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Catonsville native takes bite out of the burger business

It was love at first bite.

When Catonsville native Topper Person first put a hamburger from BGR: The Burger Joint to his lips, he knew he wanted to do more than work for the company that could create a sandwich that delicious.

Owning a franchise never crossed the Salisbury University graduate's mind, though, until he tasted the burger during his meeting with Ed Kelley, chief executive officer of the three-year-old company.

Person had scheduled a meeting with Kelley, his father's college friend, because he couldn't find a job after graduation, Person said.

"I inquired about a job with the Burger Joint. So I went and met with (Kelley) and got a burger there," said Person, who graduated from Salisbury with a business degree in 2009. "I loved the burger and decided I didn't want a job. I wanted to own one."

Person, now 24, opened the Burger Joint in Columbia in May, about a year after getting his franchise license with financial assistance from his parents, he said.

The year between purchasing the franchise license and opening the doors wasn't a period of rest and relaxation.

The 2005 Cardinal Gibbons High School graduate commuted about an hour every day to one of the Burger Joint locations in Washington to learn the business.

Person did everything from drop french fries into bubbling oil and flipping burgers to managing the store, Kelley said.

"His willingness to dive in, roll up his sleeves and learn the business from the ground up was very impressive," Kelley said. "He's always anxious to learn. He's like a sponge."

Kelley recalled an instance during Person's apprenticeship period when he managed a store in Arlington, Va., that was hit by a rush of customers.

"His ability to stand there in a storm and to treat everybody right and stay calm and collected, that's when I really knew," Kelley said of Person becoming the chain's youngest franchise owner. .

Person cited his family's history of entrepreneurship as one of the reasons he wanted to operate his own business.

His father, David, was 30 when he bought his first Jiffy Lube franchise with three partners and has owned franchises for 25 years.

His mother, Stacy, has worked as a bookkeeper and office manager for Jiffy Lube and does the same for Person's restaurant, he said.

"He's seen the rewards, emotionally and financially," David said. "Being your own boss, so to speak, your personality is shown in the business.

"He saw what it provides but also the hard work."

Person estimated that he works 50 hours each week, but his father said it likely was more, considering the meetings and administrative tasks he tackles outside the restaurant.

David never doubted his son's business sense, work ethic or determination when he decided to go into business for himself.

He did wonder if his son was too nice.

"I was a little concerned that he was such a nice person that he wouldn't be able to be forceful when he needed to be forceful," David said. "But he hasn't had a problem in any of those areas."

Besides a strange look or two from a customer expecting someone older after they ask to speak with someone in charge, Person said he has had no problems.

"Different people are at different levels at 24," Kelley said. "I know people who are 50 who are less mature than Topper."

"I kind of expected it," Person said of the looks. "I don't think it should matter what my age is, so long as I'm able to correct any situation."

Person added he has had few problems with his 15 employees after an initial period of high turnover Person attributed to finding the right personnel.

Person said noted his favorite part of the job is when customers rave to him about the food while the most difficult part is the unpredictableness of both customers and employees.

He already has ideas of expanding his business.

Person said he holds the franchising rights to several locations in the area and could start the process of opening another location next year, possibly in Bel Air or Towson.

The three-year-old company currently has 13 locations in seven states and Washington and several more scheduled to open, according to the company's website.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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