Persistence and technology give Blazing Onion Burger sizzle

LYNNWOOD — David and Lorri Jones are blazing ahead with their fourth Blazing Onion Burger Co. restaurant, now under construction in the former Ruby’s Diner at Alderwood mall.

The Joneses started planning for the Alderwood restaurant shortly after they opened their Gig Harbor restaurant last

year as the recession-battered economy continued to stumble. The three Blazing Onion Burger joints weren’t bumbling, thanks to business for the chain that was up 13.8 percent year over year, David Jones said.

“That’s why the bank is behind us,” he said.

It also helps that Alderwood’s management pursued the Joneses to open at the mall.

That’s not to say the Joneses had an easy time trying to add a third restaurant to those they opened in Mill Creek in 2007 and Snohomish in 2008.

Undeterred by the recession-induced commercial credit crunch as the economy imploded in early 2009, the Joneses continued with their plans to open the Gig Harbor restaurant, knowing they had good credit, a proven track record and business plan, solid growth and were putting up a 40 percent down payment.

They applied with the bank that gave them five earlier business loans and had reason to think they’d get a sixth, David Jones said.

The bank said no.

So did the next nine banks.

Then bankers at Heritage Bank in Tacoma called Jones in June 2009 to say they’d approved a loan for the Gig Harbor restaurant with backing from the Small Business Administration.

“We finally found a bank that believed in us,” Jones said.

Heritage is also financing construction of the Alderwood restaurant, he said.

Looking back at how the U.S. economy tanked, Jones shook his head and said, “We’re really glad we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Showing off the construction inside the 6,000-square-foot Alderwood restaurant and describing its features, Jones remains eternally optimistic about their prospects for future success after learning important lessons from the first three Blazing Onion openings.

Like scraping up $120,000 he and Lorri didn’t have to fix design mistakes in the Mill Creek restaurant after it opened. Realizing after the fact that the Snohomish restaurant’s bar was too small. And that the Gig Harbor restaurant’s bar and dining room order tickets competed for priority with the kitchen staff.

“Each time we opened a restaurant, we’ve reinvented the wheel,” Jones said. With Alderwood, “we reinvented Gig Harbor to make it right.”

The Alderwood Blazing Onion, when it opens sometime in June, will have features not found in the other three Blazing Onions, Jones said, much less in any restaurant west of the Mississippi River.

Two self-serve order kiosks on the mall-side entry will let diners punch in their custom order — even so far as specifying condiment amounts — before they take a seat armed with a color-coded electronic key card that tells servers where they’re sitting when the order is ready and when the diners will pay. The kiosk’s computer will also remember every prior order using each diner’s cell phone number, Jones said.

If that’s a to-go order, no problem. Enter your cell phone number and do some shopping around the mall. When your order’s ready, you’ll get a text message.

The bar and dining room will each have its own kitchen to eliminate any confusion over which order gets cooked first.

“Speed of service is huge,” Jones said. “We’re going to make Alderwood the flagship store for efficiency.”

That’s not all. The Alderwood restaurant will also have banks of 3-D TVs in the full-service bar and two Coca-Cola machines that dispense diner-customized flavor combinations, he said.

Jones said he expects to hire 120 to 140 workers to staff the Alderwood restaurant. That compares to the 20 who work in Mill Creek, about 30 in Snohomish and 45 to 50 in Gig Harbor. Some of those staffers will transfer in to the Alderwood restaurant “without bleeding the other three units,” he said.

He expects Alderwood to do $100,000 or more in sales the first week it opens and post sales of $4 million to $4.5 million per year, and he expects it will be “crazy busy” like Snohomish. The Mill Creek restaurant does about $1 million in annual sales.

Even though the Alderwood restaurant is still more than three months away from opening, the Joneses are busy laying plans for the next three Blazing Onion restaurants.

“Expand? It’s inbred in me,” David Jones said. “I’ve always wanted to grow.”

As a longtime Subway franchisee, Jones’ mantra has been that of Subway founder Fred DeLuca: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

Jones said the growth plan includes new Blazing Onions in Seattle and on the Eastside in 2012 and 2013. Separating those two openings will be one in Fort Lewis at the Army base’s new community center in 2013. Jones said he’s on track to open a new restaurant every 10 months.

The Joneses are financing the expansion themselves, using revenue from the three restaurants. David Jones said they don’t want any business partners who might fiddle with Blazing Onion’s successful formula, and the Joneses refuse to compromise on quality and service.

Those rigid standards are great for customers, but they make it tough for David Jones to find the 15 franchisees he’d like to have in place by 2015 to go with the 10 company stores he expects to have open by then.

“We’re still perfecting the (franchise) model,” he said. “We want to be selective. We’re trying to grow the brand, not get rich.”

Kurt Batdorf is editor of the Snohomish County Business Journal: kbatdorf@scbj.com, 425-339-3102.

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