How to Sell a Garbage Burger
by Jim Sullivan
Ten years ago on a Tuesday afternoon I went to a well-known Denver-area sports bar. I remember the time and date so exactly because that’s the day a server recommended, and I tried, a “Garbage” Burger for lunch. That experience changed forever the way I would think about the connection between the customer and the customer-facing crew. In fact, it opened my eyes to a completely new way of looking at service and selling in the restaurant business.
The night before, I played in a Denver restaurant volleyball league tournament. Our team lost badly, early, and often that night, as we usually did. No matter. The only harm done was that we played less and drank more. Designated drivers were thankfully abundant and that evening I learned two things: first, bartenders are merely pharmacists with a limited inventory, and second, never question your wife’s judgment. Look at who she married.
Anyway, the next day I had off and woke up both late and a bit hungover. I called a fellow restaurant manager and asked if he wanted to meet for lunch at the aforementioned sports bar, locally famous for their burgers and beer. He agreed and we met at half past noon.
After being seated, an energetic server named Anne greeted us with a smile, two big ice-waters, and a quick once-over. “Well, well, well,” she said in a friendly, but not familiar, voice. “Did we have a good time last night gentlemen?” We mumbled something in the affirmative. George was wearing sunglasses and mine eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. And they looked like roadmaps.
“Close your menus,” she sweetly commanded. “Let me make this easy on you.” We gratefully complied. “I want to make this the best lunch you ever had…you like burgers?” she asked. We nodded. “Good,” she continued, “Cuz even if you didn’t, you’d love ours. They’re a third-pound of 100% ground chuck and they’re fresh, not frozen, ever. Here’s what I’m thinking…” She paused slightly to insure she had our attention. She did. “Do you like mushrooms and onions? Yes? Good. Because our mushrooms are jet fresh from Pennsylvania, and we saute them for hours in red wine and beef bullion. And we use Vidalia onions, straight from Georgia, the sweetest and best there are. Sound good?” We nodded. She continued. “Here’s the plan, we chargrill two ground chuck burgers, cover them with the sautéed ‘shrooms and onions, and everything off with double slices of Wisconsin cheddar cheese, which we’ll then put in the broiler until that cheese gets bubbly and melts all over the burgers, mushrooms and onions. We’ll lay them on a butter-grilled toasted sourdough bun with lettuce, tomato, pickle and jalapenos, and fill up the plate with our homemade skin-on French fries and then…”
“We’ll take em,” said George, cutting her off. We were both salivating. She smiled sweetly. “Just one more thing I’d suggest. Let me also bring you each a cup of our homemade green pork chili on the side. You can dip each bite of the burger in the chili and you won’t believe how good it tastes. It’s not on the menu, but we call it a ‘Garbage Burger.’ It is the best burger you’ll ever have. Sound good?” Good? We could have ordered and eaten her description! “We’ll take them and I’ll have another water when you get a chance,” I said. Anne paused. “Maybe a pitcher of iced tea?” she countered. “The caffeine might help?” Another good idea and we agreed.
Well that Garbage Burger was the most messy, drippy, juicy, gooey, sloppy and best burger I’ve ever had, before or since. Having led us from water to iced teas, Anne then organically upgraded us to two icy cold Heinekens mid-burger as we devoured every morsel of this truly interactive and delicious meal. A regular burger and fries at this restaurant listed at $5.95. The loaded Garbage Burger obviously cost more, but we didn’t mind, not when you’re in the hands of a great server who knows how to connect with her guests and make a memory. Our tab was $28 and we left Anne a $20 tip. It was worth every penny. We talked about it all the way home, told our wives and even shared the experience with our colleagues at our weekly manager meeting three days later.
Two of them decided to go to the same restaurant that day to get a Garbage Burger. Unfortunately, Anne was not their server, and disappointingly, the experience was not the same. When they requested the Garbage Burger, the server stared blankly back at them. “Never heard of it,” she said. That’s OK, our colleagues explained, it’s got mushrooms, cheese, jalapenos and sautéed onions on it, and—but then she hastily interrupted. “Those are all extra,” she snapped. No problem they explained, they still wanted them on the burger, and they’d also like a side of the homemade green chili to dip the burger into. “Gross!” the server replied. “You wanna dip a burger in spicy pork green chili? Seriously?” They replied in the affirmative, she shrugged and wrote it down. Before she left the table she warned, “I’m gonna have to total this all up first and let you know how much these are going to cost before I turn it in to the kitchen.” Ouch. Not surprisingly, her mood affected the food and the meal was as disappointing as the service. One of our friends later called me at the restaurant and asked: “What in the world did you guys see in that place? Our server acted like we were interrupting her job rather than being the reason for it.”
True story, every bit of it, and there are 3 key lessons to be learned here: 1) in the hands of a great server who engages their guests, customers will happily spend more money, 2) a great server experience means that current customers will enthusiastically recruit additional customers for your restaurant, (without you having to spend one penny in advertising), and 3) if a restaurant only hires some enthusiastic servers or only trains some of their servers to suggestively sell, then every other customer is likely to have a variable experience. This means they’re more likely to be disappointed, more likely to spend less, and more likely to never recommend you to their friends or family. Since consistency is the foundation of trust and trust is the foundation of repeat business, can you see what happens when one server enthusiastically engages your customers and the others do not?
Customers want us to respect three things in exchange for their business: their time, their trust and their money. Smart operators earn that respect by hiring smart, providing value in every interaction, and habitually consistent training. That’s how you sell the sizzle—and the “Garbage” burger–every time.
Jim Sullivan is a best-selling author and popular speaker at manager conferences worldwide. His free monthly e-newsletter and product catalog is available at Sullivision.com. Follow him on Twitter or YouTube @Sullivision