Casual and Competitive
Those fast-casual better-burger guys best watch out: Hwy 55 has drawn a roadmap to success.
Walk into any Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries restaurant and expect to hear a warm, welcoming voice, even if it’s from across the room. That’s exactly the way Kenney Moore thinks it should be. “I like to think our people and our values separate us from everybody else,” says Moore, who began the retro-themed, open-kitchen burger chain a quarter-century ago. “We look for young people who will treat our guests as they would their families.”
This “love your neighbor” philosophy has worked remarkably well. Not only has the North Carolina–based Hwy 55 grown to some 125 units in 10 states and two foreign countries, but more than 40 of its one-time minimum-wage workers now own their own stores. “We’re very proud of that,” Moore says.
The combination of Hwy 55’s customer service, food quality, and competitive prices has allowed it to thrive, despite a plethora of burger restaurants in various service categories, including fast casual.
“We deliver our product differently than they do,” Moore says of his full-service model compared to many better-burger fast-casual players. “We also can keep our price point a little lower. We’ve been doing this for 25 years, and we’ve got it pretty well drilled down.”
While the company’s name describes much of the menu—fresh beef burgers, milkshakes, and french fries—there are also cheesesteaks, fried shrimp po’ boys, grilled and fried chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, and fresh frozen custard made in-house daily. Some items have a distinct North Carolina twist—like the house-made pimento cheese, alone or on a cheeseburger. The coastal Carolina–favorite shrimp burger consists of fried shrimp, ketchup, and coleslaw on a bun.
Moore began his enterprise with little more than $500 to his name. He’d been let go as district manager of a failing eastern North Carolina cheeseburger-cheesesteak chain when he got the notion to open his own place in one of that company’s closed mall eateries.
He named the restaurant in Goldsboro “Andy’s,” after his young son. It had 16 barstools and four tables, and as he quips, “If you wanted to make a profit, you needed turnover.”
Moore manned the grill and opened with three servers and another cook. His wife, Karen, handled the bookkeeping. First-day sales were $400, and he didn’t look back.
Over the next few years, he added three more mall units, which is initially what he thought would be his niche. “It was the Chick-fil-A model,” Moore says, referring to that company’s early growth in malls. “But we constructed the fifth store ourselves.”
Adopting a ’50s-style diner décor, Andy’s Burgers, Shakes & Fries opened in small towns and big cities across North Carolina. The growth came from existing operators and from employees who secured company-assisted financing.
“We think we have the process down for successfully opening new restaurants,” he says.
In 2012, the company decided to expand through franchising into South Carolina and other states, but there was a problem: Although Moore trademarked Andy’s in North Carolina, a company in another state had trademarked “Andy’s” nationally. Rather than going through a legal battle, he decided to change the name, choosing Hwy 55—the route that stretches from Durham through southeastern North Carolina to the Atlantic Ocean. Included on the highway is the company’s home, Mount Olive.
At first there was some confusion. “There were long-time guests who wouldn’t visit because they thought Andy’s was sold,” he notes. “We had to get a booth at the state fair and do other things to tell them it was the same, just a different name.”
Many customers and employees still call the chain Andy’s, and big burgers on the menu remain Andy’s Burgers. These days, the company extends from Ohio south to Florida and west to Texas.
Hwy 55’s values are what attracted Helen Wegweiser to become general manager of the chain’s northernmost outpost in Cincinnati. She had done sales and marketing at Red Lobster before leaving the industry years ago. “This is close to Red Lobster in the Compass days,” she says of that company’s former program that focused on service and sales. “We’re teaching kids to be kind, to be generous, and to have a moral compass.”
Looking over her spotless 2½-year-old store, which like the average Hwy 55 unit has seating for about 60, she points to a table of construction workers who are lunch-time regulars and then to some large booths in the back where students from the nearby University of Cincinnati often congregate. “We appeal to all kinds of people,” she notes.
Drawing new, younger customers and building loyalty is always a challenge, so Moore chose a young person to handle that: his son, Andy.
“This wasn’t nepotism,” the CEO says of the Duke University grad and former digital company worker. “He sent his résumé and a letter stating his value. At the time, we had Facebook and thought we had social media licked. He showed us how to really do it.”
One of the younger Moore’s projects was to expand the company’s loyalty program. Using newer technology, including some from San Francisco–based Five Stars, he took Hwy 55’s loyalty program from 30,000 to 150,000 people in a year.
“Hwy 55 is definitely one of the largest restaurant chains we’ve worked with, and they’ve been a fantastic partner,” says Mike Polner, Five Stars’ director of product marketing.
Using Five Stars’ platform, Hwy 55 chose a typically slow day—Tuesday—and sent texts to customers offering cheesesteaks for $5, a savings of $1.69 each. The result: a 13 percent increase in sales compared to previous Tuesdays. The loyalty program now drives more than 11,000 visits per week.
Having sole ownership provides the elder Moore flexibility to make quick decisions, not just in hiring a firm like Five Stars but also in changing menu items. Six years ago, he replaced weak-performing desserts with frozen custard, “and it was like the lights went on.” This year he ditched the straight cut fries served since the chain began for a larger crinkle cut that carries sauces and chili better.
“Whenever we opened a store, we got comments that the burgers are great and the french fries are OK,” Moore says. “So I decided we should change. We don’t need to test it for three years. We began testing a few months ago, and we’re making the change.”