From Full Service Franchisee to Burger Innovator

Mark Johnston, cofounder and CEO, Burger 21.
Mark Johnston, cofounder and CEO, Burger 21.
Burger 21

I never had a server position before The Melting Pot in college. I really loved it and the presentation of the food to the guest. I graduated and they gave me a couple of manager shifts. Then I had an opportunity to open one with my brother Mike. Later, when we were getting ready to open our sixth, we decided to ask founders Roy Nelson and Bruce Knoechel if they were willing to sell the concept. We bought The Melting Pot in 1985. It’s still going, and I’m still an owner in the business, but the focus as of late has been on creating and growing Burger 21 with my wife, Arlene.

Fast casual was definitely the buzz. We started thinking 10 years ago that it would be good to diversify because both The Melting Pot and our other concept, GrillSmith, were casual dining. We targeted fast casual strategically and looked at a lot of different things; burgers were exploding at that point in time. Honestly it was taking a look at some of the bigger players that were just growing at an amazing rate, like Five Guys and Smashburger. The market was getting crowded and, of course, became extremely crowded and still is.

We had to find where we would enter the market with a product that was substantially different from what’s out there so far—that’s why we decided to do Burger 21. Beyond beef burgers, we diversified with house-made fresh chicken burgers, turkey burgers, seafood, ahi tuna burgers, and two different veggie burgers. Most of our run we’ve had 10 beef burgers, 10 non-beef burgers, and a special burger.

I’ve always been a foodie. My mom is German and food was a big part of our life. I liked the idea of starting a restaurant where the prices were in reach of most people. I guess I like to complicate things, so I enjoyed developing a menu that had the 21 burgers, all the different shakes, salads, and hand-breaded fresh chicken tenders. I also enjoy the process of perfecting a concept. I do not believe we’ve perfected it yet; it’s an ongoing process. It’s a forever-changing business, so there’s always room for improvement. There’s always the desire for that.


What’s your favorite menu item at Burger 21?

I have three favorites, but if I had to pick one of my three favorites, it would be No. 16 Spicy Thai Shrimp burger.

What’s your favorite restaurant or type of food, excluding Burger 21?

Fondue and Neapolitan-style pizza—anything cheesy like that.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

My teenage twins Jared and Joseph, and kayaking with our dog Boomerang. She used to be afraid of the water, but now she loves kayaking.

What is the best piece of advice you think quick-service executives should hear?

Never compromise the quality of your product, but before you even worry about that, take care of the great team members who work with you, because they’re the whole name of the game in this business.

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