Smashburger is latest burger joint to come to D.C. area

Founder Tom Ryan shows off a Smashburger. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)

Over the past five years, Tom Ryan has created more than 50 types of sandwiches for his Smashburger restaurants. His latest: The Capital Burger, a bacon- and baby arugula-topped patty on a brioche bun, for the chain’s newest location in Fairfax.

“It’s a more upscale, sophisticated burger for Washington,” he said. “We try to add local flair to every menu.”

Ryan, 55, a veteran of Pizza Hut, Pillsbury and McDonald’s, opened the first Smashburger store in a Denver suburb in 2007. Since then, the company has grown to include 173 locations, with plans to build about 100 more by the end of next year. The restaurant on Fairfax Boulevard opened last Wednesday.

“Our original goal was just to put burgers back into people’s lives,” said Ryan, who has a doctoral degree in flavor and fragrance chemistry.

Ryan isn’t alone, though. More than a dozen burger joints, including Shake Shack, Black & Orange, Bobby’s Burger Palace and Burger, Tap & Shake, have opened in the Washington area since the beginning of 2011. The newly-formed Bolt Burgers has plans to open its first outpost in the area, as does Dallas-based Mooyah, which has been shopping around for locations in Washington and Maryland.

A Smashburger is pictured at the chain’s newest location in in Fairfax. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)

“I thought the burger trend was going to fade away, but it’s just not happening,” said Adam Sobel, executive chef at Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. “Americans love their hamburgers — it’s an unfortunate stereotype that’s proven true.”

At Smashburger, Angus beef patties are quite literally smashed onto the grill, where they are cooked for about three minutes, seasoned and served.

“It develops a lot of beef flavor because you’ve got that butter, hot beef thing going on,” Ryan said of the technique, which took him about four months to develop.

The chain’s menu also includes chicken sandwiches, fried pickles and veggie frites — flash-fried green beans and carrot sticks.

“We tried to think about what the next generation wants,” Ryan said. “What are people going to be looking for? What can we do that’s new?”

The company customizes its menu to sell local favorites: fried jalapenos in Texas, Spanish chorizo in Florida and almond milkshakes at its restaurant in Kuwait.

This year, Smashburger is anticipating sales of $175 million, a 40 percent increase from 2011, according to David Prokupek, the company’s chief executive and chairman.

“I think Americans, whether there’s a recession or not, want to go out for great food without breaking the bank,” Ryan said.

Abha Bhattarai covers local retail, hospitality and banking for The Washington Post. She has previously written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.



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