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Building a better burger franchise with Gourmet Burger Co.

crop1By Kristine Archer
Pineapple, beets and a fried egg don’t sound like typical burger toppings—unless you’re ordering an ‘Aussie Burger’ from John Ward, owner of Gourmet Burger Co.

Ward, who moved to Canada from Australia more than 15 years ago and has more than 20 years of restaurant experience, has combined North American burger traditions with those of his native land in the new quick-service restaurant (QSR) chain, which offers a variety of high-end burgers and sides.

“Back in Australia, pretty much every street corner has what they call a ‘mixed business,’” Ward explains. “They do hamburgers, rotisserie chickens, salads, and everything’s made from scratch with fresh ingredients. I modelled Gourmet Burger Co. on that theme.”

No stranger to entrepreneurship, Ward has owned five establishments over the course of his career, from traditional full-service restaurants (FSRs) to pubs and bars. After starting a family, he was looking for a new challenge that wouldn’t require as many late nights; soon, he began developing Gourmet Burger Co.

The first location, in the Cabbagetown section of downtown Toronto, opened its doors on Nov. 12, 2008, providing ground-and-grilled-to-order burgers with no added filler and topped with fresh ingredients.

“It snowballed. The first Friday night we were open, we were so busy we ran out of burgers,” he says, noting the restaurant closed almost three hours ahead of schedule.

After retooling the concept (grinding to order was phased out in favour of a more efficient method) and building a strong following, Ward was approached by a gentleman about franchising his concept.

“At that point, I hadn’t set up the business to franchise. Luckily, I had a very good lawyer who guided me through the process.”

In October 2009, the first franchised location opened on Charles Street in Toronto; Ward’s executive chef eventually bought the Cabbagetown location. Two other franchises have opened since, in Toronto and Newmarket, Ont. A fifth location in the west end of Toronto doubles as an office, training facility and production kitchen, where Ward and his team bring in their own beef, age it, grind it, season it and deliver it to franchisees every two days. At least two more Ontario locations are slated for 2011.

As he continues his expansion, Ward says he has been inundated with franchise requests, but is careful to pick only those who will be a good fit for the system.

“I’m looking for somebody who has energy, passion and really believes in the product,” he says. “I don’t want somebody who wants to open a store, put a manager in and just walk away.”

He also wants to make sure he and all his franchisees are happy and successful.

“We want to build the brand properly and correctly over a period of time. We don’t want to sell franchises for the sake of selling franchises.”

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