BurgerFi CEO Julio Ramirez Talks Burger Wars And Working With Martha Stewart - Exclusive Interview

Julio Ramirez, the trailblazer CEO of BurgerFi, wants to conquer the Eastern seaboard. He worked for Burger King for 26 years and helped make it into an international brand. When Ramirez was hired by BurgerFi in 2020, he set out to expand the young, growing company, and created a small "army" of people who were focused on building the brand. BurgerFi went public in December 2020, and in February 2021, Martha Stewart joined the Board of Directors

Due to Ramirez's vision and leadership, BurgerFi is surviving the pandemic by increasing takeout and delivery services, and opening drive-through locations. BurgerFi stands for "burgerfication," and as Ramirez continues to add more franchises and company-owned restaurants from Florida to Manhattan, the Eastern half of the U.S. will be "burgified" in just a couple of years. Ramirez talked with Mashed about his veteran status in the burger industry, BurgerFi's future, the new menu items, and of course, all things Martha Stewart.

Julio Ramirez turned Burger King into an international brand

You worked at Burger King for 26 years, from 1984 to 2010. Tell us about your role there.

I always tell people that 26 years at Burger King is different than working 26 years in a Ford assembly plant. The Burger King Corporation was bought and sold five times in my lifetime and four times as a senior executive. You can imagine the flux of change in ownership, CEOs, marketing, culture. I mean, it was a very challenging environment. Great product, great brand. I think the brand, I think it's a testament to the great-tasting Whopper Sandwich that the brand is still alive today, because frankly, at Burger King, the institutional knowledge was with the franchise owners because there was so much rotating executives.

I was really almost like an alien, because I was there so long as a senior executive... we were constantly changing, and it was very challenging. Having said that, I think that you learn to work for many different styles of CEO's, because I reported to seven different ones. And you learn from the good ones, and you learned from the bad ones, and you try to put that at play when you finally get a chance to be a CEO. So, one of the wonderful things at BurgerFi that I've enjoyed a lot is the fact that there's still a lot of institutional knowledge inside the company, not just with our franchisees, and I think that's a very rewarding thing that I cherish.

I ran the North America franchise operations and development business. It's about 90 percent of the business at Burger King. [Including Canada,] I had 1,100 franchises and 7,500 restaurants. It was a big business... I was [also] president of the Latin America/Caribbean region two different times. I was the head of Latin America for Burger King, opening Burger King in over 10 countries, including Brazil, where today there's 1100, Mexico, where we started with 35, when I was done, there were 420. Market leader, by the way, one of the few areas of the world where BK was bigger than McDonald's... That was a huge accomplishment with the teams that I lead.

And then the last job I had, I was the head of global operations. So I had global responsibility, including the U.S. and every one of the 81 countries in terms of training, operations, technology for the restaurants, food safety, and supply chain, so pretty broad-based stuff. But I never was the CEO of the company, and so this is my dream job, to really take a small but powerful company that's ready for the big growth, and that's why I'm so excited to be here.

Why did you leave Burger King?

The reason I left Burger King's very simple. After having five different owners, the sixth owner [of Burger King] was a company called 3G. They're part of RBI (Restaurant Brands International). They're the owners of Popeye's, Tim Horton's, and so they also, by the way, own Anheuser-Busch, they own Kraft, they own Heinz, and they own a bunch of other stuff. But anyway, their style is when they acquire something, they eliminate not only the executive team, but three levels below that. So, I left along with every one of my peers. Like they say in the movies: "it's just business." I was given a nice package, so I don't have a complaint. But a week later they came back and said, "Well, would you stay? We decided maybe you could do something else, like run the U.S." Which I had already done for 10 years. I was 56 at the time, and I decided that I wanted a change, and this was my opportunity to do that.

What was your favorite thing to order at Burger King?

Well, now that's a great question. Obviously, the answer has to be a Whopper. I always would have a Whopper, minus onion, cut in half, extra pickles, but that's what I liked then. Having said that, I can tell you, there's nothing like a BurgerFi burger, and I'm not just saying that because I'm the CEO.

The reason why Julio Ramirez became CEO of BurgerFi

Before joining BurgerFi, you owned Giardino Gourmet Salads. Tell us about that.

