Build My Burgers founder Aly Lalani always knew the typical desk job wasn’t for him. He wanted something more challenging and unpredictable.
The 38-year-old has worked in the restaurant industry for the past 16 years, spending most of that time employed by other people — until 2021, when he opened Build My Burgers in Orlando, Florida. The burger uses an open design concept for entire customers—roughly 400 a day, Lalani says—who watch their meals being prepared up close, a more personal experience than a typical fast-food chain.
That first year, Build My Burgers brought in $584,000 in revenue, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. Last year, that number increased to $739,000, allowing Lalani to pay himself a salary of $84,000.
Very little went according to plan along the way. Between Lalani’s first inklings of his big idea in 2018 and the launch of the restaurant, he lost his father, was devastated during the Covid-19 pandemic, prepared for a new baby and pushed back the grand opening from April 2020 to January 2021.
Here’s how Lalani launched her restaurant and what’s driving its success so far, she says.
“We are big foodies”
When you ask the Pakistani-born entrepreneur why he decided to open a burger restaurant, his answer is quite simple. “We love burgers,” he says. “My wife and I are big foodies.
Initially, Lalani wanted to become a franchisee, owning and operating an outpost of an existing restaurant chain. Building a brand from scratch would be too time consuming – but there was a problem.
“The franchises we looked at that had a name weren’t affordable,” he says. He and his wife, Zahra, came “very close” to signing with a particular burger chain, but it didn’t work out, so we “just decided to go ahead and open our own brand and bring it to life in Orlando.”
In 2018, they both got to work. They designed the restaurant’s logo and interior — from the wall art to the orange and black color scheme — to give off the impression that it’s already a successful chain, Lalani says.
Lalani signed a lease for his store in 2019 and construction began immediately, he says. He was well on his way to opening the doors the following year.
Living on one salary
When Covid hit, Lalani and his family made a tough decision: The three of them—including their newborn—would live off Zahra’s salary from a 9-to-5 job. Lalani continued to work on the restaurant full-time, despite not knowing when it might open.
“I just stayed home, lived off my wife’s salary and tried to pay all the bills to keep us afloat,” he says.
The challenge intensified when his initial $200,000 budget doubled to $400,000, with areas like air conditioning, grease traps and impact fees costing more than he expected. Lalani used $60,000 in personal savings, got $122,000 in investment funds from his landlord, and took out $218,000 in credit card debt and unsecured loans.
Only $60,000 of that credit card debt remains, he says.
All the while, Lalani was grieving his father, who died in December 2019. As responsibilities piled up, he used memories of his father and his own excitement about becoming a father to sustain himself.
“(It) pushed me to do more,” he says, adding: “It was really hard. But one thing about me is that I’m very motivated. I’m very positive. I had a vision. I had a goal. I wanted to do everything to to make sure it comes to life.’
Growing into the local community
Build My Burgers never had a grand opening. Lalani he simply turned on the “open” sign on the front window.
The restaurant offers special deals for the local community, from free and discounted meals for college students or police officers to free drinks for delivery drivers. “We want to make sure we take care of the people who take care of us,” says Lalani, noting that this helps build a loyal customer base.
In 2022, Zahra became a co-owner and joined Build My Burgers part-time, handling the restaurant’s marketing and accounting. Lalani still works 50 hours a week on tasks like running the restaurant and social media, she says.
He’s also still thinking about restaurant franchises — specifically turning Build My Burgers into one. His goals are ambitious. First: He set a minimum investment price of $235,000, he says, roughly his original budget for trying to buy someone else’s franchise.
Second: In the next five years, he wants to expand to 51 franchise locations across the U.S. and hire enough quality employees for each location to keep Build My Burgers from getting overwhelmed.
“It just amazes me how food makes people so happy,” says Lalani. “And it feels great because it all started as a dream.
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