At the start of August, former pastry chef Genevieve McGregor set out from the mountains of Colorado to the Kansas Plains to pursue her vision of impactful fast food. After 20 years of experience in small businesses, working in many facets of operations — production, development, marketing, finance and leadership — McGregor decided she was ready for a change.
“I knew that my passions and skills could be applied to something greater — no offense to chocolate eclairs and wedding cakes,” McGregor said. “I chose launching a fast-food chain for reasons all to do with impact.”
McGregor dreamed of a business through which she could reach American consumers with what they crave while serving them food based on integrity and supporting trusted food sources and local farmers. Enter Spark’s Burger Co., a quick-service, locally sourced restaurant scheduled to begin operating in Junction City, Kan., in the fourth quarter of 2023. With the start of this franchise, McGregor believes she is on track to achieving her goals.
As a vegetarian, McGregor never imagined she would one day start a burger joint, but her desire to reach consumers where they are trumped her personal consumption convictions.
“Although I might consider myself an animal welfare advocate by choosing to not eat meat, local, independent ranchers were the true animal welfare activists who dedicated their everyday lives to nurture and protect their animals,” she said. “The reality is the majority of people eat meat. If I really want to make an impact, I have to appreciate this reality and serve everyone.”
Spark’s Burger Co. will offer items for meat and veggie lovers alike. Spark’s Angus beef burgers are an 85/15 blend, with 5:1 weight. Its veggie burgers, created by McGregor herself, come in the same weight and are made with recognizable vegetables, such as mushrooms, onions, carrots and peas, among other ingredients. Another option is the “Meat in the Middle” Burger, a 50/50 blend of beef and veggies.
“I wanted to create a place where, no matter what a person chooses to eat, we could come, put our differences aside and enjoy a meal together. That’s why it is important to me to put the Meat in the Middle Burger on the menu.”
Spark’s will also serve two versions of a Wagyu hot dog burger, The Classic and The BBQ Suzy Dog.
To ensure adherence to food safety protocol while delivering consistent quality in a burger, the restaurant receives beef patties frozen and cooks them in the same state. All burgers are flame-broiled using a Neico broiler. Each beef patty cooks to a standardized temperature of 160 degrees.
From pasture to piehole
With plans to go through 800 to 1,000 lbs of beef per week, McGregor selected a local supplier who could deliver on her standards.
Spark’s Burger Co. looked for producers who were within a 150-mile radius of the franchise, had the capacity to meet volume requirements, were locally owned and operated, had high standards of environmental stewardship of their land, implemented humane and ethical husbandry practices, and offered a wholesale price-point. For the franchise, Leffler Prime Performance fit the bill to bring the beef from “pasture to piehole,” as McGregor likes to say.
Located only 60 miles outside of Junction City in Americus, Kan., Leffler Prime Performance is Spark’s Burger Co.’s primary supplier alongside other secondary producers and partners for local dairy, eggs and bacon products. Jacquelyne Leffler established Leffler Prime Performance in 2015, but her family has run their farm since 1941.
“Her strong personal character, paired with the reverence for her family heritage has earned her our supplier agreement,” McGregor said.
“The most exciting part of working with Spark’s Burger Co is simple: a Kansas food establishment serving Kansas beef,” Leffler said. “I’m not sure there is anything more perfect. The more communities can support one another, the more everyone will thrive.”
All Leffler’s beef is processed through Allen Meat Processing, owned by husband-and-wife Mike and Donna Uhl since 2019. Thanks to his background in ranching, Mike Uhl brings practical beef knowledge, while Donna Uhl calls upon her culinary arts education to give customers quality cuts of meat.
Beyond Spark’s burger
Spark’s Burger Co. is just the first in a series of planned quick-service restaurants for McGregor. With last year’s creation of San Diego-based Empire Food Group LLC, a holding company that will launch multiple franchises across a number of food categories, including Spark’s Burger Co., McGregor hopes to bring ethical and sustainable food to American consumers.
“We are not here to reinvent the $289 billion wheel of the US fast-food industry; we are here to ensure that it doesn’t steamroll over everything that is important to us: our own personal health, the health of our environment, our animals and the health of our hardworking employees,” she said.
In the process, the mission of Empire Food Group is to normalize a sustainable food system while educating consumers about food sourcing.
McGregor said her strategy with Spark’s Burger Co. is to externally embody what consumers are familiar and comfortable with — a traditional burger chain — while also having a “disruptive” internal system that prioritizes sustainability and ethics.
Part of the company’s unique approach to foodservice is its worker-cooperative model. Spark’s Burger Co. will give employees a voice in how they are compensated. They will also receive profit-sharing and co-ownership opportunities, McGregor said.
To make the most impact, Spark’s Burger Co. is targeting “anyone who eats at fast-food hamburger chains,” but specifically millennials and Gen Zers in the labor workforce.
“They are hungry for something less expensive — our burger price is less than 16% above average — quick and convenient,” she said. “But most importantly, the Gen Z consumer is looking to support a company that expresses authenticity and quality. We don’t believe that the behemoths in the current industry can transform to satisfy this demand and that is our sweet spot for success.”
McGregor also noted that statistically, men between the ages of 20 and 39 are known to be heavy burger consumers, and the Spark’s Burger Co. location is situated to appeal to that demographic, as it sits just outside of the Ft. Riley military installation.
After a successful run at Spark’s Burger Co., McGregor will announce the next chain to join EFG under a new category, which she said has already been determined but not yet disclosed.