We were the franchisor. We were the ones going out and getting franchisees and all that, myself and two other people. So, did that for about eight years. We merged with the founders, the people that started it.

It was basically great, healthy... Almost like the Starbucks of salads. And we grew the brand. I mean, it needed a lot of work. We spent a couple of years just getting the brand ready to franchise it out. But to be honest with you, that was too small. I'm more of a leader, as opposed to a consultant, and I think BurgerFi has the right size for me, as opposed an eight-store chain going to 17. That's a lot tougher, because we were all franchised, so we didn't have the resources, it just made it a real challenge and it didn't play to my strengths.

I like having an army, even if it's a small army, an army of people focused on building the brand in the right way, and so this is the perfect size for me, plus I spent a lot of time in the burger side, so I know this business. And as I call it, this is an upgrade to what I used to do at Burger King because of the quality of our food.

Julio Ramirez says the quality of the food makes BurgerFi better than other burger places

What's the difference between BurgerFi and other burger places?

Our beef is grass-fed, grain-finished, the fact that there's no antibiotics, no steroids, no chemicals. And I think about this a lot, I'm not a young guy. I don't mind telling you, I just turned 67, which is not a young age, although I feel young, and I can tell you that as opposed to my father that didn't grow up with fast food, guys that are my age now grew up with fast food, we grew up with Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, so for us, BurgerFi is very relevant. It's not just relevant to millennials and young people, it's very relevant to folks like me that love fast food, except it's even better. The quality of the food... the burgers are incredible.

And not only... And I don't mind saying this, you've probably heard of Shake Shack. We have in the state of Florida, for example, we have 55 locations, Shake Shack only has 17. So we're actually the better burger chain of choice in Florida, in our home state. We started in Lauderdale by the sea, but we're headquartered in North Palm Beach. 

One thing we have that I'm very proud of is the fact that we not only have a variety of great-tasting burgers... but we also have, and we were one of the first to have a plant-based product, The Beyond Burger, we also have our very own VegeFi. It's a trademarked product. We produce it in a world-class commissary, also based in North Palm Beach. And having that great variety, the big three, beef, plant-based, and VegeFi, that's a huge platform for us, and that's just the beginning. 

There's a magazine called Chain Reaction, which I had never heard of until I got to BurgerFi, because it's an industry-specific thing. But we are one of two chains (Shake Shack is the other) that has an A-rated burger. 

What's the difference between fast food and fast casual?

That's a great question, and one that certainly people in the industry know. And I would say that because our food is handcrafted and takes a little bit of time, as we say, chef-inspired, handcrafted, and very unique in our build-out, we take a little more time to provide that quality food. So fast food, some place like a drive-through chain might get you the food in three minutes, but it's a different type of quality then you're going to get in the five and seven minutes that we take to make our food, so that's one. 

Secondly, I think it's more of a niche menu. And what I mean by that, is we don't... Yeah, we have variety, but we also don't have 2,000 products, and we really take our time selecting the very best quality products. We're constantly looking at our menu and getting the right number of items. I think that's also part of it. And I think the atmosphere, and also the hospitality. When you have a great atmosphere... As I like to say, you can take a date to a BurgerFi. You can take your wife to BurgerFi, and you're not going to disappoint, they're going to want to come back again. You wouldn't necessarily take a date to a McDonald's or to another place, it's just a different experience, you probably want to go through a drive-through. So, I think that's a big part of it. I think the image, the hospitality, the friendly service, it's a fun place, you have music, you can have beer, for example, craft beer and different types of beer, you can have wine. So, I mean, you can have a really nice time eating our great food and celebrating with a nice cold beer.

Your French fries look incredible. What's the secret?

I know, they're fantastic! I know fries because I competed in that industry against many others. They're properly salted, the right size, the right color. We have very indulgent, great-tasting food. Our custard shakes are like ice cream, so it can be tough to have a shake along with fries and a burger. So we now have a custard size, which we will walk up and down the dining room and offer it up. We get a lot of sales that way. 

The last component of why we're different is we also serve it in a very eco-friendly and a sustainable environment. The brand has been around for 10 years, and yet the image of our restaurant is brand new. Many fast food chains have remodeled three times, and they don't look as good as ours, and I think that's a tribute to the team. We have a small, focused team here, who we're now leveraging more strengths on. You're able to do a lot of stuff without middle management saying, "No, we can't do that. It costs too much." It's a very powerful thing about our brand. 

