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Everybody Loves Zombies? How the Undead Helped Build a Burger Empire

zombieartworkMy boss was in Des Moines, Iowa a couple weeks ago, and sent me this message:

Subj: Zombie Burger

Bringing you the menu from that zombie burger place. Such a cool content story. The co-owner's childhood dream was to one day open a zombie themed restaurant. Three years in they've sold 1 million burgers! 

There is always a wait. Always.

Took photos of artwork. We should write about them.

Between you and me, he had me at zombies, but the "one million" certainly piqued my interest. What is this place? (Zombie Burger + Drink Lab in Des Moines, IA.) How'd they make it to one million burgers on a zombie theme? (Their food, branding & content had a lot to do with it.) And the burgers ... they're actually good? (Yep.) Like ... really good? (Yeah, they have like 8,000 Facebook reviews raving about them.)

I wanted to learn more. So I did what I always do when I want to learn more -- Googled them -- to see if I could get in touch with the owners. Along with finding their Facebook account with almost 50,000 Likes and glowing reviews on Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and UrbanSpoon, I found an email address on their crazy cool zombie-themed website and shot them a quick note to see if they'd be willing to talk. 

They responded in four minutes. I think I'm starting to get why these guys are killing it.

I talked with the Paul Rottenberg, the co-founder of the restaurant, to learn more about their "zombie marketing strategy" and what's made them so successful. Here's what he had to say.

Why zombies? Where'd the idea come from?

pull_quote_1The idea really started out by having the desire to do a chef-driven burger restaurant. My co-founder, Chef George Formaro, and I had done several upscale places, and we wanted to do a place that was more fun and casual. We talked a lot about what the theme would be, and my partner is a horror movie buff, so he wanted to do a horror theme originally. We looked at a number of places, and nothing turned up that we liked -- but then when one did, George said he wanted to do a zombie place. This was 2009, so by the time we opened it looked like we were riding on The Walking Dead thing, but the idea started before it ever came out.

So the zombie idea came from George. Were you equally enthusiastic about it?

To tell you the truth, I had never even watched any movies about zombies. So when he told me about it, I started watching movies and documentaries and reading books. And I remained unconvinced we could carry the idea of great food and zombies -- I was worried it might be a concept diners didn't want to think about with their food. It took me about six months to sign on. In fact, on the original loan applications, I just called it a hamburger restaurant because I didn't know how the bank would respond to a zombie-themed restaurant.

But I eventually got sold on the idea. I was meeting with our third partner, Jeremy Reichart, telling him about the idea. He said he thought it was a great idea and we oughtta do it. I asked him, "Will you put up a third of the money?" And he said he would. 

When did you know your idea was a hit?

Even before it opened. We got a ton of attention from the press and the public. Before we opened we had 5,000 Facebook Likes and won best hamburger restaurant in Des Moines.

Before it opened?

I know, it doesn't seem fair does it? It just had so much top of mind awareness. On opening day, we were prepared to serve 800 burgers, and we sold out by 9:00 p.m. From the time the doors opened there was just a huge amount of interest.

How does this restaurant differ from the other restaurants you've opened? Does it serve a different demographic for Des Moines?

Well, it's in a hip part of town. We thought it'd be a kitschy fun place for the cool, young demographic to hang out in. But it's the broadest demographic of any business we've opened. From little kids to grandmas, white collar to blue collar, every walk of life. It's universally appealing.

pull_quote_2Even something as polarizing as gore and horror?

Yeah, it's weird, isn't it? I had my first inkling I was going down the right path when I went to file some paperwork and had to write down the name. The lawyer said, "Oh, that'll be great. My son is reading about zombies, we love zombies." And then my friends, who are quite a bit more conservative than me, said they watch zombie movies all the time -- another friend of mine said, "My first date was a George Romero movie!"

It looks like you took that interest and ran with it. The zombie theme pervades everything -- from the menu to the decor to the artwork.

Developing a zombie burger facility and space was a real exercise in marrying blood and gore content with food. It was a challenge to figure out how to tell that story without offending people. To help with that, the original concept was that zombies were outside -- that you're boarded up in this tavern -- and then Ron Wagner, a comic book artist that did the murals, created a story about the apocalypse happening outside.

Once we opened, though, it got edgier and edgier because customers said we could do more.

Zombie_Burger_Art

So the customers played a role in the story's development?

