Adam Quinn sees The Habit Burger Grill as “the next big brand,” a belief that prompted him to sign a multi-unit deal to bring the California-based concept to Massachusetts. It opened its first unit in 2020 and has a second in development.
Quinn and her family are also Dunkin’ franchisees, with 17 stores in Massachusetts. He was looking to diversify his holdings when he discovered Habit. A burger concept was a natural fit for him — Dunkin’ covers the morning day portion — and he said traveling to New Jersey to try the food was what convinced him to sign up.
“Their take on food is a bit different and I think it appeals to younger people,” Quinn said. In addition to burgers, the brand also sells salads and steak, chicken and tuna sandwiches, all grilled.
As the first Habit franchisee in New England, Quinn has a lot of work to do. In the months since its grand opening, he said he’s been hanging out in the restaurant’s lobby, greeting customers and encouraging them to watch their food as it’s cooked, emphasizing craftsmanship and the ingredients that go into it.
“We want you to come and try the burger, but long term, we want to show you that we have all these other cool foods,” he said.
This process takes place throughout the Habit system. Entry sales at new restaurants are still dominated by burgers, said John Phillips, the company’s director of business partnerships. But as stores mature, other items are gaining popularity on the menu, he said. The typical mix of starters in a ripe habit is 60% burgers, 40% other.
This diversity of menus has an impact on eating habits. Habit’s customers are split “essentially 50/50 between women and men,” Phillips said, while sales are “almost 50/50” between lunch and dinner.
Shortly after applying, Quinn said Habit flew him to its California headquarters, where he met with CEO Russ Bendel, CFO Ira Fils and the franchising team. He appreciated how approachable Habit executives were and said compared to Dunkin’ it was a “breath of fresh air”.
An experienced operator, Quinn is the archetypal Habit franchisee, Phillips said. The company likes to sign bigger deals, usually five to 10 units, and prefers to sell “semi-exclusive territories”, he continued. Quinn, for example, will open restaurants in Middlesex and Essex counties.
Founded in the late 1960s, The Habit Burger Grill is a West Coast brand that is quickly becoming bi-coastal. The company began seeding the East Coast with enterprise stores in 2014, starting with northern New Jersey, which Phillips says has similar demographics to California. This introduced people like Quinn to the brand and paved the way for franchise expansion in Virginia, Florida, the Carolinas and Massachusetts.
It’s a dissonant geographic presence, but Phillips said the company is taking a “first who, then where” approach to expansion. He sees potential for Habit in every state, so he lets his partners dictate where Habit grows, at least for now. After a successful expansion on the East Coast, he said Habit planned to “collapse in the middle” of the country.
The company’s partner-driven approach to growth is also evident in its international footprint: Cambodia and China. Habit has no plans to launch in Cambodia, Phillips said, but he jumped at the chance to partner with Kampuchea Tela, a top Cambodian conglomerate, when he got the chance. Kampuchea Tela opened its fifth restaurant on February 7. Habit entered China in 2017 and its franchisee owns eight locations there.
Although the expediency worked, Phillips said Habit would be more intentional with its international expansion going forward. The company has hired an executive to “lead the charge internationally,” he said, and running Yum Brands means more resources. Yum, franchisor of Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell, acquired Habit in early 2020 (and won a Franchise Times Dealmaker award).
Quinn opened his habit in October 2020 in Wilmington, just a city further from his home. Although challenged by COVID-19, he said he hadn’t suffered too much from a lack of name recognition and knew the brand’s slightly elevated and slightly healthier positioning would work well in New England. . New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu even stopped for lunch at his restaurant.
Quinn’s territory covers a large swath of land north of Boston and southern New Hampshire. He said his restaurant is doing well, helped by a drive-thru and the brand’s digital tools, which include a mobile ordering app, delivery integrations and a curbside pickup system.
“Twenty-something percent” of Habit’s sales come from restaurants, Phillips said, up from 60% before the pandemic. Digital channels account for 30% of sales, he continued, with drive-thru and conventional takeout making up the rest. Quinn said he looks forward to more catering activities so customers can watch their food being made to order.
Related: Habit Burger CEO Talks Potential Under Yum Brands