The secret behind BurgerFi's onion rings

Why does everyone rave about your onion rings? They look like a bracelet.

That's right, a bracelet. The onion rings are my favorite side. We have what I call world-class onion rings, probably the best in the industry. It's not a bunch of onion rings in a bag. We actually get a Spanish colossal onion that's the size of a softball. We slice off the ends, and we dice those up for people who want grilled onions on their burgers. What remains of the onion is a cylinder. We remove those rings, and they're put in a special breading, a special flour, if you will, with spices and all that. Then they're beer-battered right before they're served, and they're amazing... I've turned a lot of people on to those things.

Julio Ramirez reveals how Martha Stewart joined BurgerFi's board of directors

How was Martha Stewart brought on to BurgerFi's Board of Directors?

Martha Stewart is obviously one of the icons of food in the world. I think she has 97 percent recognition among women. And I heard another statistic the other day: 70 percent of millennials have tried one of Martha's recipes. That's pretty incredible. First of all, I've gotten to know her. I actually text her back and forth. She's great about visiting our restaurants. She went through our store in the Upper East Side in Manhattan, she was in Kentucky this week, and always visits and shares with me her experience at the restaurant level. She loves our food!  

But to answer specifically your question, she actually met my boss, the chairman of the company, Ophir Sternberg, who took the company public. They met at a food and wine festival where Martha, she was the guest honoree, if you will. So they met there, they got to know each other. It turns out they both have a love of horses, and they're into that quite a bit, so they became actually great friends, and I think that's where the relationship started. 

What's it like to work with Martha? 

I will tell you, I've been so impressed with her. She is top-notch, super smart, and it's gotten so much excitement now that we're a public company. Our franchisees, I must've gotten more texts from our franchisees about Martha Stewart coming on our board in a positive way, it was more than anything else we've done. It's been huge, even though we're doing a lot of great stuff with our food. Right now, we're rolling out the SWAG Burger, which is the Spicy Wagyu Burger, I can tell you that Martha Stewart was equally exciting and more so. It's a great combination with our brand. We're happy to have her, and I'm excited to work with her.

What will Martha's role be at BurgerFi?

She's going to work with us in our... Most board members are in a couple of committees as well. She's going to be the co-chair of our product and innovation committee with chef Paul Griffin, who's our chef. So, we're excited. We're actually planning our first meeting hopefully soon, so we're in the middle of that right now.  

Will she be adding more menu items? Working with the chef?

She'll be collaborating with us. She loves our menu and our image, but I think we love to have somebody of that pedigree looking at our stuff and seeing what we could do. And we are working on new stuff, which I can't talk about because we're a public company. But we'll certainly get Martha involved as we can.

BurgerFi rose to the challenges of the pandemic

Was the recent opening of the Kentucky BurgerFi drive-through in response to the pandemic?

The pandemic challenged us to move faster on things that we were probably doing anyway. It just gave us permission to move even faster. The drive-through is such an important component of restaurants in general. Once the pandemic hit, there were guests that didn't want to go inside a restaurant. So it all made us say, "Hey, if we can do a drive-through, let's pull it off." The Kentucky location was actually an existing second-generation building, which our franchisee bought, that had been a drive-through. And we said "Let's not close it down, let's get really good at it." So we enlisted the Howard Company, and they helped us, plus I have experience from my previous company on operating a drive-through, the metrics required to do it, etc. 

Even our chef got involved. What do we have to do to our menu board? How do we focus the menu on items that sell the most? The goal was never to have three minutes speed of service. The goal was to handcraft the food as best as we can. But still, we tell people, "Look, it might take a couple more minutes. Please pull over to parking place number one." We have designated parking there. So plenty of parking, and then we'll deliver the food out to them if it's a big order.

How do you credit BurgerFi's success during the pandemic?

One of the things caused by the pandemic was larger orders online. Prior to the pandemic, we were probably doing about 25 percent of our business online. In the most recent months, we're upwards of 40 percent, and we've even been as high as 60 percent. We've been able to adapt very quickly. The chains that have been successful during and post-pandemic are the ones that adapted to what our guests want, which is the ability to pull off to a curb, order online, and have the food brought out to them. 

