Last Bite: Russ Bendel

The Habit Burger Grill CEO Russ Bendel talks about how the US-founded brand sets itself apart

Russ Bendel, CEO, The Habit Burger Grill.
Russ Bendel, CEO, The Habit Burger Grill.

How long did you spend in Dubai for the launch of The Habit Burger Grill and how did the opening go?

I was in Dubai for five days. I arrived the night before UAE National Day and it was great to be there for the celebration, especially since it was my first trip to the region. Attending the openings felt very similar to one of our restaurant openings in the US. All of the restaurant staff were extremely friendly and hard-working, and they took great care of the guests. It gave me confidence in the consistency of The Habit brand here in the UAE. I certainly look forward to returning.

What made Food Quest open a second Habit Burger so soon after the first?

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We have been working with Food Quest for a while looking for the right locations. The two openings being so close to each other was more to do with the timing of the projects than anything.

How did you relationship with Food Quest come about and was it challenging to find a suitable franchise partner in the region?

The relationship began when the previous CEO visited his family in California and was introduced to The Habit. From there, we began a fairly lengthy process of getting to know each other. Ultimately we both decided that The Habit would be a great fit in the UAE.

How many more outlets in the region are planned and where will they be?

Food Quest has the right to open up to 50 locations in the UAE.

How has the feedback been so far from customers in Dubai?

Guest feedback has been outstanding and we are encouraged by the response. We have always prided ourselves on our ability to execute and build our business with word of mouth. The first Habit opened in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969 and we have currently grown to over 175 restaurants in 10 states domestically — plus, now, two in the UAE.

What makes Habit Burger Grill different to other burger restaurants and how does it stand out?

Our points of differentiation are in many areas. These include:

Variety: The menu is burger-centric but broad in offering many other choices, such as sushi-grade tuna that we grill for sandwiches. Among other sandwiches, we offer chicken and tri-tip steak, along with a selection of entrée salads. Our broad menu allows us to have a customer mix that is approximately 50% male and 50% female.

Open flame: we cook all of our proteins on an open flame which gives it a better flavour.

Comfortable atmosphere: we invest in our restaurants, using hardwood finishes and real stone, and having as much natural light as possible. The colourful artwork, plants and warm atmosphere make it a very appealing restaurant to visit for lunch or dinner.

Genuine hospitality: we have always been committed to providing a level of service and hospitality that you don’t usually find in a fast casual environment. By taking great care of our team members, they take great care of our guests — whether you’re in Southern California or Dubai.

Value: we focus on extremely attractive, everyday value pricing. Quality and value has been the cornerstone of what makes The Habit special.

And finally, what’s your favourite thing to order from the menu?

My personal favourite is the Santa Barbara-style charburger, which is a double cheeseburger on grilled sourdough with fresh avocado. It is named after our heritage, having started in Santa Barbara in nearly 50 years ago. If I am looking for an alternative, I often order the sushi-grade tuna sandwich — grilled medium rare — and served hot with a side of fries or tempura green beans. If I’m really treating myself, or it is hot outside, I always add one of our hand-spun chocolate shakes.

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