Talisin Burton was readying for his second deployment to Iraq when he returned home to upstate New York to attend an engagement party of his childhood buddy Chris Fox. The Marine Corps pilot was looking beyond this tour of duty however—thinking about a day when he would be his own boss.

“I always had this entrepreneurial thing in my head,” he says.

That night, while Chris was celebrating on the dance floor, Burton was talking about the future with Bob Fox, Chris’ dad, who together with his brother, owned a number of Wendy’s restaurants in and around Rochester.

“He gave me two hundred dollar bills and said if I brought them back safely he’d give me eight more. I carried [the bills] with me in Iraq. I thought I could use them as bribe money.” But, Burton says he never had to. Today the bills are framed as a reminder of that conversation, and Bob is his partner in a growing network of Dunkin’ Donuts shops in San Diego. Burton’s journey to entrepreneurship – through Rochester, NY, to Iraq and then to southern California – is one of several stops and starts. The Marine Major likens his career to a military sortie: a quick take-off, followed by a long flight, an attack, and then a return home.

A wartime career

Burton graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in May 2001 and accepted a commission as an officer in the Marine Corps, piloting helicopters. He chose Camp Pendleton as his base, wanting to trade the cold, gray skies of Rochester for the sunshine and blue ocean of San Diego. The son of “hippies from the 60s,” Burton wasn’t intending to be a wartime pilot, but that all changed after 9/11.

“It meant a wartime career, long deployments, which I wasn’t expecting, but was proud to be a part of,” he says.

After his deployments to Iraq, Burton became a flight instructor at Pendleton. Among the things he missed most from home was access to Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. “I couldn’t find a Dunkin’ anywhere and I wondered why,” he recalls. “It was always in the back of my head.”

While at Pendleton, Burton started looking into food service contracts for the base, thinking that would be the next stop on his journey to being his own boss and satisfying that entrepreneurial desire. Around the same time, he also enrolled in an Executive MBA program at the University of Southern California. For his master’s thesis, which he wrote as the Great Recession was bearing down on American businesses, Burton argued that Dunkin’ Donuts should expand into California.

“I wrote about why 2009 was right time for Dunkin’ Donuts to expand. While [businesses] were shutting down, Dunkin’ Donuts was fairly recession-proof and had a better price point than Starbucks,” he recalls. “I looked at [the brand’s] failures in the 1990s and why it would be better now.”

Armed with his thesis, Burton approached leadership at Camp Pendleton with a bid to operate a coffee business on base, while 3,000 miles away, Dunkin’ Brands was welcoming a new CEO on board, one with an eye on westward expansion.

“I did a good job of convincing the base they needed a Dunkin’ Donuts. Then, through emails and phone calls with the brand I felt I did a good job convincing them to make Pendleton the brand’s first new location in California.”

Pendleton, he says, was a perfect landing spot for Dunkin’ because it sits on land owned by the federal government and, as such, would not be bound by a California franchise agreement.

Dunkin’ opened the Pendleton location in May, 2012, but Burton was not chosen as the franchisee. Instead, the nod went to a franchise group called First Cup, LLC, which is based in Arizona. Disappointed, Burton continued his work as a pilot and flight instructor.

Partnerships and promise

Ryan Redmond founded Redline Surgical, a southern California medical device distributorship in 2007. Fresh out of the Marines, Burton took a job at a company that Redline distributes, and he and Redmond hit it off immediately—each trying to outperform the other. Two years later, Burton left the company to join Redmond. In their first year as partners, the pair grew the business more than 200 percent.

At that time, Dunkin’ Brands was seeking franchisees to develop the San Diego market. Burton shared his love for Dunkin’ – and his thesis – with Redmond, who agreed it would be a tremendous business opportunity. The pair had capital and business experience, but neither had been a restaurant operator. That’s when Burton made the call to Bob Fox, the man who had given him the hundred dollar bills and nourished his entrepreneurial spirit. Together, the trio earned Dunkin’s respect. In 2014, Dunkin’ Brands awarded Burton Restaurants LLC an SDA to develop central and southern San Diego.