If you're giving quality handcrafted food, people will wait a couple extra minutes for that kind of experience. That's what we're finding. We're opening our second drive-through, which we built from the ground up, and that's in Henderson, Nevada, a great suburb of Las Vegas. We have eight restaurants under construction right now, more than this brand has had at one time. We're also actively seeking other second-generation drive-through locations as well. Because of the online digital experience and delivery option, we don't need to have a drive-through. If the restaurant's going to be in a high-energy location that's in a shopping center, that's a great site for us because people will be coming there. So there's probably less need for a drive-through. But if it's a transitional area with a lot of traffic driving by, then a drive-through makes a lot of sense.

Julio Ramirez just started a burger war with the SWAG burger

What's your favorite BurgerFi burger?

I actually love the regular BurgerFi burger, although because I'm the CEO, I have to admit that I also go for the CEO burger. Sometimes I combine burgers, mix it up a bit. One of the beautiful things about our burgers is they're made to order, so we can do whatever you want. We have one burger we call the Conflicted Burger because you have both a no-antibiotic Angus beef patty and our trademarked VegeFi patty as well. 

There are a lot of countries, like Argentina, where having an egg on a burger is a big deal. So we have a Breakfast All Day burger that has hash browns and a fried egg on top. It's like having your breakfast meal between two buns. We also can do a green-style burger, if you don't want to do carbs. It's very nice iceberg lettuce that covers the burger like a clap shell. The list goes on. I really try to eat all of our products all the time. The spicy chicken products have been fantastic, but my new favorite now is the SWAG (Spicy Wagyu) burger. There was this whole thing about the chicken sandwich competition. We wanted to be the first to start a spicy beef competition, so that's why we rolled out the SWAG burger. We're getting a lot of social media behind it, so hopefully a competitor will try to take us on. And then we'll go to Plan B. We've got a couple of other options ready to go.

Can you tell us what makes the SWAG burger so special?

It's made with two patties that's a blend of brisket and 100-percent Wagyu, which is a notch above our regular Angus burger patty, and like all of our beef, it's vacuum-packed and never frozen. It's interesting that a lot of our guests don't know what Wagyu is, but they know it's high quality. People are really craving that, so we went with the spicy Wagyu instead of a regular burger, and it's even more premium. There are five different components to it: charred jalapenos, candied ghost-pepper bacon, which really packs on the heat, sweet tomato relish, habanero pepper jack cheese, and hot steak sauce. It's spicy, but it's not overwhelming. It all works very well together, and that's the beauty of chef-inspired food because Chef Paul Griffin knows exactly how to make that happen.

The future of BurgerFi

What are your plans to grow BurgerFi?

Right now, we're the dominant player in Florida. It's our home base, our home state. A couple of unique things we're doing is building what we call "cluster cities," which are cities where we'll put two or three company-owned restaurants instead of franchises. We have 90 franchise restaurants and 28 company restaurants, so we like both the franchise and company models. We want to build company restaurants outside of Florida, for example, Atlanta, Nashville, and Richmond. But we don't only want company restaurants in Nashville. We can train our franchisees there and spend more marketing dollars on the existing franchise stores and build the market together. 

I'm a big relationship person. The way you build relationships with franchisees is to have skin in the game in the markets that you operate in. We have a great operator in Northern Virginia and Maryland, and he's got up to six restaurants. So we want to build up the East Coast and grow both franchises and company stores. We'll do opportunistic growth with franchisees in other parts of the U.S., but the company model will be more on the Eastern seaboard. It's our area of strength and knowledge. 

We also have a deal with the Air Force. There are restaurants on the bases, and they tend to do very well. We're high on the list with the Air Force, and we'd also love to have a relationship with the Army. We've got some college towns too, and we're looking to do some institutional styles as well. I can't talk too much about specifics now, but a lot is going on. A lot.

What's the most important thing you want our readers to know about BurgerFi?

We at BurgerFi want to redefine the way that the world eats burgers, making it an exciting place for everyone, our suppliers, the people who go to really enjoy the experience. This is my chance as an older citizen to do what's good for the planet and the guests we serve. We really want to be the best burger that we can.

To learn more about BurgerFi or find locations near you, visit their website. Follow along with what they're up to on their Instagram or Facebook pages.