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Melting Pot owners hope Burger 21 gourmet burgers travel well

TAMPA — Burger 21, the Westchase restaurant that quickly built a following for its moderately priced gourmet burgers and shakes, is about to start spreading its wings.

A second store at 11777 N Dale Mabry in Carrollwood opens next month. As many as three more will be dishing up meals around the bay area within a year. The owners last week were cleared to offer franchises with a first-year goal of selling rights for 30 more stores around Florida.

"The restaurant exceeded our expectations right from the start," said Mark Johnston, 56-year-old president of the Burger 21 brand, which he co-owns with his 47-year-old brother, Bob, who has taken over as chief executive of the parent company.

The co-founders of the Tampa-based Melting Pot chain see their slick-looking fast casual burger shop as a growth vehicle for their recently renamed Front Burner Brands Inc.

Headed for systemwide sales of $260 million this year, growth of their 142-unit chain of pricey fondue restaurants has plateaued while sales at their six GrillSmith stores around the bay area have slipped since the recession.

Next month GrillSmith will be rebranded with an ad campaign and new menu offering more tapas-size portions.

The brothers declined to reveal sales projections at the first Burger 21. But based on their franchise disclosure filing, sales the first eight months of 2011 point to a healthy $1.6 million for the full year.

Startup costs for a franchise store range from $513,000 to $713,000, the high end of a moderately priced franchise. Royalty and marketing fees are a competitive 6 percent of annual sales.

Gone, however, is Chris Ponte, the Clearwater chef who developed the menu but left in what's described as a mutually agreed parting of ways to focus on his restaurant and other ventures.

At about $10, the average restaurant check appears not much bigger than a fast-food tab.

And only half of the burgers ordered are beef. The rest are ahi tuna, shrimp, chicken, turkey or two types of veggie burgers.

"Unlike Five Guys, our broader menu makes it less likely one member of a dining party will veto a trip," Mark Johnston said.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Melting Pot owners hope Burger 21 gourmet burgers travel well 09/22/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 22, 2011 9:14pm]
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