Step across the threshold into Relish Gourmet Burgers in Fredericton, and you may be surprised to hear a chorus of cooks calling from their open kitchen. “Welcome — we relish you being here. Prepare to be relished!”
It’s all part of the restaurant culture at this burgeoning Fredericton-based burger franchise. “As the door is opened you’re welcomed, like at a Japanese izakaya,” explains chef Ray (Ramon) Henry, whose business card identifies him as the company’s director of Burgers.
Henry launched the gourmet burger business in 2010 with partner Rivers Corbett, a local entrepreneur, marketing whiz and the brand’s CEO. Less than three years later, the duo has eight stores — corporate locations in Fredericton, Oromocto, N.B., and Saint John, N.B., as well as franchise shops in Moncton, N.B., Miramichi, N.B., St. John’s, N.L., and Halifax. Two additional stores are slated to open in Antigonish, N.S., and South Portland, Maine.
Less than five years ago, Henry may not have guessed he’d be where he is today. A Vancouver native, he had a long career, working at Diva at the Metropolitan Hotel, the Delta Vancouver Suites and as a private chef. But, in 2008, he moved east with his girlfriend, Laura Drager. “I wanted a chance to explore Canadian food, and I wanted a big change, but I had a burning entrepreneurial spirit,” says Henry of the move to work at a Fredericton hotel.
That spirit was unleashed when Henry met Corbett, a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” business coach, MBA and a director of Start-up Canada, a group that celebrates Canadian entrepreneurs. The pair connected at a local fundraiser. “It was a serendipitous situation,” says Corbett. “My business partner at The Chef Group and I had just parted ways, and I was mesmerized watching chef Ray in the kitchen. I reached out to him, found out he was ready to move on and convinced him to stick around Fredericton.”
But it was a craving for a good burger after a round of golf, which really sparked the idea for Relish Gourmet Burgers. “We just wanted a great burger,” says Henry, “a place to find a gourmet burger in downtown Fredericton and realized it was a trend that hadn’t hit Atlantic Canada.”
Within six months the pair launched Relish Gourmet Burgers. “We wanted [it] to become a destination, to be different,” says Corbett of the concept. “You have to stand out to be different, so we zag when everyone else zigs.” For example, the in-store greeting and customer order shout-out add a layer of fun and conviviality to the experience. “It’s a big part of our brand,” says Henry. “The team has to echo the calls — it’s very interactive and adds a lot of energy to the place when we’re busy. It’s meant to be fun, energetic and memorable.”
Perhaps, equally memorable is the bold design of the concept, which differs slightly from location to location. The original Fredericton site encompasses the main floor of a century-old brick house, downtown in the historic shopping district. The decor by Drager is simple and bright — a wall that’s electric green, another tomato red, with funky, oversized wallpaper and chandeliers. “It’s homey and cool at the same time,” Henry says.
As a chef, Henry designed Relish with cooks in mind, with a POS system the employees can operate seamlessly. “It’s easy to run with one or two cooks and a cashier. The line is compact and the menu is simple — each burger has three condiments. It’s very user-friendly from the operator side.”
On the consumer side, the menu is well-received and features rotating seasonal burgers and signature burgers with funky names. “We decided to give the burgers characters — neat names,” says Henry. “It’s a brand difference for us. Being Canadian, the product is Canadian.” Moncton’s Hubdinger ($9.96), for example, is topped with back bacon, mushrooms and cheese curds. Those toppings could be piled atop a choice of three proteins: a five-ounce patty of AAA-certified Angus beef, a turkey burger or a house-made vegetarian burger made with ground button mushrooms, chickpea purée, quinoa and cornmeal, spiced with roasted garlic and thyme.
The flavour combinations are classics but not all have always been popular. The Greek Tycoon ($8.86) — topped with peppers, kalamata olives, feta cheese and tzatziki — was a slow seller until the day rock band Kiss’s jet landed late in Fredericton, and a local Relish restaurant was opened for stars Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed. “[Simmons] ordered the Greek Tycoon and for two or three weeks everyone was having it,” Henry says.
The chef hopes to grow to 101 stores, with franchises in both Canada and the U.S., but first he’ll focus on smaller Canadian cities, especially in the Maritimes. “I like to say we’re an Atlantic-Canadian company,” says Henry who hints Saskatoon may be the first western locale for Relish. “We’ve really been embraced by Atlantic Canadians.”
And, it doesn’t hurt that Fredericton’s longtime popular mayor, Brad Woodside and members of rock ‘n’ roll’s Kiss have already spread the word and relished a burger or two.