Slow and steady wins the race seems to be the mantra of the management team at Cheshire-based Jake's Wayback Burgers.
The burger joint chain has recently opened its 52nd store, with 100 more stores already sold to franchisees. That includes five new restaurants in Connecticut — in Avon, Waterbury, Stamford, Danbury and Norwalk. Other local Jake's locations are in West Hartford, East Windsor, Torrington, Meriden, Orange, Rocky Hill, Hamden and Stratford.
"The growth has been pretty brisk in this economy," said Bill Chemero, Jake's executive vice president. "We've done it in single-store scenarios, where they only buy one at a time, but we've recently rolled out a three-store package, where if someone is qualified, they can buy three at once."
Chemero said Jake's management representatives recently came back from a multi-unit franchise show in Las Vegas, where there was lots of enthusiasm from prospective buyers.
"We got a lot of activity and a lot of interest from people who own multiple concepts and multiple units in those concepts," Chemero said. "The goal is to advertise and attract the multi-unit operator."
Chemero said many burger concept chains are only looking for multi-unit operators.
"But we built the company on one-store operators," he said. "Our idea was to let the good franchisees buy more stores as needed. We want to see how they do before they buy a whole area."
The restaurant has used the slower one-store owner approach for more steady growth.
"If you sell five stores (to one owner) and you give them five years (to be successful), you're putting your growth on hold for that period of time, whereas if you sell five stores to five individual owners, they all open at the same time," he said.
Jake's expects the new Avon and Stamford locations to open in the fourth quarter of this year, and Norwalk and Waterbury to open in the first quarter of 2013. Each restaurant hires about 25 people for the initial 90 days, and then reduces staff to about 12 to 15 per store.
As similar chains like 'Five Guys Burgers and Fries' grow, and others, like West Harford's BGR: The Burger Joint have shut down, Chemero said there's no reason to worry there's saturation in the burger restaurant market.
"One of the reasons why we're going to withstand all of this influx of burger joints is because we have a lot of options these other burger joints don't have," he said. "Our philosophy has been, if you love our products and you love our service, there's a good chance we might get you in a couple of times a week for different menu items."
Jake's offers an expanded menu that goes beyond just burgers. There are turkey burgers, hot dogs, chicken, fish sandwiches (during Lent), fresh salads, a variety of fries and house-made chips.
"We're really known for our burgers and our milkshakes, which are made fresh with milk and proprietary ice cream," Chemero said.
The chain is always looking for new items to introduce as well. In October, sliders, or small burgers, will be added as a featured item. The sliders will be introduced as Jake's 'Burger of the Month.' The 'Burger of the Month' and the 'Milkshake of the Month' have proven a popular way to get customers engaged in the menu.
"It's kind of a game we play with the consumer: 'Hey, wait till you see next month's burger,' " Chemero said. "Lots of our current customers always want to know what the next burger is going to be."
With unusual milkshake offerings like peach and chocolate mint, customers keep coming back for more.
Jake's also had a Facebook contest to create a burger, in which customers sent in recipes for their idea of a perfect burger. The 'Mustang,' which includes smoked apple-wood bacon, Wisconsin cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce, won out, and will be on the menu in September.
David Cadden, professor of Management at the Quinnipiac University School of Business and co-author of the book Small Business Management in the 21st Century, said Jake's has wisely toned down what was initially a more aggressive expansion plan.
"I think the rate they're growing at is commensurate with the market, and I wouldn't be surprised if they would be able to expand at a faster rate in the upcoming years," Cadden said.
Cadden said he likes several elements of the franchise design, including the Burger of the Month and Milkshake of the Month concepts.
"I think they're being a little more proactive in trying to get customers in as co-creators," he said. "I think that, and the décor, which I think distinguishes them, provides them with a nice opportunity for growth."
Cadden points out how Jake's tailors its products to local tastes, such as putting cole slaw on hot dogs in North Carolina.
Chemero said the number one source of new franchisee prospects is customers who simply love the product. "If I look at 18 (stores) sold this year, I think nine of (the franchisees) have eaten in our stores and said, 'I want to get one of these,' " he said. "That's pretty strong validation."
Jake's objective is to sell 300 stores by the end of 2013.
Chemero said it should be easier than it sounds. "It's easier than the first 100, where people say, 'Who are you?' " he said. "You have to brand your concept."
The chain is expanding beyond the east coast; Jake's Wayback Burgers restaurants are now found in 18 states.
Cadden said he is optimistic about Jake's future.
"I think their plans are totally feasible," he said. "It's not a growth rate that puts them in jeopardy in some point in the future."