How Orlando restaurant Build My Burgers went from debt to success

Build My Burgers founder Aly Lalani always knew that a 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 last 16 years, spending most of that time employed by other people — until 2021, when he opened Build My Burgers in Orlando, Florida. The burger joint uses an open design concept to entice customers — roughly 400 per day, Lalani says — who watch their meals being made 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, enabling Lalani to pay himself an $84,000 salary.

Very little went according to plan along the way. Between Lalani’s first inklings of his big idea in 2018 and the restaurant’s launch, he lost his father, penny-pinched during the Covid-19 pandemic, prepared for a new baby and pushed the big opening from April 2020 to January 2021.

Here’s how Lalani launched his restaurant, and what’s driving its success so far, he says.

‘We are big foodies’

When you ask the Pakistan-born entrepreneur why he chose to open a burger restaurant, his answer is pretty simple. “We love burgers,” he says. “My wife and I, we are big foodies.”

Initially, Lalani wanted to become a franchisee, owning and running an outpost of an extant restaurant chain. Building a brand from scratch would be too time-consuming — but there was a problem.

“The franchises we were looking into that had a name, they were not affordable,” he says. He and his wife Zahra got “very close” to signing a deal with a particular burger chain, but it didn’t work out, so “we just decided that we’re going to go ahead and open our own brand and bring it to life in Orlando.”

Aly and Zahra Lalani at the Build My Burgers restaurant in Orlando, Florida.

Andrea Desky

In 2018, the two 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 appearance that it was already a successful chain, Lalani says.

Lalani signed the lease for his storefront in 2019, and construction started immediately, he says. He was on track to open its doors the following year.

Living off a single salary

When Covid hit, Lalani and his family made a tough decision: All three of them — including their new baby — would live off the salary from Zahra’s 9-to-5 job. Lalani kept working on the restaurant full-time, despite not knowing when it could open.

“I was just staying at home, living off my wife’s paycheck and just trying to pay all the bills that we could to stay afloat,” he says.

The challenge intensified when his startup budget of $200,000 doubled to $400,000, with areas like air conditioning, grease traps and impact fees costing more than he’d expected. Lalani used $60,000 in personal savings, got $122,000 in investment funds from his landlord and took on $218,000 in credit card debt and unsecured loans.

Only $60,000 of that credit card debt remains, he says.

All the while, Lalani grieved his father, who died in December 2019. As the responsibilities piled up, he used memories of his father and his own excitement of becoming a dad to keep himself going.

“[It] pushed me to do more,” he says, adding: “It was really difficult. But, one thing about me is I’m very motivated. I’m very positive. I had a vision. I had a goal. I wanted to do everything it takes to make sure it comes to life.”

Growing into the local community

Build My Burgers never had a grand opening. Lalani simply turned on the “open” sign in the front window.

The restaurant features special deals for its local community, from free and discounted meals for college students or police officers to free drinks for delivery drivers. “We want to make sure that we’re taking care of the people that are taking care of us,” Lalani says, noting that it helps build a loyal customer base.

Aly Lalani serving an order at Build My Burgers.

Andrea Desky

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 per week on tasks like restaurant operations and social media, he says.

He’s also still thinking about restaurant franchises — specifically, turning Build My Burgers into one. His goals are ambitious. First: He’s set a minimum investment price of $235,000, he says, roughly his original budget for trying to buy into someone else’s franchise.

Second: He wants to expand to 51 franchise locations across the U.S. in the next five years, and hire enough quality staff for each location to keep Build My Burgers from overextending itself.

“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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