When someone talks about saving the world, the image of a hamburger probably isn’t the first tool that springs to mind. But for a trio of budding entrepreneurs, this is exactly their weapon of choice.
Chad Goodwin, Sebastian Kovach and Alex Raabe started Eden Burger after being inspired to do their part to make the world a better place by advocating for a more sustainable, plant-based diet. Access to these types of foods can be challenging. In a world overflowing with fast food options, would there even be room for an upstart vegan burger joint?
The team almost had a premature answer to this question earlier this year as they took an unexpected pause to their business. They shut down for several weeks to re-evaluate, make changes and overall streamline the business.
It’s a story you don’t often hear in the restaurant industry. How do you recognize and learn from your missteps?
In the Beginning
The path to becoming restaurateurs has not been a linear one. Goodwin and Kovach have been friends since middle school and have had several business ventures prior to starting a restaurant.
“We thought that we were going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. We dropped out of college to move out west to develop an app,” says Goodwin. “But we ended up accidentally spending all the money and had to come back.”
In their second stint in college, the two friends connected with Raabe who shared their entrepreneurial spirit. The trio continued to work on a variety of projects.
“We sold Ezekiel Elliott crop tops on campus,” says Goodwin. “We also started a grocery delivery service that no one wanted. And we’ve written movies together.”
One of the team’s movie project was an adaptation of the classic video game “The Oregon Trail.” But none of these projects really found an audience.
But about a year and a half ago, the guys watched the documentary “Cowspiracy” that talked about the environmental impact of meat versus a more plant-based diet. This served as a rallying point and inspiration for their next project: Eden Burger.
Getting Started In Foodservice
Launching a foodservice business takes a little bit of bravado even if you have some experience in the industry. To start a foodservice business with no experience at all might be considered downright foolhardy. Yet that is exactly what Goodwin, Kovach and Raabe did.
They began hosting pop up events out of their home. These events invited diners to sample versions of what would ultimately become the Eden Burger, a plant-based alternative to the traditional hamburger.
“We were inspired by the pop up model that would allow us to get in the game without the brick-and-mortar investment,” says Goodwin.
These pop up events were marketed via Facebook and were critical in helping the team develop its product. Sensing that they were on to something, they approached several area bars about partnering with them.
“We were inspired by the pop up model that would allow us to get in the game without the brick-and-mortar investment,” says Goodwin.
“The [bar owner] liked the burger and gave us a shot. He gave us his slowest night,” recalls Goodwin.
The team went into marketing overdrive and a crowd showed up to sample the newly crowned Eden Burger. But this was also the team’s first real lesson on the operational side of the food business.
The team’s inexperience in running a food prep line made for a rocky start.
“Sixteen people was the most people we had ever served before this event,” says Goodwin. “There were like 150 people there at kickoff.”
Customers were waiting up to 2 hours to get their orders. Understandably, the bar owner was less than pleased.
“We tried our best, but didn’t do a very good job that night,” adds Raabe.
“We had never even seen a ticket print in the kitchen before,” says Goodwin. “And even though we had one burger and regular fries and sweet potato fries, the tickets looked like Chinese to us.”
The guys even had their parents jumping in to help in the kitchen but the team struggled to prepare and serve their food in a timely manner.
But the original burger was getting good reviews. The guys believed they were on to something. And additional pop up events followed.
They still struggled with operational issues, but things definitely improved.
The Genesis of the Eden Burger
If you’ve ever tried to find vegetarian or vegan options when you eat out, then you are probably aware of how difficult it can be to find a variety of options. And when it comes to burgers, your options become even more limited.
The go-to vegetarian burger recipe seems to center around black bean burgers or veggie-patties made from soy and other ingredients. But the Eden Burger is different and you can tell right from the first ingredient:
“There was sort of that [veggie] burger movement with Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat,” says Kovach, the team’s lead food experimenter. “Attacking America’s favorite meal and making it vegan.”
Kovach wanted to avoid things like thickeners or ingredients that would be out of reach for the typical consumer. The team focused on ingredients found in grocery stores. They used retail grocery stores as their primary supply chain; a decision that gave them a lot of flexibility, but also presented challenges as they tried to control costs.
The Eden burger itself has been through several iterations. The team began with a pretty basic vegan burger recipe that they found online.
“Our first attempt was the mushiest burger you’ve ever seen,” says Goodwin. “We had people show up to our first house pop up and they bit into the burger and it was just blah.”
The original recipe used walnuts as a source of fat and protein which is essential in creating a burger experience. But walnuts are expensive and a major allergen for many people. So the team leaned on Kovach to research alternatives to problem ingredients.
“Sebastian found pumpkin seeds to replace walnuts because they have a lot of protein, more than steak in fact and still provide the fat content you need,” says Goodwin.
The final piece of the puzzle came in the creation of the Eden sauce, another Kovach creation. The team tinkered with the recipes until they hit on the right combination that was getting great reviews at the pop events the guys were continuing to host.
It was at one of their pop up events that they met the man who would become their future landlord. The team was ready to make the leap to a real restaurant location.
The location they selected was the former home of a hot dog restaurant and was positioned next to a bar. Since the location had previously been a foodservice business, there were some advantages, but the team still had a lot of work to do to get the building ready.
