Competition among hamburger restaurants is as thick as the four-patty Big Island burger that Rich Beaven serves at his Drifter’s Hamburgers in Colorado Springs.
McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and other fast-food names are local fixtures, while sit-down restaurant Red Robin Gourment Burgers has multiple locations. Newcomers to the market include Smashburger, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Crave and Culver’s. Larkburger and Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers opened their first area locations this year; Midwest icon Steak ‘n Shake is on its way.
And they’re all good burgers, Beaven says.
“I ate at Red Robin on my birthday,” the 55-year-old Beaven said of that chain’s popular freebie promotion.
So when he opened his second Drifter’s Hamburgers location a few months ago near the Chapel Hills Mall on the Springs’ north side, it raised an obvious question: Can a small, hometown hamburger place expand and go head-to-head with national and regional chains in one of the most competitive businesses around?
Beaven is trying, and feels he’s holding is own. His California-style burgers — which feature a Thousand Island-type dressing — conjure up comparisons to California’s famous In-N-Out Burgers. They also remind locals of Beaven’s Classics Hamburgers, which he co-founded in the Springs nearly 20 years ago.
“It was just time to give this another shot,” Beaven said of Drifter’s and his expansion.
But competition weighs heavily, he says. The night before he opened his first Drifter’s at Garden of the Gods Road and Mark Dabling Boulevard in 2008, Beaven said he sat outside in the parking lot and cried like a baby. He was terrified, he said.
“The same thing happened with this one,” Beaven said of his second Drifter’s location, east of Academy Boulevard and Jamboree Drive, which opened in mid-August in a former Taco Bell building. “The night before we opened, I just sat out there in the parking lot and said, ‘what I have done?’ I think those are fears that a lot of small business people go through. Yeah, I’m afraid. Yeah, I’m afraid of the economy. I’m afraid of the unknowns. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had more competition.”
Beaven has loved hamburgers since he was 16 and got a job working at In-N-Out Burgers in California, where he grew up. He went on to hold jobs at a half-dozen burger places, learning as he went and moving into management.
He and his wife, were vacationing in Colorado Springs in 1992 when he decided to open his own hamburger place in the Pikes Peak region. Beaven and a partner, Randy Dietz, launched Classics Hamburgers the next year, eventually with locations on South Nevada Avenue and North Academy Boulevard.
It was Dietz’s idea to call the place “Classics,” but he also had come up with the name “Drifter’s,” Beaven said.
Beaven and Dietz operated Classics for nearly a decade until Dietz’s death in 2002. Beaven then sold the business, which closed a few years later amid the new owner’s bankruptcy.
Beaven never lost his passion for burgers. After obtaining a master’s in business administration degree from Colorado Technical University, he began thinking about getting back into the business. He applied for jobs at hamburger chains, hoping to use his experience to land in management. But he received no real offers.
After talking with his wife, he decided to give the business another shot and launched Drifter’s. Beaven said he was thinking about expanding and was looking on the north side when the owner of the old Taco Bell building on Jamboree Drive, who apparently had eaten at Drifter’s at some point, contacted him about the idea of locating there. Beaven now employs about 30 full- and part-time workers at his two locations
But as if to underscore the competitive nature of the business, his second Drifter’s opened just days after the shuttering of longtime Springs favorite Conway’s Red Top, which closed after 68 years amid financial woes.
Beaven has made changes to his menu since he operated Classics. His burgers are larger, and he dropped onion rings from the menu, adding fruit and salad to go with fries. Burgers are topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and the Thousand Island-like dressing that Drifter’s makes daily.
In addition to California-style burgers, Beaven said he’s relying on quality products to set Drifter’s apart and to attract burger lovers who are mindful of what they eat.
Drifter’s uses Callicrate Beef from Springs-based Ranch Foods Direct, which is free of hormones and antibiotics. Hamburger buns are free from genetically modified ingredients and preservatives. And Beaven said he tries to buy from local suppliers.
“I think there’s sort of a growing population out there that not only cares about what they eat, but where their food comes from,” he said.
Business at the second location has been good. He’s not setting sales records, but he’s on the right track, Beaven said. He’s now added breakfast to go with lunch and dinner.
Beaven would like to compete with the big guys in another way — selling franchises in Drifter’s. He’s had some interest from parties in New York and Florida, but no deals are in the offing, he said.
“We’ll plug away at it,” Beaven said. “I think we’re going to really push it a little bit next year. As for right now, we’re happy with what we’re doing.”
Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228 Twitter @richladen
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