken skin ground up… remember when your mom used to make baked chicken on Sunday and there's that big layer of skin on top? That's what's in there." Cue head explosion.

This certainly brings a whole new element to the common food phrase, "tastes like chicken." Although, most folks probably wouldn't even realize they're tasting chicken in the burger until they're explicitly informed of it (you're welcome).

Smashburger went through three CEOS in four years

Smashburger's co-founder, food genius Tom Ryan, is also currently serving as the chain's CEO. That hasn't always been the case though. The burger slinger has actually gone through quite a few head honchos since its beginnings in 2007. Ryan took over when Michael Nolan stepped down in 2016, after only holding the job for around eight months. Before that, Scott Crane had held the title, and his predecessor was David Prokupek, who had been with Smashburger since the early days in Denver. When Ryan took over as CEO in 2016, he became the fourth person to serve as CEO, and the third person to take the reigns since 2013. 

As is sometimes the case with C suite positions, there weren't really any explanations for the high turnover rate between 2013 and 2016 but it can sometimes signal company unrest since it can often take a significant period of time for a new CEO to settle in and make a difference. Since Ryan is still currently still in the position, it seems as though it was the right move for Smashburger — he's clearly got the passion for the brand.

Smashburger is now owned by a giant Asian food service company

In 2015, Jollibee Foods Corporation, the extremely large Philippines-based company, bought 40 percent of Smashburger. Jollibee Foods Corp of course owns Jollibee, the popular Asian fast food joint that Anthony Bourdain once referred to as, "the wackiest, jolliest place on earth." Then in February of 2018, Jollibee Foods Corp accrued an additional 45 percent of the burger chain, sinking in another $100 million. That resulted in Jollibee essentially owning 85 percent of Smashburger. Ultimately, in December of 2018, Jollibee ended up buying the remaining 15 percent stake.

Smashburger co-founder and current CEO Tom Ryan is a big fan of Jollibee, recognizing its help with navigating the competitive burger landscape, both in the U.S. and abroad. After the early 2018 deal went down, Ryan told QSR, "Jollibee has been an invaluable strategic partner to date." And the Smashburger CFO, Bradford Reynolds, said, "We look forward to building upon our successful relationship to further bolster the brand as an international leader in the better burger segment." 

 It seems like Smashburger is destined for continued success worldwide with the help of a brand like Jollibee, whose signature restaurant has fun offerings like spaghetti with hotdogs and "Big Yum!" cheeseburgers. Come on, what's not to love about that?

There are conspiracy theories about Smashburger's original logo

When Smashburger first came on the scene, its white and red logo was eerily similar to video game giant, GameStop, in both color, font and size. There have been lots of discussions on the 'net regarding the sheer oddness of their similarity, and that in itself makes plenty of room for a potential conspiracy theory

Okay, so "conspiracy theory" might be a strong word(s) but there are some who believe that Smashburger's original logo was so similar to GameStop on purpose, because they knew that they were A, targeting millennials, and B, counting on said millennials to deluge the internet with side-by-side comparison photos/jokes/memes/what have you. Basically, some theorized that they intentionally made their logos similar, just to drum up theories that would create free advertising. 

GameStop never took issue with the quasi sign copying, and Smashburger ultimately changed their logo's layout. Either way, it's still an interesting theory, especially considering Smashburger co-founder Tom Ryan's obsession with millennials

In-N-Out sued Smashburger

When it comes to greasy burgers that involve multiple patties, competition is stiff. In 2017, West Coast burger giant In-N-Out sued Smashburger for alleged trademark infringement with its new "Triple Double" burger. The Cali-born chain's all-star menu items are the Double-Double and Triple Triple. For the record, Smashburger's Triple Double involved three slices of cheese and two beef patties. In-N-Out's sandwiches are two and two, and three and three (cheese slices and patties). A month after the initial filing, In-N-Out also added false advertising to the complaint. 

The case was resolved in 2019. Initially, the court acknowledged that Smashburger's advertising was a little whack (not the official court document terminology). It had marketed its Triple Double as "triple the beef" and "double the cheese" but it was referring to the number of patties and slices, not the weight. The court asserted that their Classic Smash Burger patty weighs 5 ounces and their two Triple Double beef patties each weighed 2.5 ounces, respectively, so their advertisement was mathematically inaccurate. 

So In-N-Out sort of got their false advertising fears validated but the court said In-N-Out didn't provide enough intel to prove they'd suffered injuries. So quit your whining, In-N-Out, you aren't the only burger joint allowed to acknowledge the offering of more than one patty and/or slice of cheese.

Secret and regular menu items at Smashburger can vary by location both in the US and abroad

Smashburger makes it a point to constantly be innovating and trying new items on its menus. Oftentimes menu items might even be unique to a specific restaurant's location. For example, Las Vegas Smashburgers have an option called the "Sin City Burger," and Northern California Smashburgers offer a burger on a sourdough bun that includes brie cheese, applewood smoked bacon, balsamic marinated tomatoes, grilled onions, lettuce, and mayonnaise as toppings.

Even the secret menu can vary depending on the city or country you're in. Wherever you are, be sure to ask for the secret menu PB&J Shake, which is a vanilla milkshake mixed with strawberry syrup and Nutter Butter cookies (yum). It's also worth mentioning, Smashburger's secret menu also allegedly offers a Fido Style Smashburger, which is intended to be a treat for your pup.