“We cleaned and cleaned and cleaned and cleaned,” says Raabe “The previous business sort of just cut and ran so the place was a bit of a mess.”
But the team dug in and started working. At first, they were serving food through a window into the bar next door. This experience mirrored their pop up days and allowed the team to keep evolving their practices.
“We’d be serving food through the window on the weekends and Alex would be building the tables out front,” recalls Goodwin.
Then came the fateful decision to actually open the restaurant to the public.
Lead-up to Catastrophe
The team was running low on funds so it was time to make the move.
But even as they planned their grand opening, they made another fateful decision that would have consequences later.
“As we were about two weeks away from opening, I said to Sebastian ‘Hey! You wanna add 10 more burgers to the menu?’ And he was like ‘Yeah! Let’s do it!” recalls Goodwin.
This decision turned out to be a major contributor to the issues that caused the team to take a pause and overhaul their business processes.
The new burgers required additional ingredients which then led to additional prep time. Add in the team’s inexperience in preparing the new menu items and they saw wait time swell again. And although the food was getting good reviews, the service and processes still left a lot to be desired.
“We went and added all this complexity, new menu items and whatnot, and undid all the simplicity that we were striving for.”
The Eden Burger team had added complexity to their business model before they had mastered the basics. Fortunately, they recognized this and several other issues that were keeping the business from reaching its true potential.
“In our pop up days, we really tried to adhere to the MVP principle: Minimally Viable Product. Just get the basics of the idea down and scale off that,” says Goodwin. “Then we went and added all this complexity, new menu items and whatnot, and undid all the simplicity that we were striving for.”
Even though the team had accomplished their goal of opening a restaurant, things still weren’t going well. They jokingly refer to this period as the “Dark Times.”
“We weren’t hitting our key performance metrics. We definitely wanted to save up enough money to open another location. We wanted to our ticket times and pricing to be in line with fast food,” says Kovach. “We thought that would open it up to a broader demographic.”
“We definitely have a more grandiose vision of what the Eden Burger locations of the future will look like,” adds Goodwin.
At this point, the issues piled up to the point that the team had to have some serious conversations among themselves. Could they make the changes they felt they needed to make and continue to operate? Ultimately, the guys felt like the best move was to take a pause and close the business temporarily. Not an easy choice, to be sure.
Refactoring the Restart
The guys agreed that the best move was to get back to basics: Burger, Fries, Shake.
But simplifying the menu wasn’t the only change. The team learned about the design and layout of their kitchen space from their experience. They re-laid the kitchen to make it more efficient for themselves.
They purchased a shake machine to speed up that process to reduce wait times.
The dining area and order line was redesigned to make better use of the public space. The original design had one thin aisle up the middle that didn’t allow for optimal flow. By moving the line to one side and rearranging the seating, the flow of the seating area has been opened up.
They also began to put some organizational structure into place.
“Lord of the Flies”
“We called that time period the ‘Lord of the Flies’ because that’s how we ran things,” says Goodwin. “But we started to define roles and responsibilities and processes.”
By defining the operating scope of each worker along with the processes they were to follow, they could increase efficiencies and simplify processes.
They also attacked their supply chain issues. When they began, they were sourcing over 100 ingredients from 9 different distributors. By refactoring their recipe, they were able to reduce the number of ingredients in the main burger from eighteen down to nine.
And they went even further by simplifying the prep of the ingredients to make the recipe simpler to prepare even before it hit the grill. By using less ingredients that needed to be pre-cooked, they could reduce the time and labor needed to prepare the products.
Ultimately, the decision to shut down temporarily was to create a clean break.
“We had tried to make changes before like taking things off the menu or changing the hours, but it just seemed to confuse people and cause problems,” says Kovach.
By making all the changes at once, the team felt that this was the best way to roll things out to their customers. They even went back to doing some soft launch events to work out the kinks of the changes with their staff.
And We’re Back!
The team pulled almost every aspect of their business apart and put it back together with a new focus on simplicity.
“We were focused on our ‘World Saver Combo’ – a burger, fries and shake. And scale everything off that,” says Goodwin.
Still Saving the World
Even though it has been a tough path, the Eden Burger crew have remained friends. It hasn’t always been easy.
“You need to learn how to have tough conversations,” says Goodwin.
The crew credits a lot of their solidarity to having clear expectations and defined roles and responsibilities. And they have advice for other entrepreneurs looking to get their ideas to market.
“Start small,” says Raabe. “That’s my best advice. Just keep it small and try something.”
Now that they have improved their processes, the team has slowly begun to add back items from the original menu that were popular with their customers. But they have done this in a controlled manner rather than the all-out blitz that occurred during their first opening.
They are now open 5-10pm Monday through Thursday and noon-10pm Friday through Sunday.
The team still has big goals, but they understand that the key to achieving these goals is carefully mastering the small steps.
It takes a special type of intestinal fortitude to take such a hard look at your business and make the challenging changes that are needed. Many entrepreneurs fail because they desperately cling to their original vision. The Eden Burger crew made the tough choice and has come out the other side with a stronger business.
And that’s what is going to allow them to continue saving the world. Godspeed!