Get ready to see a lot more DMK Burger Bars. The Chicago-bred mini-chain that debuted eight years ago in Lakeview wants to open 400 locations over the next decade and has started to go through franchise applications. The men behind DMK, James Beard Award-nominated chef Michael Kornick and David Morton (of Morton’s Steakhouse fame), have joined with David Grossman, an entrepreneur who helped scale Freshii and Subway. The trio hope to open a variety of burger bars, from ones that serve alcohol to smaller locations like the burger bars at Navy Pier and Soldier Field. DMK presently runs five burger bars, including outlets in suburban Lombard and Oak Brook.
“I think people get very excited when they think something that they like is going to be more available to them,” Kornick said. “I think there’s really something great about one unique store...but with the small, casual segment people are [more] willing to travel to DMK from the suburbs or where ever, the same way they are willing to travel for Big Star. When a United Center fan goes in there for a concert or ballgame, they’re happy to see Big Star versus what was in there last year.”
They’ll start looking at applicants from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin, but have interest in expanding all across the country and eventually outside the U.S. Grossman said they already have a meeting set for next week to talk about opening a restaurant at O’Hare International Airport. In a perfect world, Kornick said they’d open multiple restaurants close to each other. That way they could easily check in on them after a single flight or road trip.
While restaurants including Brendan Sodikoff’s Small Cheval are opening more locations, no Midwest burger spot has a plan as aggressive as DMK’s. Their target demographic is split evenly by gender and ages 22 to 40, Grossman said. These diners don’t mind paying a few dollars more for a premium product — in DMK’s case its grass-fed beef and cheffy toppings. These customers are more likely to buy Apple products or shop at Lululemon, and they probably have a health club membership, Grossman said. If the expansion is successful, DMK’s growth could rival Shake Shake (130-plus locations, four in the Chicago area) or even In-And-Out Burger (320-plus, none near Chicago) in the Midwest.
“We want to be very conservative and very smart in how we grow,” Grossman said. “I think our goal for this year is one store. I think the goal for next year is three stores and in the following years seven stores. Hopefully in the next three years we’ll have 10, 11 stores and then we begin to really expand a little bit more rapidly after three years.”
They’ll try to maintain a consistent design, but if a franchisee is taking over a space that doesn’t need too much work, they’d rather turn the space over quickly than swap out the tiles for the same floor coverings used in Lakeview. They’ll perhaps add regional-specific burgers; Grossman mentioned an elk burger as a possibility in the Pacific Northwest. DMK already has veggie options, but Kornick said they’ve been in talks with Impossible Burger. He’s not sure if it’s a fit as Impossible’s patties go after omnivores who want a meat-like taste. Many vegetarians and vegans don’t have that meat craving and want to taste vegetables. Kornick also believes if all restaurants switch to grass-fed beef it would make a greater environmental impact versus switching to a meatless patty.
Kornick has extensive fine-dining experience working at Red Light, Vivo, and Marché in West Loop. His work at Mk earned five consecutive Beard nominations for “Best Chef: Midwest.” Kornick isn’t banking on his Beard cred to help attract the average customer, but it doesn’t hurt.
“It’s great that people who know about my culinary background recognize that every one of those burgers are created with the same amount of intensity as any other dishes I’ve made from Mk or any other of my restaurants,” he said.
The initial franchise fee is $30,000 for the first unit, Grossman said. They’ll offer a 20 percent discount for additional units as DMK wants established restaurant owners with previous experience. They really want to sell to owner-operators. The overall startup costs will vary depending on size. A smaller food court-type location — like the one at Oakbrook Center — could cost $400,000 to $450,000, said Grossman. A larger one, like the original in Lakeview, could cost $750,000 to $800,000.
Kornick solicited advice from Blaze Pizza/Wetzel’s Prezels co-owner Rick Wetzel. He told him the best scenario is he finds people with existing franchise experience and “the energy and drive to be the best they can be.”