Irwin Kruger has been in the burger business a long time. Forty-two years ago he started at McDonald’s as a 19-year old franchisee in Johnston, Rhode Island, turning a “defunct” empty shell of a location that was built on speculation but which the corporation could not franchise except to the contractor who originally built the place, into a chain of locations that at its peak numbered 25 and stretched across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York City and included locations in midtown Manhattan, Rockefeller Center, Penn Station, one across from Madison Square Garden, and the 17,000 sq. ft. Times Square store.
Today, he has “changed jerseys,” owning and operating “Smashburger” franchises after being given the franchise rights to both Nassau and Suffolk counties. Kruger opened the first Long Island Smashburger in Hicksville in 2012. following up that summer with a second in Port Washington, one in Wantagh in December 2012 and the newest location in North New Hyde Park at 1600 Marcus Ave. on Friday.
“For me, being a franchisee was really sort of buying a job because somebody’s giving you vocational training in their brand,” the Manhattan native said of his entry into the burger business in 1968.. “McDonald’s seemed like a natural back then. At that time I was very anxious to get into McDonald’s, we were on a waiting list to get a franchise – probably for about six months,”
Because the Johnston store was not a success, McDonald’s sold Kruger and his business partner a second store in Fall River, MA. In the following 11 month period, they acquired the remaining four stores and controlled the Providence market.
“It was great, we did great,” Kruger, an eighth grade dropout, said. “We ran the best numbers for 33 consecutive months”
It also earned him the first Ronald McDonald award for local marketing and community involvement, one of five given to franchisees that year.
When the Manhattan native acquired locations in New Jersey, he met grillman Jim Veneman at the Riveredge location and the two have been together for the past four decades.
“In a business like ours, the thing that differentiates a well-run chain I feel is the observance of the standards and the ability – especially at McDonald’s and a restaurant – of being able to serve lots of people quickly but doing it in a very professional manner,” Kruger said. “Watching Jimmy in operation and seeing his feel for the hamburger business, just the solid knowledge of that gave me the confidence because I had great people like Jimmy and others over the years, to expand rapidly.”
He is also familiar with the New Hyde Park area, as he knows the infamous McDonald’s Denton House location in Garden City Park very well, having attended their opening 20 years ago.
“Their McDonald’s is sort of fitting into the environment there, they took a classic building and they really were true to the architecture and design,” he said.
Eventually Kruger sold off all McDonald’s except for two in Manhattan and then a third in Rockefeller Center below the Time-Life building that had architecture unique to the location.
“Even though the top brass at Rockefeller Center wanted a McDona;d’s, they really didn’t want a McDonald’s that looked like a McDonald’s,” he said. “Jimmy’s experience and understanding the confidence that he gave me in being able to run a McDonald’s restaurant at high volume was great; we broke all the national sales records in that store”
However, rising real estate prices was something he saw leading to stagnating growth in the market, including the losing of leases at the Rockefeller Center location and another on 57th Street.
“What I saw happening in McDonald’s in midtown Manhattan was because the real estate prices were so high and because McDonald’s was really trying to serve as many people as possible, it was impossible for us to pay the rent while we still had a dollar menu and some of the other issues. The increase in real estate really prevented the future growth of fast food restaurants.”
He was lured to Smashburger by another McDonald’s connection, as one of the founders of the Denver-based company, Tom Ryan, was the former head of menu management and marketing at the golden arches.
“I knew him personally, we worked very closely on several things while we were at McDonald’s,” Kruger said. “It was Tom’s insight into this industry and into the fast-casual segment and my witnessing a phenomenal menu and really something designed for burger lovers.”
Smashburger gets its unique name from how the burgers are prepared, using a large Angus beef meatball that is “smashed” against a 400-degree flat grill using a specialized tool to sear in flavor. While a traditional American-cheese laden burger is available, other options include one with BBQ sauce, bacon & cheddar cheese, a truffle mushroom swiss burger and a “regional” option that is unique to the New York market and comes with cheddar cheese, grilled onions and spinach.
Kruger’s company is expecting to expand to 20 Smashburger locations over the next several years. The New Hyde Park location will have 45 employees in a mix of full and part-time positions. For late night eaters, the location will stay open until 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.
“I consider us to be a gourmet burger of everyday prices,” Kruger said, “this is really a burger lover’s dream.”