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Burger’s Priest inaugural franchisee has faith in the brand

Gus Romani (left), the first franchisee of The Burger’s Priest, along with company president Ryan Bullock.
Gus Romani (left), the first franchisee of The Burger’s Priest, along with company president Ryan Bullock.

When hearing the backstory of The Burger’s Priest, the old saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” will likely come to mind.

This reasoning inspired the company’s founder, Shant Mardirosian, a California native who grew up with a love for a classic, fresh, handmade burger.

Years later, as he was attending seminary school in Toronto with aspirations to become a priest, Mardirosian found himself in a crisis of faith. Not in a religious sense, but in his faith in the world of the burger.

In his view, what he loved growing up had been replaced by frozen patties, quickly cooked without any sense of pride or passion.

After travelling to New York for some smash-burger inspiration, he returned to Toronto and opened the first Burger’s Priest location in the Beaches neighbourhood in the city’s east end. According to Ryan Bullock, the company’s president, this first location was a mere 33 m² (350 sf), with only four bar stools for customers to use and a menu plastered on an old hymn board.

The concept began to create a buzz within Toronto’s indie and alternative communities, and that buzz converted into solid business as the company almost tripled its revenue from year one to year two.

Bullock explains The Burger’s Priest’s branding wasn’t a “gimmick or a joke at religion.”

“The concept of [Mardirosian] being a ‘burger’s priest,’ it wasn’t a novelty. He was essentially redeeming for the other burger places,” Bullock says.

To reiterate Mardirosian’s inclusion of faith and tradition in the business, Bullock points out the first location was originally closed on Sundays and was cash only.

Over the next decade, The Burger’s Priest would transition from a local sensation to a legitimate name brand, with more than 25 locations throughout the GTA, Ottawa, and Edmonton.

About a year ago, the company was acquired by Recipe Unlimited, whose resume of restaurants includes Swiss Chalet, Harvey’s, and The Keg. With this deal in place, the brand set its sights on the world of franchising, opening its first franchised location in Pickering, Ont., at the end of April.

The honour of being the company’s first franchisee was bestowed upon Pickering resident Gus Romani. However, Romani is no stranger to either franchising or The Burger’s Priest itself.

Even in his youth, Romani realized he wasn’t fond of taking orders from somebody else.

“I wanted to do something for myself. I didn’t want restraints put on me, such as being there at a certain time,” he says.

Romani owned several franchises throughout his career, and about five years ago, decided he needed, not wanted, to do the same with The Burger’s Priest.

“I was a regular customer at The Burger’s Priest. I loved walking into the place—the vibe was so cool. The people working there always seemed like they were having fun, and my next business was going to be one I was proud of and always enjoyed going into, so it was a perfect fit,” he says.

However, at that time, Romani says the company wasn’t quite ready to get into franchising, so he worked with them in a different capacity. Eventually, the time was right.

The Burger’s Priest focuses on a culture of individuality for both its franchisees and employees.
The Burger’s Priest focuses on a culture of individuality for both its franchisees and employees.

“After years and years of persistence and bugging them, they were finally at that point, and they decided to give me a store,” Romani tells Canadian Business Franchise.

Romani says the process has been almost without challenges so far, something he credits to the team behind the scenes.

“One of the things I love hearing from head office is, “‘We’ll never be the biggest, but we’ll be the best.’ I love that, and I think the team has shown me that over and over again—they are open to improvement,” he says.

Bullock is quick to throw credit back Romani’s way, noting he gives The Burger’s Priest “local loyalty” along with the loyalty customers have to the brand. In fact, he called him the “perfect example” of what they are looking for in franchisees.

“Everyone who works within our system, new or old, they are fans of it already. So we are looking for franchisees who believe in the brand, but also who will work a shift and be involved and have at least some history in the restaurant industry,” Bullock says. “The brand grows as the franchisee grows. We want franchisees who act as we do. Some great brands operate where their franchisee group is like a fraternity or sorority—that’s what we are striving for.”

While the company’s backstory is unique, Bullock says there is more than just that which separates them from the competition.

“We are obsessed with quality, it’s what we were founded on. We never sacrifice it,” he says. “We take a little bit longer than most mass chains, but it’s worth the wait.”

Bullock says the company also stands out by creating a culture of originality.

“Our staff can be themselves. We don’t have uniforms. We are fortunate to have people who are unique individuals, and we really encourage individuality,” he says. “We hire people,
not employees.”

Looking ahead, Bullock says The Burger’s Priest aspires for rapid, yet controlled, growth across Canada. He quoted Mardirosian as stating, “We want to build one store at a time.”

The brand’s locations are currently in the GTA, Ottawa, and Edmonton. Bullock says the immediate goal is to expand further in these areas, with a long-term plan of opening restaurants in B.C., Quebec, Saskatchewan, and the Maritimes.

This anticipated growth is something Romani is looking forward to being a part of.

“I want to grow with this business. This is the brand I want to work with, and I am definitely interested in opening more units,” he says.

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