Smashburger has brought its brand of so-called better burgers to Thousand Oaks, the first of as many as 60 outlets it plans to open in the Los Angeles area in the next seven years.
The Denver fast-casual chain arrives with a luminous pedigree and solid potential.
Its founder, Tom Ryan, has shaped menus and marketing campaigns at McDonald's, Quiznos, Long John Silver's and Pizza Hut. And last year, Forbes named Smashburger the most promising company in the country, beating out tech companies, alternative energy start-ups and healthcare firms.
The company launched in 2007 with a goal of getting into "every town in America sooner or later."
Ryan said this week that the chain now has 163 restaurants. The company plans to open 40 to 60 locations in the greater Los Angeles area over the next seven years, including one in Culver City in November.
But Smashburger will face stiff competition in Southern California, a hotbed for burgers riddled with McDonald's, In-N-Out Burger, the Counter, Umami and Tommy's. Ryan is 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 cooked within three minutes.
Although customers order food at the counter, the open-face, high-end burgers are delivered to their tables, where they use silverware, not plastic. Smashburger also serves beer and wine.
Locations are "dressy enough for date night," but the atmosphere is still conducive to messy children, Ryan said. The decor started out with more of a fast-food vibe but has gradually taken on more adult-casual elements.
Although a third of its food is taken out, Smashburger doesn't believe in the drive-through concept.
"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.
Through Smashburger parent company 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.