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Upscale New Zealand burger chain coming to US

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Inside the headquarters of BurgerFuel Worldwide is a spray-painted mural of a skull wearing a combat helmet emblazoned with the slogan “Born to Grill.”

Executives at BurgerFuel, a New Zealand fast-food chain, say the image — a takeoff on the film “Full Metal Jacket” — reflects the company’s attitude. This year, BurgerFuel, a relatively small player, is undertaking an ambitious expansion plan in the crowded US market through a partnership with Subway restaurants.

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The partnership is unique, according to BurgerFuel’s group chief executive, Josef Roberts. “I don’t know of anyone else who’s got this sort of opportunity to hitch their wagon to such a huge freight train,” he said.

Subway is the world’s largest fast-food chain by number of stores, with revenue of $12.05 billion in 2012, according to the research firm Euromonitor International.

BurgerFuel is small fry, with about $10.3 million in revenue in its 2013 annual report.

BurgerFuel hopes to use Subway’s scale in the United States by signing up some of its franchisees to open BurgerFuel stores. The company has been taking registrations from interested Subway franchise owners.

BurgerFuel began selling burgers in 1995 with a single restaurant in Ponsonby. Since then, it has expanded to 57 outlets in New Zealand and overseas.

The burgers are marketed as having high-quality ingredients, including fresh vegetables and aioli sauce, New Zealand beef from grass-fed cows, and vegetarian options. Recently the company announced it would use only free-range chicken in its New Zealand restaurants. And although Roberts said he could not commit to doing the same in the United States, he said attracting ethical and health-conscious consumers was important.

“We don’t upsize,” Roberts said. “We’re not about filling up a liter of Coca-Cola to go with the product; you know, I’d much prefer people to have a bottled water.”

He added, “We’re about not wanting to put out a regret meal; it’s really about a meal that you can go in and you can feel good about.”

The United States presents challenges for BurgerFuel. The fast-food business is crowded, with 256,000 outlets, according to Euromonitor International figures from 2012, the most recent data available.

Elizabeth Friend, a senior research analyst at Euromonitor International, said there was still room in the upscale hamburger industry, which BurgerFuel is aiming at. But she said the company would have to distinguish itself from brands like Five Guys and Epic Burger.

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