Beta Burger founder Adrian Wong is not your typical food guy
Beta Burger founder Adrian Wong is not your typical food guy.
The 30-year-old didn’t grow up in the food industry or go to cooking school or even invest in a franchise restaurant and catch the food fever that way. In fact, he has a degree in business administration from Bentley College and worked as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley for six years prior to starting Beta Burger in 2014.
The only thing Wong knew is that while helping startup entrepreneurs navigate the treacherous waters of early finances, he fell in love with the innovation aspect of startups and startup culture, and he wanted a piece of it.
There was one big problem — most of his startup experience was with the technology sector, but he wasn’t interested in starting a tech business.
He searched for a way to apply the innovation and culture of tech startups to another industry.
“I dabbled in other things, but I started to focus a little more on food, asking, ‘What can I do with food?’” Wong says.
He zeroed in on the “fast casual” sector, restaurants that do not offer table service but sell a higher quality product than typical fast food.
One of Wong’s early inspirations was the story of Chipotle Mexican Grill. He liked how Chipotle used innovative techniques to shake up the burrito industry and become a behemoth in doing so. He saw reflections of the technology world in Chipotle’s method.
“What I was really interested in was how they were able to do ‘plug-and-play’ with their food, essentially customize your food down the line — basically, instead of having a pre-made burger … everything was assembled on the spot, just in time. And I loved that,” he says. “This model, as I looked at that fast casual food space, it’s all trending towards that.”
Wong wanted his bite. He ruled out fast-casual food sectors that had already jumped on the Chipotle-style customization, such as burritos, noodles, salads and sandwiches.
The burger segment jumped out as one that had not. While some burger brands have come close — notably Five Guys Burgers and Fries — most still operate more traditionally, with everything ordered off a big menu board on the wall. There was none of the Chipotle-type assembly line that he loved
Building a better burger
Wong did his research. Aside from the decades-long industry dominance by a few well-known burger brands that few are fool enough to challenge, he identified another obstacle to the customization approach he wanted to bring to the burger concept. He did not want his cooked burgers sitting under a heater, as happens at the veteran burger giant establishments. If he was going to do burgers, he wanted them to taste just-off-the-grill.
“[With] traditional burger cooking, you need to cook on the grill for six minutes in order for it to be fully cooked,” he says. “No one was going to wait six minutes for a fully cooked burger after they had done all the ordering for 30 seconds. Everyone was going to hate that concept.”
The problem excited Wong, because at last he finally had the tech-startup-like hook he craved; he would have to employ technology and innovation to solve the six-minute burger dilemma.
And he did just that. He came upon the idea of using an oven that mimics the traditional French cooking method of “sous vide,” through which food is sealed in an airtight plastic bag and placed in a water bath or steamed environment for slow cooking to ensure it cooks evenly and retains moisture. In the U.S., sous vide-type ovens use circulating water vapors to achieve the same results. They are used mostly in high-end restaurants, but Wong had discovered the solution to his problem.
He found that burgers cooked with the sous vide method turn out juicy and evenly cooked. After coming out of the oven they can be finished on a grill, ready to go in 30 seconds.
He now had his innovation to make the customization concept fly in the fast-causal world.
“The result is you get a much more juicer and perfectly cooked burger,” Wong says. “And it minimizes chef error because it is always perfectly cooked.”
While working on his burger solution, Wong also set out to tackle the other big hurdle in his quest to start a food business — the fact that he had no experience in the industry.
In 2014, he took jobs at his early inspiration, Chipotle, and at another local burger restaurant in order to learn the food industry from the inside out, working nights and weekends while still at Morgan Stanley.
Friends and co-workers thought he was crazy, and so did most restaurants he applied to, after taking one look at his resume. But he knew he needed to learn the restaurant business; having an innovative concept wasn’t enough.
He spent a year working in the restaurants, a time he says was invaluable as he learned about cooking, preparation and operations.
“It taught me a lot in terms of innovation and culture,” Wong says. “It taught me how to marry these two things into our industry where it is sorely lacking.”
Innovation and experience in hand, Wong left Morgan Stanley to give it a go full-time with Beta Burger.
In October 2015, he opened his Beta Burger restaurant on Tremont Street near Roxbury Crossing in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood.
