Burgerville chief hopes to use lessons of first 50 years as guide for next 50

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter




Burgerville operates 39 restaurants and employs 1,500 people in Washington and Oregon.

The company has capitalized on its Northwest connection by forming partnerships with regional companies, such as Country Natural Beef in Vale, Ore.; Riverpoint Farms in Walla Walla; Tillamook Creamery in Tillamook, Ore.; Portland-based Yo-Cream International Yogurt; and the region’s growing wind power industry.

Burgerville’s parent company, The Holland Inc., was founded in 1926 as a Vancouver creamery.

The year 1961 marked the dawn of Camelot in Washington, D.C., the launch of the Apollo space program in Houston and the birth of the station wagon in Detroit.

It was also the year Burgerville USA started up in Vancouver.

As the 39-restaurant chain looks back on its first half-century in business, President and CEO Jeff Harvey is working to position Burgerville for its next 50 years.

The company’s focus on fresh, local food and social consciousness has helped it win a dedicated following. But restaurant experts warn the Vancouver-based company faces stiff competition this year from national burger-sellers moving into the Pacific Northwest.

“Some of the big boys are coming, and they’re coming in fast,” said Bill Hayden, a Portland-based restaurant adviser and owner of Northwest Consultants.

Burgerville’s success has grown from a willingness to experiment across the company and at different locations.

It tries out seasonal menu items throughout the year, and in 2009 it considered going upscale and experimented with the possibility by adding beer and wine to the menu at its Salmon Creek restaurant.

After each experiment, Burgerville’s leaders look at the results and decide how next to act.

Though alcohol options remain on tap in Salmon Creek, the company has not added beer and wine to the menu at other sites. Patrons haven’t asked for it, Harvey said.

“Our goal is to satisfy the wants and needs of our guests,” he said.

The evolution has led Burgerville officials to tie parent company The Holland’s “serve with love” mission to a sustainable philosophy, Harvey said. He, along with other key employees, have strengthened the company’s ties to food suppliers and buyers that recycle Burgerville’s used cooking oil into biodiesel. The company composts food wastes and offers a health insurance plan for all employees.

Every facility is powered by 100 percent wind energy purchase, Harvey said.

“There are ways we can run our business that help create a sustainable future for our community, rather than robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

The competition

That ethos could come under pressure as the competition grows.

Restaurant adviser Hayden expects the region to gain at least eight franchise startups this year — among them Five Guys Burgers & Fries, Brothers Burger, Boardwalk Fresh Burgers & Fries and Vera’s Burger Shack.

“Brothers (Burger) is going to put in 30 (sites) from Seattle to Salem,” Hayden said.

Despite this influx, Hayden predicts the hometown Burgerville chain will finish ahead of the pack, in terms of market share.

“If I was in their shoes, I’d say just keep doing what you do,” he said.

Growing slow

Though before the recession the chain had big expansion plans, continuing steadily along is just what Harvey plans for Burgerville for the near term.

The company was poised to expand by eight restaurants in 2008 until the financial meltdown spurred Burgerville’s lender, G.E. Capital, to withdraw its promise of approximately $10 million.

Now, the company’s physical growth has slowed to a crawl.

Harvey said Burgerville plans to self-finance between one to two new restaurants or remodels per year.

The development tempo “is much slower,” he said.

“But I’m more excited that we are going to grow with our own people and money than I ever was about those eight sites.”

Burgerville generated about $75 million in annual revenue last year.

“We did better than (2009), but not as good as the year before the downturn,” Harvey said.

Vancouver roots

As Burgerville weathers slow growth and increasing competition, the company plans to keep its headquarters rooted in downtown Vancouver. The Holland Inc., takes up a full city block at 109 W. 17th St. for administrative offices and employee training space.

“There’s no reason to move,” Harvey said.

It is unclear how that commitment to Vancouver will play out in September, when the company’s last walk-up burger stand shuts down.

The downtown Burgerville site sold for $750,000 to developer Elie Kassab, who plans to build a $16 million complex of two four-story buildings with 100 apartments and ground-floor commercial space.

Harvey acknowledged that Burgerville fans will miss the iconic walk-up at the corner of East Mill Plain Boulevard and D Street. It has anchored the site since 1962 as one of founder George Propstra’s original hamburger stands, an outgrowth of his Dutch immigrant father’s Holland Creamery.

Propstra died in 2004 and transferred the chain to his son-in-law Tom Mears, who still owns the chain. Burgerville’s territory spans north to Centralia, south to Albany, Ore., east to The Dalles, Ore., and west to Monmouth, Ore.

The company would like to continue to serve customers in downtown Vancouver, Harvey said, but he carefully sidestepped questions about when or where a new restaurant might open.

“We are in talks over two different sites,” he said. “We’ll build a restaurant when the economics are right.”

The future

Patrons of Burgerville’s other sites can expect to see seasonal offerings continue to change, but more permanent alterations will vary by location.

The Salmon Creek restaurant represents the company’s latest store model with its Pacific Northwest-style timbers and skylights, cloth seats and wooden tables. But don’t expect every new Burgerville or remodeled restaurant to adopt the same look.

“A lot of chains like to have every one of their restaurants the same,” Harvey said. “Burgerville isn’t like that, and that’s not so bad.”

Burgerville is holding a series of summertime parties at each neighborhood restaurant, serving cake and a chance to reminisce.

“When our guests arrive, they are handed a sheet that says, ‘Tell us your Burgerville story,’” Harvey said.

The feedback will help chart Burgerville’s future course and tell store officials what customers expect, Harvey said.

“Rather than reveling in our accomplishments, we prefer to look at the last 50 years as preparation for all we need to accomplish in the next half-century,” he said.