The average restaurateur, chef, and server aren’t generally fond of special-needs diners—the ones who are allergic to tree nuts, or who have celiac disease and can’t consume gluten, or who are lactose intolerant. Diabetics? Paleo dieters? Picky eaters? All can be as annoying as an uncontrolled toddler with their requests. In fact, most folks who work in the restaurant business don’t even like customers with small appetites who want to split plates, if only because it takes away from the bottom line and requires some extra communication to the expediters.
Kevin Harron, founder and CEO of Burtons Grill & Bar, and his cofounder and vice president of operations, Denise Herrera, feel the exact opposite. The demand-heavy patrons are the ones they embrace at Burtons Grill & Bar, which currently has 12 full-service locations from Massachusetts to South Carolina.
“From day one we were splitting meals and customizing dishes,” Harron says of the made-from-scratch, sourced-from-local-farms business that opened in 2005. “We got traction right away.” What made Burtons different was not only its contemporary American menus, with items ranging from Buffalo chicken dip to fresh-catch risotto, but also the fact that those menus were deliberately written to be adaptable. Patrons can pre-order specially sized steaks cut to their liking, swap out proteins for sides on main plates, and order healthy options for children that still have kid appeal.
But almost immediately, the pair’s philosophy started to expand. Harron has celiac disease, and while his experience as a restaurateur helped him avoid potentially troublesome dishes—gluten can be found in unexpected places like creamy soups, salad dressings, and marinated meats—Herrera pointed out that few consumers were as well-informed. She pushed for Burtons to do more for guests with allergies, and it turns out she was ahead of a growing trend.
“I would watch Kevin eat and see that we could accommodate this with small modifications,” Herrera says. “What I didn’t realize is the size of the niche we were going into. People started coming out of the woodwork. Now, 70 percent of the diners coming into the restaurants have an issue; every ticket has at least one allergy component.”
In fact, catering to the lifestyle of those with serious medical conditions and sometimes personally prescribed diets proved to be both a bane and a boon. For gluten-free and allergen-free dishes, special cutting boards, cutlery, and dinnerware had to be purchased and dedicated to specific areas to prevent cross-contamination. The entire company—from front of the house to the back—had to go through training. Today new hires must still learn the protocol before being allowed to work with the fare. “People trust us. This is life or death in some cases. We don’t ever want to lose that trust,” Harron says. “The most common customer complaint we hear is about an uneducated employee. That can’t happen. If the employee doesn’t know, how can a customer be safe?”
Patrons have taken notice of just how accommodating and flexible Burtons can be—and so have members of the staff. The employees’ lifestyle choices are also reflected in what Burtons serves. A manager first floated the idea for a paleo menu when he asked Harron and Herrera if they could run some specials that would jibe with his own diet-and-exercise plan. Other specialized options have come about thanks to a somewhat crowd-sourced approach. Herrera introduced the vegetarian menu, and a guest in South Carolina gave Harron the idea for the kids’ “Be Choosy” menu that lets them pick their own meals.
Many traditional, one-size-fits-all chain restaurants are cutting back and closing down, but Burtons—thanks in large part to its inclusive attitude—is adding seven East Coast locations within the next two years. The forthcoming units in Charlotte, North Carolina; Boca Raton, Florida; and Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, are not only the first of the new batch to open, they reinforce the brand’s emphasis on a “360° Lifestyle Approach,” complete with remodeled exhibition kitchens. This new design will put the back-of-house cooking and preparation front and center.
“While we’ve always been transparent with open kitchens, now they are front and center,” Herrera says. She and Harron also hope that the remodeled exhibition kitchens will eventually open the door for cooking classes.
Moving forward, Burtons plans to mesh itself in the communities it serves by supporting local sports teams and participating in health and fitness promotions, among other incentives. Herrera is also executing an initiative that encourages grassroots, regional cooking from the chefs at the helms. “This allows us to create more innovation at the store level,” Harron says. “The individual local chefs can now innovate according to what’s available. There’s a tremendous amount of pride and ownership.”
In that same vein, Harron is encouraging Executive Chef Alan Frati at Burtons Restaurant Group’s second property, Red Heat Tavern, to take the lead. Like Burtons, Red Heat’s menu offers a variety of contemporary American dishes, but with the latter relying on the distinct, smoky flavors generated thanks to a menu built around a Josper oven that combines a charcoal grill and barbecue pit.
Asking Harron and Herrara to choose between their brands is like asking them to pick between “lobster and crab legs, or filet and rib-eye.” They don’t want to play favorites. Burtons (with the exception of the Virginia Beach, Virginia, location and including the Wilmington, Massachusetts, Red Heat store) posted 4.7 percent growth in same-store sales while achieving an average unit volume of $4.2 million annually, based on the last 12 months. The hope is that Red Heat, under the direction of Chef Frati, will see a similar surge in the years ahead.
“We’re really excited about the Tavern, which is ramping up now,” Harron says. “It’s a totally different style of food, and we want to leave him alone and let him create.”