Hero Certified Burgers

Great Taste the Natural Way

It’s hard to believe more than a decade has passed since John Lettieri opened the inaugural Hero Certified Burgers store in Hazelton Lanes in Yorkville. Since the grand opening of that first location, the increasingly popular all natural restaurant chain has firmly established itself as a favourite dining choice for many people in the Greater Toronto Area – and beyond – with a tasty food menu that adheres to strictly sustainable practices from start to finish.

THE LETTIERI FAMILY name had been synonymous in the cheese business for decades prior to John Lettieri opening Hero Certified Burgers. He’s also Swiss educated as a Dairy Specialist and is a cheese maker by trade, so opening this particular franchise chain was a natural progression based on many of his past experiences and successes within the food industry.

“We’ve had food in our family and extended family all our lives,” he begins. “We’ve been in the cheese business and then when my father sold that, I got into the retail business with Lettieri Espresso Bar Café and we’re also considering starting another brand as we move forward.”

In the years prior to Lettieri taking the helm of his own business, his father always demanded top quality from all of the food products he used and endorsed. It’s an inherent generational philosophy that has been seamlessly passed on to his son.

Hero Certified Burgers is a quick service restaurant chain that came into existence largely because Lettieri astutely recognized a critical void in the competitive burger industry, whereby a substantial segment of the general public was being overlooked; specifically those people who prefer their food products from restaurants and vendors that adhere to those aforementioned all natural, sustainable practices.

“There really wasn’t any premium hamburger retailer in the city (Toronto) and I felt there was the market for a natural product,” Lettieri tells us. “It’s important that people know where their food is coming from. We are able to deliver that at Hero. Ten years ago that was almost an impossible thing to do.”

Traceability Equals Accountability

Lettieri and his team have continued to devise new plans for adding greater volume to the stores. Through intense networking with experts within the industry, he was able to source out a group of ranchers in Alberta that adhere to all natural programs, i.e. hormone free with full traceability while also understanding the metrics of the macro environment, including sustainable practices. Each of these aspects is of critical importance to Lettieri and Hero Certified Burgers.

“It’s about the welfare of the land, the animal and the rancher,” Lettieri states. “It came at a premium, and we were willing to pay that premium. Three years into Hero Certified Burgers we were able to have this separate product exclusively to us.”

It’s been proven through the immense success of Hero Certified Burgers that there is in fact a significant portion of the general population that does care about where their food originates and the route it takes before ultimately ending up in front of them as a meal. Although the all natural idea began as more of a niche concept, the thriving restaurant chain continues to evolve further into the mainstream consciousness as more and more consumers are opting to better educate themselves about what they eat in an effort to promote a lifestyle that adheres to a healthy diet.

“The difference between us and everybody else is that it is Canadian and we understand how the animals are raised, how and what they are fed and treated along with the welfare of the environmental stewardship. It is a specialty product. It is not a commodity – it’s a premium,” Lettieri says.

The Dining Experience

Fare includes hamburgers and veggie burgers, poultry and wild Alaskan salmon sandwiches, poutine, Ontario grown greenhouse tomatoes and a number of gluten free selections. The company uses only fresh cut French fries, and offers real cheese, including Gorgonzola, smoked provolone and Brie. Many Hero Certified Burgers locations have CocaCola Freestyle machines as well.

As a major promoter of all natural foods, a preeminent point for Lettieri is that Hero Certified Burgers uses 100% Heritage Angus Beef, which adheres to sustainable agricultural practices. The beef contains no preservatives or additives. Cattle are grassfed in a free moving, open environment, and no antibiotics or growth hormones are used. The beef is seasoned during its preparation in the restaurants. Indeed it often leads to higher costs, but the vendor partners of Hero Certified Burgers have won numerous awards for their critically acclaimed sustainability practices.

“We deal with the ranchers,” Lettieri offers. “I think beef is going to become more and more a specialty like it is in Europe. It’s a growing market. Before it was the tenderloins and New York Strips that were expensive, now it’s even ground beef that is hitting that level.

