Photo by John O’Donnell
The history of fast food is littered with up-from-the-bootstraps stories, tales of humble men with small innovations that eventually change the eating world. There’s Ray Kroc, whose San Bernardino, California, restaurant (which he bought from the McDonald brothers) dispensed with plates, cutlery, and waitresses. By offering counter service and disposable wrappers, Kroc was able to sell his burgers five cents cheaper than his competitors. Or Harland Sanders, who applied a pressure cooker to the time-consuming labor of frying chicken. By shaving minutes off of the cooking process, the Kentucky governor-appointed “Colonel” was able to serve fried chicken more speedily to more customers at his restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Small innovations, huge impact. And Rye resident Daniel Magnus is betting that he’s found fast food’s Next Big Thing.
Magnus, the former CEO of the Metro New York newspaper (a regional, “free-sheet” publication), is jumping career rails to get in at the bottom of Elevation Burger. In 2005, this burger chain debuted in Falls Church, Virginia, with this simple innovation: it celebrates America’s love of greasy fast food while capitalizing on our fear of where fast food comes from. Elevation Burger uses only organic, grass-fed beef in its otherwise traditional (i.e., salty and greasy) fast-food burgers. The franchise also uses olive oil in its deep-fat fryers and—rather than processed, frozen bricks—freshly cut potatoes for its fries. Magnus is such a believer in Elevation that he rolled the proceeds from his contentious rift with Metro newspapers into a land grab that leaves Magnus owning the exclusive development rights to all Westchester/Fairfield County Elevation Burger franchises.
While Magnus is reluctant to discuss the details of his parting from Metro, it was reported in the New York Observer that Magnus sued the company for about $2.5 million in unpaid bonuses, stock options, and severance payments. According to the Observer, Magnus followed these claims with several allegations, further asking for “$5 million for violation of anti-retaliatory firing rules, $10 million for fraudulent statements against him, $30 million for racketeering and attorney’s fees plus penalties.” The Observer article sums that, “in total, on all five of his claims, [Magnus asked] for $100 million.”
Of the experience, Magnus is terse. “I left because I was hired to turn around the company, which I did. I took it from losing tens of millions of dollars per year to profitability inside two years. The company was being sold, and I was expensive.”
During a forced hiatus from publishing because of a one-year non-compete clause, Magnus found himself at loose ends. “I had time to assess the future of the media business, and I did not see the type of future I wanted to pursue within that field.” Of this period, Magnus says, “It was a little disorienting. It was the first time in my successful career that I had a paycheck, but no place to go.” He used the time to plan a brighter—or, at least, less contentious—future.
“I’d always enjoyed dining out, and I’d always enjoyed good food. I read an article about a guy who made a tremendous amount of money in Internet 1.0, then went into the burger business. Doing the research, I thought, ’It’s a great business model.’”
So far, Magnus has opened one Elevation outlet in the Rye Ridge Shopping Center, and another is set to open in Yonkers’s Ridge Hill development in early spring. He also is planning to open eight more stores in Westchester and Fairfield Counties within the next two years. This, in a competitive market that has seen recent openings by Five Guys; Cheeburger Cheeburger; Burgers, Shakes & Fries; and Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack—the last is the New York City icon that arguably set the mold for the new wave of counter-service burger restaurants. Of course, all the new burger places join the longstanding market presence of dozens of McDonald’s and Burger King outlets, and in an economic downturn, too.
Magnus was unfazed by the crowded burger market. “What I loved in Elevation Burger is that it’s a differentiated product—it’s one-hundred percent, USDA-certified organic, one-hundred percent grass-fed, one-hundred percent free-range beef.”
Did the economy affect his choice of business? “No, because the business is designed for long-term growth. But selling a premium product that costs $3.99, I like that.” Magnus, who is athletic and slim and has a shaved headed—and who, in his well-cut black suit, looks like he’s never indulged in a greasy cheeseburger in his life—adds: “For more than twenty-five years, the number-one consumed out-of-home food product has been the hamburger. The number two product is the french fry. I like my odds. Americans love burgers.”
Some millionaires might balk at the notion of selling burgers when they could potentially sell caviar. According to Magnus, elitism is foolish when it comes to selling food. “The failure rate in restaurants is astronomical. The opportunity with burgers is that it’s a better business model, plain and simple.”
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One that he hopes to grow and grow. “My interest expands beyond building in Westchester and Fairfield. In the two counties, I’ll be opening a minimum of ten stores over the next few years.”