As planned, Beta Burger has the sous vide-style oven and the assembly line customization of buns and toppings that Wong sought. The main Beta Burger product is priced competitively for the segment, starting at $5.50. Other burger options are offered at higher and lower prices, along with beverages and sides of seasoned fries and chips.
A neighborhood choice
Wong, who grew up Monterey Park, California, before coming to the Boston area for college and now living in South Boston, says he wanted Beta Burger’s flagship store to be in Boston.
Just as there were naysayers about Wong’s risky jump into the food businesses, there was plenty of dismay at his choice of Mission Hill for a first location. But Wong likes the area. In his research on locations, he says, he spoke with Mission Hill Main Streets organizers and liked what they had to say about efforts to improve the local economy.
“[This neighborhood] needs more businesses in this area to be vibrant again,” he says. “I want to be part of it. I want to help restore it to its former glory.”
One person who has little doubt about Wong’s ability to succeed with Beta Burger is Joshua Schaer, who owns several Freshii franchises in Boston. Schaer has been advising Wong based on his own experiences with his health fast-casual restaurant, which features burritos and wraps, soups, salads and frozen yogurt.
Schaer says he was impressed with the way Wong tweaked the concept of a burger restaurant to be on trend with what is happening in the fast-casual world.
“It was just really smart,” he says. “He took a really analytical approach to it. He asked questions for feedback and he wanted to hear it.”
Aiming for growth
Wong funded Beta Burger’s launch himself, and so far is encouraged by how things have gone.
Admittedly, opening a restaurant that relies on foot traffic right before the New England winter may not be the wisest of moves, but Wong says he didn’t want to wait to get going, and he is in it for the long haul.
His target customers are college-age students and young professionals. The ultimate sales target is 350 burgers a day, which would generate around $3,000 in revenue, or about $1 million a year. What is necessary now, Wong says, is to hit 200-250 burgers a day for sales of $2,000-$2,500, to generate annual revenue of at least $700,000.
Beta Burger has already hit the 250 burger-a-day mark at times since it has opened, which encourages Wong.
“We can hit those numbers and we are not even at the highest capacity,” he says. “We have seen some of our busy days, and we know we can do more than that.”
Beta Burger currently has seven employees, including Wong and a general manager. He expects the total number of staff to grow to 17.
A company culture
Building up business is a priority, but Wong is also working on creating a positive culture inside Beta Burger.
“If you are don’t have happy employees, you are not going to have happy customers,” Wong says.
From the tech world, he borrowed the concept of frequent one-on-one meetings. He sits down with his employees to find out what they like and don’t like and to ensure that working at Beta Burger can keep them on the path toward their goals.
“That is a totally different mindset, as opposed to ‘just do your job, you just have to keep doing this like a little robot here.’ That is not fun,” says Wong. “We are trying to create a culture where this is a facility of learning.”
The term “beta” is borrowed from the tech industry, where it refers to early product models. For Wong, the Beta Burger name means that every process is open to suggestions for improvement by customers — and very importantly, from employees.
Case in point, in the first few months, employee feedback has already led to changes such as reorganizing how the digital displays show menu information and increasing burger size.
“We live and breathe that startup mode where we learn and we fail fast, and we switch over really fast,” Wong says. “The employees have a lot of say in the success of our business.”
Success — not if, but when
Yoav Shapiro is a former colleague of Wong’s from his Morgan Stanley days as well as an angel investor and chief product officer at marketing software company Jana. Shapiro says Wong’s willingness to change and adapt — another strategy drawn from the tech industry — is a strength that will serve him well with Beta Burger.
“He does not see it as ‘done,’ once started. He keeps changing,” Shapiro says. “He is open to trying ideas that most restaurants won’t do.”
Even though he knows it will be tough going, for Wong success is not a matter of if, but when.
“We just have to keep plugging away at it,” he says. “It is just all about continuing to gain visibility and continuing to spread the word that we have something completely different, and we have something that tastes way better than your traditional, average burger place.”
Wong’s long-term vision includes opening another location in two or three years, with an initial focus on suburban areas on the East Coast, and to expand beyond that eventually.
“My vision for this is to be a national brand, not just a regional brand,” he says.