Elevation Burger is one of several home-grown burger chains in the D.C. area, including Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Good Stuff Eatery. Based in Falls Church, CEO Rick Altizer — a seasoned veteran of McDonald's and other large national chains — took the helm of the family-owner burger chain in March of last year to help the company grow domestically and internationally. Over a few burgers, fries and milkshakes, Altizer talks about what made him go from working at an accounting firm in Greenville, South Carolina to leading a rapidly growing hamburger chain in Northern Virginia.
For Altizer, his newfound position all started when he met with Elevation's founder Hans Hess in Houston and ate an Elevation burger – a burger that he considers both "the best burger on the planet, and the best burger for the planet."
What made you go from being an accountant at an accounting firm to working in the burger industry?
I had an opportunity to join McDonald's in an accounting role, and they had a regional office in my hometown in Greenville, South Carolina. There was an ad in the paper looking for a regional controller with three years experience who is a CPA. I sent my resume in, and there were 75 or 80 people that had sent in their resumes from the outside, and it came down to one outside guy and one inside guy. And I ended up getting the job. I was 24 and got to learn every bit of the hamburger business —marketing, real estate, construction, company operations, franchising operations. It was a really good experience, and I don't think I could have asked for a better one.
You were at McDonald's for 10 years. What were some of the skills you picked up there?
I loved McDonald's. Maybe even too much. I liked the local franchise ownership and dealing with the franchisees. And I liked the breakfast menu. I mean, I haven't eaten their burgers for years. But I'm a loyal breakfast man. An egg McMuffin on the go is kind of the perfect breakfast sandwich.
But anyway, I enjoyed my time at McDonald's. They really invested in my career. And when I went from regional accountant to the operations side, they literally put me in the stores for two full years. I was a trainee, an assistant manger, a store manager and they paid for those two years for me to learn. When I came out that, I was able to lead markets and regions. In the heartland region in Kansas City, we had about 500 restaurants that we were overseeing all the way from St. Louis to Liberal, Kansas.
And then you left the world of burgers for other industries.
Yeah, it was summer of 2003 that the president of McDonald's USA became the CEO of Midas, which is a completely different business. Interestingly, the entire revenue from Midas was the same as for my one region for McDonald's. It was a good shift for me. I was ready for a change. And I got to work in different parts of the country that I had never worked in before.
Why did you decide to go back to the burger industry?
I wanted to get back into franchising. I wanted to get back into food. And then I met Hans Hess through a mutual friend in Arlington. My friend called me up in January 2014 and said that Hans started Elevation Burger and is looking for a CEO and he owns a Tesla. And I was like, 'What does a Tesla have anything to do with it?' But anyway, Hans and I talked on the phone, then he came down to Houston. We talked some more. Then I came up to Falls Church to see all the corporate stores. And then in March 2014, I came on as CEO.
Were you apprehensive about leading Elevation Burger considering the D.C. region already has several homegrown burger chains?
I didn't worry too much about the competition because when I had the Elevation burger that first time in Houston, and after spending more than a decade at McDonald's, I know what a hamburger is supposed to taste like. And then tasting that hamburger and realizing it's the best I ever had, well, that sealed the deal. I like Hans. I like the company. I like mission of having sustainable, organic, grass-fed beef. All of that resonated with me. But at the end of the day, it was all about that burger.
I mean, in D.C., people are a bit more sophisticated about burgers and food in general. People know what they like and probably a bit more than in other markets. But we have been successful here despite having other burger chains in the region. And we know have about a dozen locations in the region, including southern Maryland.
What makes Elevation Burger different from the other burger chains out there?
We have a better tasting burger that is better for you. But it's not a pure health food play because it's still a burger. So to take a burger and French fries and to offer a product that is lower in fat, lower in calories and better for you because the meat is antibiotic-free, that's where it starts. And still making it taste great. I like to say, 'It's the best burger on the planet, and it's the best burger for the planet.' And then you add the 6 month aged cheddar and the fries that are cooked in olive oil, people notice the difference.
People care not only about the food they eat but what kind of business their money is supporting. Could you describe the corporate culture at Elevation Burger?
So when Hans founded Elevation Burger, he wanted to do a few things. The first and foremost is elevate the food. He wanted to elevate the employee experience by providing a fun, engaging place for people to work. If you have someone who's not happy with their work situation or how they're treated at work, it's almost impossible for the third thing to happen, which is to elevate the guest experience.
What's your vision for Elevation Burger? You're a year in as CEO and where are you taking this company?
We're at a very exciting point. We're going from being a startup to a professionally-managed high-growth company. We have our brand. We're constantly tweaking things, like the organic chicken that we just introduced last month. We want to continue to grow in the US from the East Coast to the West Coast. I want to get to the West Coast by way of Denver, Salt Lake City and Sacramento. As you probably already know, Southern California is an extremely competitive market. But right now we go as far west as Austin, Texas and as far north as Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But we also want to open more Elevation Burgers internationally. We're looking into opportunities in Asia. We want to explore Latin America and open up in the U.K. and the E.U. We also want a larger presence in the Middle East. Right now we have 17 stores there. Probably another 4 or 5 that are under construction there and will open in the next 3 months. I can see us growing to 50 stores in the Middle East within the next 3 to 5 years. And we could easily have 100 stores in Asia in 3 to 5 years. That's not a huge stretch. We're developing partnerships in Latin America, and we have a store in Mexico just north of Cancun that's opening in the next month. We haven't gone to Canada yet, but that's definitely on our radar. We think 500 stores is definitely within our reach within the 5 year timeframe with most of the growth coming domestically and from Asia.
Have you ever eaten the Vertigo burger with 10 patties?
I've managed three patties. But that's about as far as I'll go.