Mooyah expects to stand out in crowded burger market with food, flair, service

John Stearns, 15 June 2012, Wichita Business Journal

© 2012 American City Business Journals, Inc. All rights reserved.

A Texas-based burger franchise is hungry to sink its teeth into Wichita.

The local burger market is crowded, acknowledges Rusty Rathbun, a Wichita restaurant developer, but he says Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes will stand out.

“There’s nothing like it in Wichita, guarantee it,” Rathbun says.

In the few markets where it’s established, Mooyah is known for its build-your-own burger combinations, myriad milkshake flavors and colorful dining rooms that feature flat-screen TVs and a giant chalkboard for the kids.

Rathbun works with Mooyah as a development agent, assisting Mooyah franchisees and taking a stake in each restaurant he helps. In Wichita, he’s working with franchise owner Anthony Powell, a former anchor on KSN-TV.

They expect to open in a west Wichita location — yet to be disclosed — in August. Powell says he’s waiting to finalize an SBA loan for build-out and equipment.

He says a timetable for future Wichita stores, which he has rights to, depends largely on how the first store does.

A growing niche

Frisco, Texas-based Mooyah fits in the “fast-casual” burger category with the likes of Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

“Fast-casual” means counter service, but food is made to order, so there’s more time between ordering and eating. And consumers pay a little higher price for what they expect to be higher quality.

Wichita’s Five Guys franchisees, brothers Jay and Jeff Miller, say they aren’t concerned about the new competition.

They entered the burger business 2½ years ago and now have three restaurants in Wichita and plan to open two more within five years.

“All we can worry about is ourselves,” Jeff Miller says. As long as Five Guys keeps offering high-quality food and service, the Millers say, they’ll be fine.

Five Guys is the nation’s fastest-growing large restaurant chain, according to food industry researcher Technomic Inc., with sales of $951 million in 2011, up 32.8 percent from the year before.

Mooyah — with just 36 stores, most in Texas — is much smaller.

Darren Tristano, Technomic vice president, estimates Mooyah’s sales at $21 million last year. But that gives it an average unit volume of about $1.1 million, close to Five Guys’ $1.15 million.

“They’re a good brand,” Tristano says. “It’s one that we expect to be a growth chain for years to come.”

Adam Mills, CEO of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, says fast-casual restaurants are proving popular.

They cater, he says, to people in a hurry but who seek higher quality food and service and are willing to pay a little more.

However, not every fast-casual burger joint is guaranteed to succeed, as Smashburger demonstrated when it closed its two metro-area stores, the last a year ago. A Smashburger spokesperson could not be reached for this story.

Mills doesn’t know why Smashburger closed here, saying factors could include site, funding, branding or advertising.

Sold on food, experience, support

Powell says he was attracted to Mooyah after meeting Rathbun, whom he calls a “brilliant restaurant person.” Rathbun has developed about 125 Subway restaurants in Kansas and co-owns Wichita’s Twin Peaks restaurant.

After researching Mooyah, tasting the food and meeting franchisees, Powell bought in. He recently finished Mooyah training in Texas.

In Dallas, where burger competition also is fierce, “Mooyah stands above and beyond,” Powell says. “Not only the food, but the dining experience as well.”

Service is huge, he says, and will be his focus. For operations, he’s hired an experienced restaurateur, Bambi Storlie, as general manager.

High-quality food and service are key to competing in a crowded market, agree Five Guys’ Jay and Jeff Miller, and they welcome Mooyah to try its hand at it.

It won’t matter that much to Five Guys, Jay Miller insists. “I’m not going to sweat it either way.”

Franchise fee: $30,000 for first restaurant, $20,000 for each thereafter.

Number of stores: 36. Projected to be 50 by year-end, 100 by end of 2013.

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