Vegetarian and gluten options are a big part of Hero Certified Burgers, which have become increasingly necessary for a number of people with today’s more targeted dietary programs. It’s a segment of the market that Lettieri sees growing with each passing day.

“Gluten free is definitely big,” Lettieri agrees. In addition to having a genuine concern about the quality of food their customers eat, Hero Certified Burgers was also the first Canadian restaurant chain to use a new type of packaging that is produced from 100% post industrial/post consumer recycled paper. The result is the use of up to 70% less paper than traditional forms of fast food packaging.

Commitment to Excellence

Upholding the highest standards begins with traceability, which is tantamount for Lettieri, who believes it is essential that consumers know where their food is coming from, including the conditions of the farms where the cattle is raised. A passionate desire to follow through on plans to be a company that can tout such top quality sustainable practices is it at the very core of the company’s mission. Lettieri sums up the company’s success this way.

“The key word is commitment,” he offers. “It’s commitment to the staff, the stakeholders, the franchisees, the brand, the food and the integrity of what we’re doing alive and real, which is our day to day job. I believe in an open book concept so everybody knows what we need to do to be successful and make the difference.”

Creating this unique space amongst other burger giants is a long, arduous and more expensive process, but one that Lettieri and Hero Certified Burgers have made a firm commitment towards. One of the main obstacles still to overcome is that many consumers still tend to attach greater emphasis on price consciousness as opposed to health consciousness.

“But that’s going to change – it’s generational,” Lettieri asserts. “We’re not in for a quick run; we’re committed to the business.”

There are soon to be more combinations available to consumers within the burger and perhaps soups and side auxiliary dishes, but outside of that, Hero Certified Burgers wants to keep a focus on the primary food products that are now being sold.

Hero Certified Burgers is also the official hamburger of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, the AHL’s Marlies and NBA’s Raptors.

“We felt that the Leafs, Raptors and Marlies, between those three brands they hit most to everybody in the province. Rather than do traditional radio or billboard ads, we decided instead to associate with those strong brands.”

Lettieri and Hero Certified Burgers are also known for their involvement with charities and organizations that desperately need ongoing support.

“It’s about giving back to the community,” he notes. “We’ve given lots of food to shelters and support the B.A.D. Ride, (Bikers Against Distress), which is a very important centre in Toronto that helps people as well as SickKids and the Humber River Hospital. When you give back it’s helping the community at large.”

Expansion Plans

Throughout its 10 year history, the corporate plan has been to grow Hero Certified Burgers at a pace that will not impede or compromise quality. With 56 stores currently operational, expansion is in the works in the near future, including the first store in the United States just across the border in Buffalo, NY. But Lettieri makes it abundantly clear he won’t stray from the methodical, well crafted business plan that has garnered so much success.

“We were a success on our first store,” he remarks. “We have to keep our feet grounded. We’re probably going to do eight to 10 stores this year and eight to 10 are planned for next year. We’re going to continue growing the brand in areas where it doesn’t exist.”

With this being a franchise model it is driven largely by an appetite for expansion. Lettieri is keen to see more people understanding what it is that Hero Certified Burgers is doing for the health and well being of those consuming the food while adhering to robust, proven sustainable methods, which includes using non genetically modified organisms.

“It’s a challenge to get non GMO,” he says. “We just changed our bread; we’ve taken some things out and put olive oil in so you can get an all natural burger at Hero, which doesn’t really exist elsewhere. We want people to look deep into what we’re doing and follow our Social Media links from our website and to understand where our beef is coming from and take it from there.”

Hero Certified Burgers allocates prominent importance on building long term relationships with suppliers and customers alike. Canadian consumers are returning the favour by showing confidence and gratitude in having a tasty, all natural option by visiting the restaurant chain in growing numbers. It’s not just about how they bring food to your table, but just as importantly, how it gets there.