The Real Story of Smashburger
PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Smashburger’s origin dates back over fifty years ago in Ashland, Kentucky, located in the Appalachian Mountains.
The story is that the original Dairy Cheer hamburger shop owner Bill Culvertson, created the “smashburger” when a worker discovered that smashing the meat with a No. 10 bean can while grilling was a great way to get the best flavor into a burger.
Out of that cooking method Smashburger was born.
Culvertson’s restaurant had originally been a Dairy Queen. When the corporate office refused to let him sell hot dogs and hamburgers, he terminated his franchise and operated independently as Dairy Cheer. Bob Borders, former owner of a Pikeville Dairy Cheer for twenty-one years and now retired, said Culvertson eventually sold his business to Lou Compton, a woman in Pikeville who saw an opportunity to franchise the business.
Chris Smith, a current owner of a Pikeville restaurant, located not far from where country singer Loretta Lynn was born, bought the business from Borders in the mid-1990s.
“When Lou first started her husband at that time, a driver for the coal mines, told her with their great food she could run the stores and sell the rights to other people to operate Dairy Cheers,” explains Smith. He said Compton opened a number of franchised restaurants using the familiar “Home of the Smashburger” trademark. And, until recently, she had owned it for thirty-five years collecting royalties.
At one point, Compton had restaurants in Carlisle, West Liberty, Lawrenceburg, Prestonburg, as well as other Kentucky towns, but today many of them are closed down. Smith thinks there are now four Dairy Cheers. Compton eventually wanted to sell her rights to his stores outright for a price. Smith said he and others signed contracts stating they could own and operate the Dairy Cheers “forever,” never having to pay fees and royalties. They were on their own.
Smith is a proud business owner. “Our unique hamburgers are so popular when people see me on the street they call me 'Smashburger.'” Smith gives much credit for the success of his restaurant to his predecessor Bob Borders. “Bob built the Pikeville restaurant to be the highest producing Dairy Cheer since the chain started," Smith exclaimed.
When the cut through had been made for the mountain road in 1973, Smith said it ran right by his restaurant, making it a great location. He said the mayor of Pikeville patronized his shop for years, sitting out in front, watching the view.
Phyllis, who has worked at the Pikeville Dairy Cheer for the last 31 years, said the restaurant today is not much different than it was when she started working out of school. “There wasn’t a drive-through window at that time.” She said the people were basically the same as back then. “The restaurant stays very busy,” she added.
So what’s it like being an entrepreneur in Pikeville, Kentucky? “If you own a business you have to work it. There’s not much time off," Smith said. His Dairy Cheer is open six days a week, but normally he doesn’t go in on Saturdays. “That doesn’t mean I’m really off. I never know when I will be needed,” he explained. “So I can’t rest until at night when the store closes.” He said he’s not the happiest person when employees do call him in. “If they need me on Saturday I’ll go. But Sunday is church day and we are closed,” he added. “It’s our day of rest.”
Smith said it is important to get away from a business. He leaves every day around 4:30 to go bike riding with his son, who is the restaurant manager. They often ride 40 miles across the beautiful Appalachian country of Eastern Kentucky.
The most traumatic time they’ve ever had with the business is when the hollow that Pikeville lies in was hit by a flood. Phyllis said, “The water was three feet high. Everything had to be taken out, tile and all.”
Invasion of “Smashburger Colorado”
Then came the strangers. Smith said one of his customers warned him about a new Smashburger in the city of Lexington, some three hours away. Its bright bold red and white shops were coming into Kentucky with a splash. At that time Smith asked Compton what was going on. “She told me not to worry about it. She really played it down,” he said.
Smashburger, owned by Consumer Capital Partners in Denver, a spin-off of Quiznos sub sandwich franchise, began franchising in 2007. The private equity firm put up $15 million to get the new franchise enterprise going. Today Smashburger has grown to 150 locations, half company-owned and half franchised. Last year they showed annual revenues of $54 million.
In recent interviews with Bloomberg Enterprise and Forbes magazine, founder and chief concept officer Tom Ryan said, “Smashburger was born out of a very practical element of how they make their hamburgers.” He explained, “We start with a meatball on a buttered grill. We have these cool little smashing tools that we use to smash the meat down, allowing it to sear and cook in its own juices.”
As the executive team of the Denver Smashburger began planning out the menu, calling their meat patty the “smashburger,” it came to them, Ryan said. “Wallah, let’s call the place “Smashburger.” Four years later, here they are. “That’s the magic of Smashburger," Ryan said.
Kentuckian Chris Smith says now that the Colorado-centered Smashburger chain has come in, people say it’s not the same as his Smashburger. He proudly states, “They say ours is much better.”
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