Those of us up here in the Toronto office are no strangers to a hankering for a burger. Thankfully (maybe?), one of the city’s many burger joints is directly across the street from our office in Corktown, Toronto’s oldest neighborhood.
The area is seeing serious condo and business growth — what will likely turn out to be a boon for Saber Chowdhury, owner of Flame Shack, a burger shop that’s been open for just 2.5 years. It’s caught on. At lunch, expect a line (that’s worth standing in).
I sat down with Chowdhury one afternoon after the lunch rush to chat small business. He’s friendly and passionate, a perfect combo for facing hungry customers all day.
What made you want to open your own restaurant?
I was a chef in different restaurants in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). I worked in the restaurant business for 25 years, and I felt like I wanted to do something that’s my own. With all the experience of working in different restaurants, I really wanted to open something else. That’s the main reason I’m here.
I kept a close eye on restaurants in New York, Boston, Chicago, particularly those in New York. They have so many burger joints and so many different ways they cook them, but one restaurant I really paid attention to was Shake Shack. I didn’t model Flame Shack exactly like them, but I wanted to bring something similar to Toronto. I try to get the best meat in town, fresh cut fries, nothing frozen…
Here in the east end, it’s not like the downtown core, where you get a lot of pedestrian traffic, but I’m doing well here. I use good meat. The main thing is good meat. I don’t know about the other burger places, but I only use beef with 15% fat, no more than that.
And I’m very honest. I don’t cheat the customers, I don’t use low-quality food. I’m very honest about the food. This is not a fancy place. I’m doing a little bit at a time, but in the beginning I really focused on the food, made sure it was good food.
What would you say is the hardest part about owning a business?
Rent. Here, rents aren’t high, and that’s why I’m here. Go further down Queen St. and rents triple. And we don’t sell liquor, so utilities, rent, employees, everything comes from food sales. Plus, you have to make sure you’re not overcharging customers. You don’t want someone to buy one burger and never come in again. The main thing is the cost of food and rent.
And what’s the best part?
I’m happy. The freedom. I work on my own. Money isn’t a big thing for me, because I love cooking. My passion is cooking. I study cooking all the time. At home in my basement I have a cooking library. I’ve been cooking for 25 years, since I came to Canada (Chowdhury came from Bangladesh in 1990), and still it’s what I do.
Do you ever have vendors or companies trying to sell products to you?
All the time. In the beginning I had a lot of problems with them. I would sign contracts with them and get in trouble, end up paying double for things, hidden costs, stuff like that. We’d sign the paper and then find out they were overcharging us. If we cancelled, we’d have to pay a cancellation fee, and stuff like that. But now I’m very careful and I know who to stick with.
What do you see for the future of Flame Shack?
It’s my dream to open another location downtown. We get a lot of clientele here, we sell over 100 burgers every day at lunch. And after 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. we get a lot of phone calls from customers who want to pick up and take out.
For now, this location, I’m changing the menu. Burgers, of course, but people don’t want to eat hamburgers for lunch every day, so I’m going to introduce other meal options. I’m also looking at having a delivery guy.
How many hours a day do you put in?
I don’t put in too many hours. I close at 7:00 p.m. I put in 8 hours every day. It’s on my mind 24 hours, though, because I’m always thinking and researching new places — how are they serving, what are they serving? I have a good work-life balance, but my mind is always, “Food, food, food.”
Sounds like he’s in the right business. Tastes like it, too.
Chowdhury’s honesty, transparency, and passion are palpable. There is a lot of heart here, but also a lot of mind. He’s always aware that he has bills and employees to pay, and customers to keep happy. To balance these elements, he prefers things simple and straightforward, from the décor to the menu.
And therein lies an important message to brands — when approaching SBOs, mirror their values and characteristics. As our latest B-side Study shows, adjusting the language and focus of your messaging to the specific audience you want to engage is how you’ll reach the SBO. Get to know them, connect with them, and you’ll likely find yourself in a loyal and lasting relationship.
PS: I highly recommend the signature Shack Burger with fries, all dressed.