Smashburger is finally in town, bringing its brand of so-called better burgers to Thousand Oaks on Wednesday.
The Denver-based chain comes with a luminous pedigree. Founder Tom Ryan has shaped menus and marketing campaigns at McDonald's, Quiznos, Long John Silver's and Pizza Hut.
Last year, Forbes named Smashburger the most promising company in the country, beating out tech firms, alternative energy start-ups, healthcare firms and more.
Since launching in 2007 with the "goal to get into every town in America sooner or later," Ryan said in an interview this week that the Thousand Oaks store is the chain's 163rd. The company plans to have 40 to 60 stores in the greater Los Angeles area over the next five to seven years, including one in Culver City starting in November.
But Smashburger will face stiff competition in Southern California, a hotbed for burgers riddled with McDonald's, the Counter, Umami and Tommy's. Ryan's not worried, though.
"Burgers are America's favorite food," he said. "We're coming into L.A. with a highly differentiated concept. There's a lot of room in the burger market."
It's true that Smashburger is difficult to squeeze into a single restaurant category. Its burgers originate as meatballs that are smashed onto a buttered grill, allowing them to be readied within three minutes. The food is ordered at the counter.
But meals are delivered to customers at their tables, the burgers presented open-face in high-end style. Smashburger serves beer and wine in frosted glasses and uses silverware.
Locations are "dressy enough for date night" but the atmosphere is still conducive to messy kids, Ryan said. The decor started out with more of a fast-food vibe but has gradually taken on more adult-casual elements.
Though a third of its food ends up being taken out, Smashburger doesn't believe in drive-thru.
"You can't serve better-quality food in a bag, wrapped in foil," Ryan said. "I have no desire to have Smashburger eaten in a car. It should be savored by the eyes, the hands, the taste buds."
About 15% of the menu is designed with the local area in mind. San Diego stores, which are run by franchisees, have a Mexican-inspired burger. Los Angeles branches will have an exclusive pan-Asian sandwich and a Chai shake.
Burgers -- along with pizzas, Asian food, barbecue and more classic food categories -- are "ripe for reinvention," Ryan said.
American food culture is becoming more sophisticated, reaching "almost European dimensions," he said. Food retailers, cooking classes, television shows and more are pushing the rise of "next generation concepts."
"There's a sea change happening," he said, pointing to innovators such as Steve Ells of Chipotle. "There's magic in romancing familiar things."
Through Smashburger parent Consumer Capital Partners, Ryan is looking into fledgling concepts beyond the burger chain, including a pizza restaurant called Tossa and a comfort food outlet named Tom's Urban 24 Diner.
"The goal is to stay very evolutionary, without falling into last decade's paradigm," he said