Absolutely. After that we added Frank, the zombie mannequin, and a ton of other things because there was a demand to kick it up a notch. It got edgier and gorier because the customer said to do more.

From a business standpoint, we say it's good to start with a good idea -- but to be successful you have to listen to what the customers want you to be. We call it "Food that doesn't try to be smarter than the customer." George could be a chef at a 5-star restaurant anywhere, but he likes putting out food that makes people feel good.

You've got over 8,000 reviews on Facebook, nearly 50,000 Likes, over 8,000 Twitter followers. Tell me about how that social media presence grew -- did the zombie theme just make it happen, or did you work at it?

It was a combination of work and natural interest. I believe once you get up into the high numbers, it becomes exponential. People come to us now with things they want to do together -- for example, a guy that draws zombie comics wants to get some eyes on that, and we're a natural place for him to show his talents.

Who runs the social media accounts?

All our accounts (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) are managed in-house with much of the content coming from the chef, Tom McKern, and Karen Davis. Tom runs the kitchen as our executive chef, and he's just an incredibly funny guy. Karen is our general manager and has a long history in the entertainment industry -- she was the manager of a chain that does a combination of beer, food, and movies. So they've both got a good sensibility about what will work on social.

So they're responsible for the #zbbasicbitch account on Twitter?

[Laughs] That's one of our burgers ... I think they were doing a hashtag with that, but did they start an account?

Yeah, a follower tweeted the account -- @zbbasicbitch -- and tagged @ZombieBurgerDM

basicTom did a #basicbitch burger that was a spoof on the pumpkin spice thing. That was one of the #TweakedOutThursday burgers. I bet it was Tom that did it, I'll have to ask him, but I guess it could have been anyone -- these things just kind of build on themselves.

It sounds like most of your customers would probably find that funny, but then again, you serve a really wide demographic. Do you care if stuff like that offends people? How do you decide what's too edgy?

Yeah, I do care. And I probably represent the most conservative of the sensibilities. We had a meeting about naming this burger. Tom talked about the idea and I can't remember what the original name was, but it was even edgier, and we decided that might be too far. When we released it, most people got it and thought it was funny.

Did anyone complain?

We got one complaint. But even she said she loved the restaurant, just didn't like the name. I think our restaurant has been able to develop a relationship with its customer base that's kind of edgy, so I'm careful not to rein in those guys too much. Tom avidly studies social and is aware of the latest trends, so I'm careful not to stifle his creativity -- we've had some big successes because of those ideas.

pull_quote_3What are some of those successes that came from being creative and current?

We did an Undead Hasselhoff burger. It got picked up all over the world. Germany loved it.

When Jim Gaffigan was in town, Tom started tweeting with him, and Jim answered him. Tom said he was going to create an Undead Gaffigan burger when he was in town, and asked him what he wanted on it. Jim said he wanted bacon, cheddar, white bread, five patties (he's got five kids), and jalapenos. The burger ended up being featured in his latest book.

You've clearly got some creative people on staff -- is one of them responsible for writing the zombie newspaper stories on the back of the menu, too?

Zombie_Menus

George's brother Tom Formaro -- not the chef, a different Tom -- is a locally-based writer and he writes those. He just wrote a book called The Broken Heart DietHe's hysterically funny. We try to change them a few times a year, and we'll build on whatever is current in the season. For instance, in 2016 we'll have the Iowa caucuses, so in that menu edition we'll likely write stories that spoof on the candidates.

Will you take any position, politically?

We'll steer clear of taking any political positions. We've got customers who are radically liberal and radically conservative who love the restaurant equally -- and love zombie movies.

Who knew zombies were the great equalizer?

I think the reason zombies work is it just seems okay to hurt zombies. You know, cuz they're dead already.

But first and foremost, what we want to do is just build a better burger restaurant. Every item we send out is made by our team -- so if we've got breaded jalapenos, we've made them there. We have the machinery to grind the burgers and cut the fries. Because people wouldn't come back if the food wasn't good. When you've got 50,000 people talking about your burgers on Facebook, it can go both ways -- you've gotta win the conversation with a good product if you're going to make those conversations work for you.

So the brand and the product are inextricable?

No question. The food needed to work, the environment needed to tell the story, and it needed to be a comfortable, functional restaurant. You could just have one or two of those things, but it blew up because it had all of those. All of those things had to happen.

Artwork from Zombie Burger + Drink Lab restaurant.

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