Rolandrei Viktor Varona, or Zark, started Zark's Burgers when he was 23 years old
Last August 28, thousands of hungry diners lined up for hours outside branches of Zark’s Burgers just to be one of 80 lucky customers to buy one of its burgers for just Php8 (about $0.16). It was the burger chain’s special promo for its eighth anniversary.
Video footage on social media showed a stampede of customers in a couple of malls eager to get their hands on the Php8 burgers. Thankfully, no one was reported hurt.
The incident threw a spotlight on Zark’s Burgers, the restaurant founded by Rolandrei Viktor Varona, or Zark, as he prefers to be called. With 30 branches nationwide and five more set to open over the next few months, Zark’s Burgers claims to be the country’s largest casual dining burger specialty chain.
“I’m not sure if there’s another word stronger than overwhelmed, but that’s what we felt (about the public’s response to the Php8 burger promo),” Zark said when Entrepreneur Philippines caught up with him last week at Zark’s Burgers' first branch in front of De La Salle University along Taft Avenue.
“We’re eight years this year and we wanted to celebrate,” he explained. “I wanted to give back to the public who has been so supportive of us after 30 branches. Since it was our eighth anniversary, and it's August (the eighth month), we thought of offering burgers for Php8 to our first 80 customers.”
Zark said they expected that people were going to patronize the promo, especially since they’re used to huge crowds. Every year, they have what they call Jawbreaker Day, when they offer their premium Jawbreaker Burger (triple cheeseburger with two slices of Spam, bacon strips smothered with cheese sauce, served with fries and a drink) for just Php150 instead of its usual price of Php349.
Zark's Burgers offers a variety of indulgent burgers
“So yeah, we’re used to long lines,” he said. “But we didn’t expect that kind of reaction. Restaurants have promos all the time, but not everyone gets this kind of a response. We’re grateful to the mall admins and security, and our staff for making sure nobody got hurt.”
A new burger concept
Now 31 years old, Zark started his burger business when he was just 23. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to open his own restaurant. He studied hotel and restaurant management at Philippine Women’s University and gained experience working as a cook at Outback Steakhouse and then onboard a cruise ship. But the desire to become a business owner never left him.
“Hindi ako magastos; nag save ako (I saved a lot),” he said. “And in 2009, I felt that I was ready. I told myself I could do it. And if it didn’t work out, I could go back to the cruise ship job. It paid well, at least.”
Serious about his dream, Zark studied the market and even wrote a feasibility study. He felt that, at the time, there was a gap in the market between fast-food outlets and higher-end, American-style burger joints. He didn’t feel like there was a burger concept that targeted students, working class people or “regular Joes” as he called them. And so Zark’s was born.
Using his savings amounting to about Php600,000, Zark leased a tiny, 20-square-meter space in Taft Avenue, just a few meters from the branch’s current location. “Fifteen or 18 seats, I think,” he said. “We didn’t even use high-end equipment. But we were very fortunate that, from the beginning, people liked our product. I think timing had a lot to do with it, too. It was right around the time when people were beginning to get exposed to other types of cuisine. Travel channels and shows like Man vs. Food were very popular. People became familiar with the concept of ‘better burgers.’ That was the principle behind Zark’s—to give people better value and a better choice.”
A quick glance at the Zark’s Burgers menu proves the brand’s unique selling proposition. In addition to regular burgers (affordably priced starting at Php109), there are items like the Luther Burger (Php299), with doughnuts instead of buns; Deep-Fried Bacon Wrapped Burger (Php279), with the whole burger fully wrapped in slabs of decadent bacon; and the Thunder Mac ‘N Cheese (Php239), which is smothered with homemade mac and cheese and mozarella. And then there’s the Tombstone (Php599)—a monstrous burger with eight patties, four slices of American cheddar cheese and cheese sauce.
“In short, we offer indulgence to our customers,” Zark said. “We feel that burgers are everyone’s guilty pleasure. And it’s really value for money.”
Zark's Burgers special eighth anniversary promo last August 28 offered their basic burger for only Php8
Zark’s Burgers grew rapidly. After about a year, the food outlets beside it closed down and Zark’s expanded to 60 seats and then 120 seats. Second and third branches opened in BF Parañaque and Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City. Despite limited marketing, lines were long and crowds were a fixture each time there was a store opening.
It was when Zark’s Burgers opened its fifth branch in SM North Edsa, its first inside a shopping mall, that Zark the owner felt the brand was really leveling up.
“SM North Edsa approached us about two years into our operations, but I declined,” he said. “I didn’t feel like we were ready yet. Another restaurant opened at that spot. Funny thing is, when that outlet closed down two years later, SM asked us again, and that time, I finally said yes.”
The space SM offered wasn’t even a food zone at the time, but Zark bit the bullet and opened in 2013.
“I said, okay, let’s take the risk,” he said. “If it doesn’t work out, at least we already had five other solid branches.”
But it did work. Long lines greeted the opening and the branch consistently does brisk business.
Since then, Zark has been on a store-opening spree, reaching as far south as Cebu, Bacolod and Iloilo. All 30 existing branches are company owned. But this year, Zark and his management team is finally ready to take Zark’s Burger to the next phase of its growth.
Franchising for growth
“One reason why we did the Php8 anniversary promo is we’re announcing that Zark’s is finally open for franchising,” he says excitedly. “For now, we’re opening five more company-owned branches—Davao, Cagayan De Oro, Clark in Pampanga, NAIA and Glorietta, which will be our first branch in Makati. After that, we’ll start franchising, especially outside Metro Manila.”
Zark said they’ve been getting inquiries for franchising for years. Each time, he says they’re just not ready. But this time, things are different. “I feel like we finally have the right system to run a restaurant. I mean, obviously, we’re going to have 35 company-owned stores. And then we’ve captured the right market. In terms of burger restaurants, I don’t think there are other casual dining joints with a national scale. Not fast food, of course. That’s a different category. And there are many independent, small-time outlets. But on our scale, wala. It’s just us.”
The Zark's Burgers branch along Taft Avenue in front of De La Salle University is the company's first
As for the franchise model, Zark explains that it’s the basic one where they’re looking for people to manage the store. “We’re going to be very particular in choosing the right franchisee. They have to be aligned with our vision, character and values as a company. As you can imagine, sobrang daming gustong mag-franchise.”
As for the franchise cost, Zark puts the range between Php5.7 million to Php6.5 million. “All in na yun. That includes construction, equipment, everything. It’s average for a restaurant this size.”
He added that his estimate is that the store reaches payback period in about three years. “That’s conservative kasi usually mabilis kami mag-ROI (return on investment) but we don’t want to overpromise.”
With the help of franchising, Zark projects his Zark’s Burger brand to reach 50 stores by next year on its way to his target of having 100 branches total.
In addition to expanding through additional stores, Zark says there are plans to expand by opening a concept completely different from their burger restaurant model. The first of this top-secret new concept is scheduled to open before the end of the year in Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City.
With growth this fast, it’s no surprise that Zark has been getting feelers from bigger food companies about a possible merger, but he politely declines, for now. The objective, he said, is to see how much further he can take his business. He may consider it later on, but for now, it’s just not that easy to let go of his dream.
Paul John Caña is the managing editor of Entrepreneur PH