It has been 12 years since a California transplant named Shant Mardirosian opened the first location of The Burger’s Priest in Toronto. Smash burger believers and converts alike flocked to the 350 square-foot store in the city’s east end, sometimes waiting for up to an hour to take the sacrament.
It wouldn’t be sacrilegious to say The Burger’s Priest introduced a new era for Toronto’s once parochial burger scene. But it has since grown to more than 20 stores, and is now wholly owned by Recipe Unlimited, which counts The Keg (which might, or might not, be considered a “ritzy” restaurant), East Side Marios, Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet among its assets.
At the same time, recent years have produced a sharp rise in smash burger acolytes like Rudy’s, Extra Burger, and Burger Drops in Toronto, while the popular U.S. chain Smashburger has begun making inroads into Canada with locations in Mississauga, Calgary and Edmonton.
So can Canada’s OG smash burger chain hang on to its disciples in the face of a new wave of burger temptations, or will they stray—led into temptation by scrappy upstarts reminiscent of The Burger’s Priest before it became part of the burger establishment?
The chain is urging longtime fans and prospective customers to “Have Faith” in a new social media campaign developed by Toronto agency Juliet. The core message is that even as it has grown, The Burger’s Priest has hung onto what made it such a beloved burger institution more than a decade ago.
“In a category where there are so many offerings, this is saying you can have faith that you can get a really good burger made with care and quality,” said Ryan Bullock, who took over as president of The Burger’s Priest last year after spending nearly eight years in increasingly senior marketing roles, including CMO, with The Keg. “It’s providing people with the belief that old-fashioned burgers can still be done really well.
“For me, what’s really important is maintaining the integrity of that feel and vibe you got from those first three or four stores,” he added. “That’s our North Star, and we don’t want to waver from that. We can’t lose the DNA of what made us successful in the first place.”
Coming ahead of an expansion that could see it grow to 33 locations by the end of the year—including new stores throughout Ontario and its first stores in Calgary—the campaign represents the first major marketing effort for The Burger’s Priest since its inception.
Playing ever-so-slightly off the chain’s religious iconography, all of the ads in the social campaign prominently feature the words “Have Faith” atop images of its food and people, accompanied by playful copy boasting about what makes the brand different.
“We never photoshop our burgers,” reads one ad, reflecting a subject that has been back in the news recently. “The only mascot we need is one another,” reads the copy alongside an image of a pair of employees sharing a light-hearted moment. Another ad, speaking directly to prospective employees, reads “We dress burgers. Not you,” nodding to how many food chains require their employees to wear (occasionally weird) uniforms.
All of the ads appear on a crumpled background that looks like wallpaper that has been hastily applied, with no effort to smooth out the creases and bumps. That’s a deliberate aesthetic choice, said Bullock, a subtle nod to the chain’s commitment to keeping it real.
“The Burger’s Priest has always been about one thing—the burger. Not fake polish or photoshop,” said Juliet co-founder and chief creative officer, Ryan Spellicsy. “The whole brand is a bit punk rock if you will [and] the crumpled poster look keeps that spirit going.”
The campaign is running predominantly on social, although the brand has also created a food truck and a tent for summer events such as the VELD Music Festival, and Boots & Hearts.
When Bullock moved over to The Burger’s Priest last year, Spellicsy sent him a congratulatory text that read “Let’s make Burger’s Priest the Shake Shack of Canada.” In many ways, the U.S. is an exemplary model of how to balance the tricky proposition of growing a business while maintaining customer loyalty.
From its humble beginnings in New York’s Madison Square Park in 2001, Shake Shack has grown into a burger powerhouse with hundreds of locations and a market capitalization of $3.16 billion, all while maintaining the food quality and brand ethos that endeared it to a generation of burger lovers.
“We look to them for inspiration,” said Bullock. “They pick really good sites, and have a serious focus on food quality, people and culture. And from a marketing standpoint, they’re similar to The Keg in that they’re not doing campaigns on limited-time offers. They’re advertising their experience, and it’s consistent. That’s what we’re trying to do here as well.”
If they get it right, The Burger’s Priest flock will surely follow.