By Peter Saunders
In 2010, the Obsidian Group—known for the Crabby Joe’s and Coffee Culture franchise systems, as well as real estate development—introduced a new restaurant concept, Union Burger (UB), beginning with a corporate-owned location in Strathroy, Ont. In an already-crowded market for quick-serve restaurants (QSRs) specializing in burgers, the idea was to emphasize customer choice, the quality of products like hand-cut fries and a fun, social atmosphere.
The first franchised locations soon followed in Grimsby, Penetanguishene and London, Ont., the latter of which was opened for business on March 30 by franchisee Monica Miatello.
“I owned several pharmacies, including some in the Strathroy vicinity, so I heard my friends there talking about UB,” she says. “I did my ‘due diligence’ and went to try the food. So, my first experience with the brand was as a consumer.”
Miatello had already been looking into franchises, including burger chains. Shortly after trying UB in Strathroy, she noticed a sign indicating Obsidian was seeking a franchisee in London.
“I saw an opportunity to work right in my own market and serve a better product than the competitors,” she says. “I’m 48 and have spent a lot of time over the years driving long distances between the different pharmacies. This way, I can zip home in five minutes in the middle of the day to let my dogs out. It’s much more convenient.”
Miatello trained in Grimsby, but the relatively small-market corporate location could not prepare her for the level of demand in London, where she says there is marked enthusiasm not only for traditional burgers, fries and hot dogs, but also grilled chicken and UB’s signature veggie burgers.
“I’ve been very overwhelmed by the initial response,” she says. “Business hasn’t slowed down since we opened, but we’re learning and we’ve gotten better at dealing with it. The franchisor never expected us to be as busy as we’ve been. This location is already a social gathering place. It’s fun, the TV is on and you can get a draft beer.”
One upcoming measure to deal with high demand will involve expanding the restaurant.
“You don’t want to overbuild, but we’re about 46.5 m2 (500 sf) from where we need to be,” says Miatello. “Seeing how well business is going, our landlord wants to build a patio and add more bells and whistles.”
An additional plan is to add more UB restaurants in the vicinity.
“I’d like to be a multiple-unit franchisee, which dovetails with what I did in pharmacies,” says Miatello, “and I can best serve Obsidian by running other locations within London, where we haven’t discovered the extent of the market yet. It’s great to be in on the ground floor.”