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Burger Monger looks to expand its market

Jake Hickton, a general partner of Burger Monger, will soon open a new location in Wesley Chapel. 
Published Mar. 13, 2012

Despite opening next door to a McDonald's, Burger Monger thrived for a first-year business, scoring almost $1 million in sales peddling Kobe beef burgers and hot dogs.

And sales are up 20 percent, so far, in year two.

"We learned up front that we don't need to be too afraid of McDonald's," said Jake Hickton, Burger Monger managing general partner. "I saw it as a location that already drew 1,500 burger lovers a day."

It helped that this new entry at 10412 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa scored highly in unscientific local best burger ratings on Yelp.com and urbanspoon.com, and took the top spot among 30,000 tampabay.com readers.

Now, Burger Monger's owners are eager to find out if their startup has the makings of yet another gourmet burger chain. The second location opens Monday at 1656 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. in Wesley Chapel with two more bay area stores to come within a year. The Monger is competing for real estate with locally spawned gourmet burger rivals Burger 21 and Square 1.

Tierra Verde resident Hickton, 52, brings a fine dining/prime steakhouse mentality to the fast casual-dining scene. From teenage busboy at the elegant, old Park Schenley in Pittsburgh, his career took him from Morton's, Capital Grille and Ted's Montana Grill to senior vice president of operations at Mastro's, a high-end steakhouse chain based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Partnered with Bob Slane, a former McKinsey consultant in California, Hickton launched Burger Monger here because of the market's reputation as a cradle of new restaurant chains like Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Checkers, Beef 'O' Brady's and Melting Pot.

Burger Monger is too small to be required to post nutritional information. That's probably just as well since the hand-cut fries are cooked in artery-clogging beef tallow that McDonald's gave up for vegetable oil long ago. The beef is grain-fed Akaushi Kobe raised in Texas, a Japanese breed that's rated above USDA prime. The buns are egg and butter-richened Challah bread.

With an average check of $9.25, it's a bit pricier than Five Guys. But the topping list goes far beyond — seven choices of cheese including brie, three mustards, banana peppers, garlic sauce, chai chipotle chau and Monger sauce that tastes like Thousand Island dressing packed with some heat.

"If people think your burger is too healthy, they won't eat it," said Hickton, who nonetheless put salads and chicken sandwiches on the menu.

In another departure from the standard burger joint, Burger Monger carries wine and a choice of five to 10 drafts for the craft beer crowd.

Whither Winn-Dixie Texas private-equity firm Lone Star Funds completed its $560 million purchase of Winn-Dixie Stores, which has been merged with its Bi-Lo chain to create the nation's ninth-largest supermarket chain with 688 stores in eight southeastern states. Both chains will run as separate brands. Winn-Dixie CEO Peter Lynch steps aside April 4, and Bi-Lo president Randall Onstead takes over as CEO of the combined company that will be based in Jacksonville.

Among the unanswered questions: The future of Winn-Dixie's aggressive store overhauls that served to turn the chain around enough to be sold.

"Winn-Dixie's transformational stores are some of the best I've ever seen," Onstead said. "We are committed to completing the (17) in the pipeline."

Then there were two Brooklyn-born Grimaldi's Pizzeria, which specializes in coal-fired pizza, has signed a deal to be in Westfield Citrus Park mall this fall. Grimaldi's recently debuted in the bay area in Westfield Countryside mall in Clearwater. A third location may follow in WestShore Plaza in Tampa.

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

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