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0712 BurgerBuilt 02
 Little Big Burger owners Micah Camden and Katie Poppe have inspired industry envy with the success of their burger chain. Since the first location opened almost two years ago in Portland, they have opened two more locations in Portland and one in Eugene, and they have two more in the works.
// Photo by Matthew Ginn

Even without eyeballing the books, Huffman and other restaurateurs know Little Big Burger is doing something right. Since the first location opened in September 2010, Camden and Poppe have opened two more locations in Portland — in the high-foot-traffic zones of Mississippi Avenue and Division Street — and one in Eugene. All locations have footprints of less than 1,500 square feet and lack drive-throughs or parking lots.

Camden and Poppe have two more locations in the works, in the South Waterfront district and on Northwest 23rd Street, which will add 20-plus jobs to the existing 40.

“We saw a gap,” Poppe says. “There are typical low-quality, cheap fast-food burgers and then a jump to higher-quality, expensive bistro burgers. There were very few providers of inexpensive, gourmet fast-food burgers.”

Similar models include Laughing Planet Cafe, Hot Lips Pizza and, on a larger scale, Burgerville and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Joe Rapport, one of the owners of Joe’s Burgers of JoPa Hospitality Group in Portland, is in the process of opening a fourth Joe’s Burgers in the city. (The first location was a kiosk in Bridgeport Village.) While Joe’s burgers have thinner patties and can be topped with meat chili and American cheese, the model resembles Little Big Burger: a simple menu with some locally sourced ingredients.

“In the last few years, the pattern has shifted,” Rapport says. “People going out want to spend less per person.” He mentions his now-defunct restaurant 50 Plates as an example of what wasn’t working. “I had a restaurant in the Pearl that had great food and a good reputation, but not a lot of people were coming in the door.”

Joe’s Burger has been such a hit that Rapport turned his Northwest Grill, a midrange sit-down restaurant in Raleigh Hills that had been in business for nine and a half years, into one of the burger joints.

Profit margins for quick-service restaurants usually garner more than the 10% restaurateurs expect to make from upscale restaurants. But Rapport says 15% to 20% profits are “where everybody really wants to settle. If people are doing better than that, then God bless them.”

The four Little Big Burger locations average between 35%-40% profit margin, say its owners. “It was unexpected,” Poppe says. “I wrote the business plan with a conservative 20%,” Camden says. “We doubled it.”

Even without Little Big Burger-size profit margins, burgers are a reliable restaurant concept, says Scott Hume, who is editor of BurgerBusiness.com, which covers the burger industry nationwide.

“Burgers are not a trendy food; they’re a staple food,” Hume says. “In bad times you can sell $4 burgers, and in boom times you can sell $14 burgers.” The Chicago-based NPD Group recently reported that while the total number of restaurants in the U.S. declined between the fall of 2010 and the fall of 2011, the number of quick-service burger operations, both independent and chains, rose slightly.

The Portland area has followed the trend beyond Little Big Burger and Joe’s Burger, with places such as Killer Burger and Dick’s Kitchen, and new outcroppings of national chains such as Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and Boardwalk Fresh Burgers and Fries. But Little Big Burger stands out for its rapid expansion and huge profits, the result of a certain kind of mastermind.