BurgerFi: Sizzling Ventures Post-Graduation

A two-year stint in investment banking or consulting has long been considered the first step on the post-graduate career path for many a business-minded graduate from a top university. But the global recession and the contraction of the financial industry have made Wall Street jobs harder to get and even harder to keep, and backlash to the financial turmoil, stoked by the Occupy Movement, has some students rethinking their views on the best place to gain experience before heading back to grad school or entering the business world. More and more recent graduates are choosing to bypass the traditional track and jump into their own entrepreneurial endeavors.

Dave Mainiero ’11, is one such entrepreneur. During his senior year at Dartmouth, Mainiero was contemplating what to do in the year or two before he attended law school. He considered more traditional avenues, but by the summer after graduation, he had decided to start his own business: a fast-casual burger joint in Santa Monica, California. Starting his own restaurant seemed like the ideal way to pursue his talent in and passion for the food business, while providing a source of income to finance his future law degree.

A fourth generation restaurateur, Mainiero drew on his years of exposure to all aspects of the restaurant business, to become his own boss at 22. Although Mainiero considered working for his uncle, a successful restaurateur in California, “I want to make a name for myself in the industry independent of my family. Given the choice between working for someone and owning my own business, it seemed like the logical decision,” he said. Mainiero has “been able to do most of it on [his] own” he said, of carrying out his project, “my family lives on the East Coast, but if I have questions on things, I always verify with my family…I have them advising me.” He also utilized his time at Dartmouth praising the “networking opportunities that naturally present themselves to a Dartmouth student. You’ll have a lot of friends who go on to be very successful, and many who have a lot of money in their first few years after college that they are looking to invest somewhere. That’s a good inroad to some startup money.”

Mainiero recently completed a business deal with his father’s company BurgerFi, a Florida based franchiser with two current burger spots and two more opening up in the near future. Now, Mainiero’s project will become the first west coast outpost of BurgerFi, with certain features unique to the Santa Monica locale. Although Mainiero did not originally plan to open a BurgerFi, he describes the deal as “mutually beneficial” given that he has access to an already established brand network, and BurgerFi will benefit from the prime positioning in Santa Monica, and provide brand visibility to attract potential franchisees on the West Coast. BurgerFi prides itself on sustainable building and products and all natural, locally sourced ingredients and menu offerings like natural, antibiotic and hormone free beef, and sugar cane sodas.

In the summer of 2011, while visiting his uncle in California, Mainiero drove by a deserted KFC in a prime location in Santa Monica. He researched the property, and a week later saw an eviction notice on the door. He called them the next day and acquired the property. He then embarked on the long journey of building the business. Mainiero says he’s “been fortunate not to run into any major obstacles so far” and has mainly been dealing with the back and forth of various approval steps, “going through city zoning and design review and permitting, is necessary for any business. It’s frustrating, you feel like you’re getting started right off the bat but then you run into a lot of bureaucratic red tape.” Government zoning and permitting has been a particular challenge in Laguna, where stringent laws exist to try and prohibit fast food restaurants like the former KFC from setting up shop. The town is resistant to franchisees and chains, which means Mainiero will be creating a unique restaurant, exclusive to the Laguna beach area, but still under the BurgerFi banner. Currently in a holding pattern, waiting for responses and approval on construction, building and electricity plans, Mainiero has been working on crafting the menu, developing interior design ideas, and establishing agreements for local food sourcing. After the official announcement of the BurgerFi partnership, Mainiero will begin a major press push to advertise the deal.

Mainiero anticipated his age might be a challenge in the process of building his own business. Instead, he said “I’ve had a generally positive experience, you have to have no tolerance for people trying to pull wool over your eyes for price gauging and things like that…then they respect you as a business person” His restaurant background has served as a deterrent for people trying to take advantage of him, he says, and “in this economy people are really hungry for work” which makes them less inclined to jeopardize possible job opportunities.

For Mainiero, his depth of experience, knowledge, and connection to the restaurant business “was something that I felt I had a lot of talent and advantage in” he said, which gave him the confidence and the skills to dive in head first. Particularly in the restaurant and food business, according to Mainiero, having as much experience as possible is crucial for starting off on your own. His decision to take time off before law school allowed him the freedom to pursue his own venture, saying “taking a year off isn’t a bad idea, even for those that have always thought, like I did, that taking a year off would be a complete waste of time.”

Mainiero encourages potential entrepreneurs “not to feel compelled to jump into a job you’re not passionate about through corporate recruiting or other opportunities that may arise out of convenience.” He cautions, however, that starting your own business early on is dependent on one’s “background, needs, and desires.” He also noted that there are still numerous benefits of the more traditional track for someone interested in starting their own business, saying “the opportunities that present themselves to Dartmouth students in terms of high-paying entry- level jobs are not something to be overlooked” because you can accumulate money to finance your own endeavors and “gain more access to people who might be willing to invest in your business idea at that juncture or later in your life.”

As for what the future holds, Mainiero still plans on attending law school in the next year, and has put a plan into place that will allow him to manage the business from afar. He found potential managing partners through Craigslist postings and relationships with other Laguna Beach food purveyors. He has also partnered with his uncle and his network of restaurants. After the restaurant opens in May, Mainiero plan to spend four or five months training the staff, and hopefully install a good network of people who can run the business while he’s in school. While he “definitely has an eye towards expansion” he’s waiting to see what happens with the opening of his first BurgerFi and says his post- law school career plans are as yet to be determined.