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Tuesday, Jul 16, 2024

Leader Board: Building a Better Burger at Scale with The Habit Burger Grill

Editor’s Note: The Habit Burger Grill CEO Russ Bendel, who the Business Journal named as its Businessperson of the Year for 2018 in the restaurant category, sold the chain to Yum Brands Inc. in 2020.

He is retiring on June 6 and will be replaced by President Shannon Hennessy. The Habit Grill ranks No. 7 on the Business Journal’s annual list of restaurant chains, which begins on page 20.

I worked at McDonald’s in the 1960s while attending high school in Philadelphia. Back then, things were a whole lot simpler. A cheeseburger, fries, and a shake cost around 45 cents, and you could get your car’s windshield washed while you ate.

The Road Less Traveled Career

For me, it was the Vietnam War or college. I picked college. I first majored in accounting, but after one semester, realized finance was not for me. That’s when I leaned on my teenage experience working at McDonald’s and pivoted to a degree in hospitality management, which, at the time, was not mainstream.

Florida International University had a hotel administration degree program in Miami, so I left the bustle of Philly for the colorful coastal metropolis of Miami. I didn’t realize it then, but this “road less traveled” path was integral in launching what would become a 50-year career in the restaurant industry.

Coming to California

Out of college, I went back to Philadelphia and became director of operations for several Marriott-owned restaurants in the mid-1980s. At the time, Marriott owned multiple freestanding restaurants and dinner houses on the East Coast.

They eventually sold all their restaurant holdings and I found myself moving out to California in 1991 with my wife, Judy, and our kids in tow to work with the founders at El Torito.

From there, my career took me to Panda Express (when they had only 100 locations) to franchise Outback Steakhouses, Mimi’s Café and then to the Cheesecake Factory in 2007. I took away so many learnings from them, most notably, how change is inevitable in this industry and that if you are afraid of it, success will be an uphill battle.

Discovering The Habit

KarpReilly, a private equity group, called me to say they had heard of this little concept called The Habit Burger Grill.

At the time, there were about 15 locations out in Santa Barbara and Ventura. I’d never heard of it but when we went to visit, I got that “gut” feeling—it was positioned right, and the “Better Burger” concept was just starting to emerge.

We acquired The Habit Burger Grill in 2007 and moved the offices from Santa Barbara to Irvine, with just a team of five people. We opened three restaurants in the first year, and once we got into the trenches, we really accelerated growth. The next big milestone was in 2014 when we went public with 100 restaurants.

COVID & Embracing Change

Six years later and with 240 restaurants, we officially sold The Habit Burger Grill to Yum Brands on March 18, 2020. On March 19, the world changed with a little thing called COVID-19, which was supposed to be a two- to three-week dilemma. Fortunately, literally the day before, we had acquired the backing of the world’s largest restaurant company, which was incredibly advantageous for us.

The “embracing change” mindset served us well during the pandemic, which, in my opinion, has been the most volatile and challenging time the restaurant industry has faced to date.

As a brand, The Habit Burger Grill had to pivot, and we had to do it immediately. We were lucky enough to have almost completed work on our mobile app, which we were able to push forward and launch at a very critical time. In addition, we introduced a curbside pick-up model, which drastically affected our business in a positive way.

It’s All About the People

While it starts with the food—fresh, made-to-order, quality ingredients—ultimately the people are my secret ingredient. I’ve always been about scale and growth, evolution over revolution. But more importantly, when you’re in the restaurant space, it’s about the people: you need a concept that resonates with people.

You need the right people to scale and grow the business. I can honestly say that my biggest successes and disappointments have had everything to do with people. You need the right people to spearhead real estate selection—planning how to grow, where to grow and how fast to grow is a strategic balancing act that only the right people can navigate.

Ultimately, it’s people who paved our path to success. Providing a level of service, hospitality and customer experience that’s easy to talk about, but incredibly hard to execute.

Handing the Baton

The past 15 years at The Habit Burger Grill have truly been the highlight of my professional career. So, it is with bittersweet anticipation that I announce my retirement.

Today, with more than 350 restaurants in 14 states, as well as 12 international locations, five in China and seven in Cambodia (and growing), it is finally time for me to pass the baton—and I am so excited to pass it into the capable hands of my successor—Shannon Hennessy.

I have the utmost confidence in Shannon’s vision of breaking the “craft ceiling” and making The Habit the global powerhouse brand in the better burger category. She and the team have outlined an ambitious agenda to scale the cook-to-order magic of The Habit Burger Grill, modernize the experience for off-premise dining, and reclaim industry-leading margins.

Over the recent months, I have had the opportunity to work closely with her to ensure a seamless transition at this pivotal time, as The Habit enters this next chapter of growth.

What Retirement Looks Like for Me

What’s next for me?

Admittedly, I have a hard time sitting still. I will remain on the board of advisors for the Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University and the advisory council at Cal State University Long Beach Hospitably and Tourism Alliance and expand my board advisory work even further. And of course, I am eager to spend more time traveling with my wife, as well as my kids and five grandchildren.

The restaurant industry has evolved since I started at McDonald’s back in 1969, and I’ve been moving, changing, and growing with it every step of the way.

I deeply cherish the friendships I have made during my 50-year journey, and most importantly, I am incredibly proud of the opportunities our growth has provided to so many team members at The Habit Burger Grill. I will miss seeing the faces of so many hardworking people each day, but I look forward to seeing what the brand will accomplish next.

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.

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