Right out of high school, William LaFlower was winging up and down the Eastern Seaboard opening up restaurants.
“I think I worked for Chipotle for less than two weeks before they asked me to go around the country and open up stores,” said the Bronx native who has “strong roots” in New York and New Hampshire.
Ten years ago, he came to Savannah bringing Chipotle to town with him, not in a brown paper bag but as a franchise for the rest of us. Opening the branch on Victory Drive in 2014, LaFlower was the first general manager for the nationwide chain in this region.
From 2012 to 2015, he opened locations in the northeast and down the east coast, including several in Manhattan, before leaving the Empire State for the Coastal Empire.
What directly followed was a long and happy tenure that followed with the Zunzi’s family of eateries. Arcing from fast-casual Mexican to “Shit Yeah!” sandwiches, LaFlower’s restaurant career found him ready to launch his label, and fittingly, the next restaurant he opens will be his own.
If the timing is right, as you are reading this sentence, the first brick-and-mortar Bandana Burger will be serving precisely what its name suggests: burgers wrapped in bandanas that diners can keep.
“Twenty-plus different colors of bandanas, so every time you come back, you get a different one,” said LaFlower, whose wife, A’Nia, and brother, Daniel Hoffman, will make up the restaurant’s family crew trio.
“We’re going to open in the next ten to fifteen days,” LaFlower said with complete optimistic confidence in early December.
“Definitely before Christmas,” he promised. “A hundred percent. Our goal is that people will be unwrapping burgers like they’re unwrapping presents.”
While he was in high school in Merrimack, NH, LaFlower worked at Wendy’s and helped prep The Homestead Restaurant & Tavern’s launch.
“When I was sixteen years old, they hired me to paint tables and the bar for a restaurant that was opening up,” he recalled. “That was my start in the restaurant business, just being a hand.”
He moved from painting to dishwashing to working at the front of house before Chipotle gave him “a really awesome opportunity” upon graduation “that set [him] out on the right path.”
“I used to say that I was the LeBron James of Burritos,” LaFlower said with a laugh: a kid straight out of high school, going from hotel to hotel, thrown into the big-time Restaurant Show. “I feel like I got a college tuition’s worth of restaurant background because people believed in me.”
In Savannah, LaFlower grassrooted his whole team of Chipotle staffers from restaurants around town and “subsequently stole” a bunch of employees from Five Guys before Chris Smith, who owned seven locations between Hilton Head and Brunswick until 2017, asked LaFlower to join him.
As food fate would have it, Smith bought the Zunzi’s franchise in 2014 from founders Johnny and Gaby DeBeer, and LaFlower then helped in the ownership transition and ran the original location for three-plus years. He also assisted with the birth of the Atlanta branch, and on Zunzi’s current menus, the Dank Sauce remains LaFlower’s notable creation.
After a brief hiatus, during which LaFlower and SCAD grad A’Nia traveled the country in a 30-foot Winnebago Adventurer and were married, he called his Zunzi friends upon their return to town to see if they needed him.
While LaFlower helped open Zunzibar Tybee back in April, he simultaneously started a pop-up burger operation that would become Bandana Burger. His brother, who had run operations at Chipotle and worked at Zunzi’s before moving to the front of house at the Mansion at Forsyth, accepted his brother’s ‘burger me’ offer when 700 Drayton closed.
LaFlower recalled this time working on two projects, saying, “I would go home, sit with my wife for a little bit, and go open up the burger shop as a pop-up, just doing it around town.”
“The cool thing about the opportunities that I’ve had in Savannah is they’ve always been with top-tier places,” he, who is “still such good friends with Zunzi’s ownership” and credited Zunzi’s as a “huge part of his career.”
“William is one of the most talented restaurant people I have ever worked with,” Smith said. “He is passionate about the business, his team, and especially his customers. These factors really played into his success working with me to get Zunzi's to where it is now.”
“I always told William that he had what it took to open his own restaurant and, at the right time, he should,” added Smith. “I love William and wish him the best and can't wait to see what the future holds for him!”
OUT WITH BURRITOS, IN WITH BURGERS
LaFlower finalized the Habersham Village deal at the end of October and has been working since to ready the longtime home of Barberito’s for his signature spin on familiar fare.
“I reached out to them, and then it was just a matter of them liking the concept, liking the idea, knowing that we were the right fit,” he said, praising the Habersham Village ownership. “They really believe in me and what I’ve done in the restaurant industry and what we’re going to continue to do,” he added.
What has been an incredibly quick turnaround, under two months, has primarily comprised servicing appliances, cleaning, painting, and permitting. Luckily for LaFlower, no re-plumbing or new HVAC or major layout renovations were necessary.
“We made the whole ceiling a bunch of bandanas,” LaFlower said of one artistic touch. “Just made it a little more colorful.”
“The brand can go anywhere,” he said, touting one of Bandana Burger’s mottos: ‘Good in Every Hood’. “We can operate out of any space. We just have to put our little spin on it.”
The brand began in earnest at a January 28 pop-up at The Portal Arcade on Broughton. After that sell-out debut, LaFlower has served his sandwiches at pop-ups “all over the city,” notably the Jimmy Buffett tribute held on Oct. 13 at Victory North, and “in and out of The Wormhole.”
“We can satisfy anyone, from an herbivore to a carnivore to an omnivore,” LaFlower asserted. “We’ve got something for everybody.”
The menu features burger made from beef, salmon, turkey, and veggies, and LaFlower’s marketing is reflected in the iterations, each item named for a bandana-clad individual: the the Bandit, a meat patty with bacon and cheese ($14); the Pirate, a salmon burger with crab, crispy onion, and shrimp ($15); and a handful more.
PAISLEY-ING IT FORWARD
A burger served in a bandana seems like a stretch, but it is the literal fabric of the brand’s outreach effort: the Paisley Pillow Project.
“If you don’t want the bandana, don’t throw it away,” LaFlower requested. “Put it in the receptacle.”
When that is filled, the bandanas will be cleaned, and LaFlower himself will sew two together and stuff them to make pillows which will then be dropped off at area hospitals and missions.
Already, franchising opportunities have been made available online, and LaFlower’s “ultimate goal” is to give others a chance.
“I’m going to go after folks that might not think they can do it,” he said. “My wife and I want to help people start their own [franchise] and help it grow.”
“My opportunity with Zunzi’s was miraculous,” said a clearly thankful LaFlower, “but starting my own business and being able to give other people that same opportunity is what I want to do.”
Dec. 2 marked the LaFlowers’ second wedding anniversary, and he credited A’Nia for her total belief in and support of his Bandana Burger dream. When she is not also in the kitchen at their new restaurant, she might be drumming up business just outside with her flow artist routine.
And when you walk inside their restaurant, LaFlower will be behind the counter and ask you, “How do you wear your bandana?”Bandana Burger (4525 Habersham St. in Habersham Village) plans to operate Monday through Saturday (12:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.).