“It really was Dunkin’s requirements that solidified our partnership. It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened. Without [Bob] and his guidance, this would have been infinitely harder,” Burton says.

Burton also sought the legal advice of a pilot he’d met on the first day of training and later worked with at the Camp Pendleton flight school after serving in Iraq. Greg Dono was a New York native who went to law school after his career in the Marines was over. During his studies, he was contacted by Burton and asked if he could help him work through the legal paperwork Dunkin’ Brands sent to its new California franchise group.

Dono was not only up to the task, he was also enthralled with the business and decided to put practicing law on hold in order to sell donuts and coffee. Dono became the first of four Marine Corps pilots Burton hired to fill senior management positions at his company’s Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants.

Soon after signing its SDA, Burton Restaurants opened a Dunkin’ Donuts at the Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego. The location was really just a coffee cart, just 17 feet long. But it was an instant success and it gave Burton his first taste of operating a Dunkin’. Around the same time, Burton sought out the owners of the Dunkin’ location at San Diego’s Embassy Suites and at Camp Pendleton. According to Burton, the franchise group First Cup had run into operational difficulties with its two San Diego locations, a result, he says, of the group’s out-of-town status. The location at Embassy Suites, Burton says, was failing because it was not being run properly. In 2015 Burton made a deal for the Camp Pendleton location and later purchased the Embassy Suites Dunkin’ franchise—taking ownership even as he and his group were still securing the location for their first stand-alone Dunkin’ Donuts shop.

A (very) visible sign

Since signing the development deal with Dunkin’ Brands, the Burton group thought carefully about where to locate its first true Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant. Because of his military background, Burton chose the suburb of National City, a community of 60,000 located in the South Bay region of the San Diego metro. National City is the second-oldest city in San Diego County and is home to many military and working-class families—a demographic Burton was certain Dunkin’ would appeal to.

“We knew the military community wanted Dunkin’ Donuts here. We were not introducing the brand to them. They know the brand. They know us (veterans) and they value our service and our products,” Burton says.

The franchise group selected a half-acre location at the end of an off-ramp from the busy 805 Freeway. The site was undeveloped and needed to be re-graded to account for its 18 degree slope, but it offered the chance for the Burton group to build a 2300 square-foot restaurant – with a drive-thru – from the ground up.

“We were patient in our decision-making,” Burton says. “We were last to the market; there isn’t another major brand that doesn’t have a presence in San Diego so we had to be creative. I believed in the site even with the challenges. There are 187,000 cars that pass by on the interstate every day.”

And, once they were finished everyone knew there was a Dunkin’ Donuts off the highway ramp.

“We have a highway sign that is 30-by-30-by-75. It’s 1800 square-feet of signage,” says Burton.

In fact, according to KNSD TV the NBC affiliate in San Diego, it is the largest Dunkin’ Donuts sign west of the Mississippi River. It’s been a huge attraction for a brand locals have long awaited. The local NBC television station reported 137 cars were stacked in the drive-thru on the shop’s first day opening.

“We broke the Dunkin’ Donuts North America revenue record for the first seven days we were open,” Burton says proudly. “We topped $156,000 that week. That’s a lot of donuts!”

As in most emerging markets, Dunkin’s sweets were outselling the coffee and beverages in San Diego.

“We targeted making 18 thousand donuts a day, and the only way we could keep up was by leveraging our relationships with other franchisees in southern California to help with the logistics,” Burton says. “We are all in this together.”

Market challenges
Because of Dunkin’s jaded history in southern California, and the competitive landscape, Burton knew he and his team would have to work extra hard to make their Dunkin’ an every-day part of their customers’ lives.

“There are 264 Starbucks in my territory,” Burton says, acknowledging the competition. “Yes, they are a factor, but we have chosen to embrace it.”

Burton’s team is trained – and armed with a cheat sheet – to instantly translate a Starbucks order, so the customer asking for a venti Mocha Frappuccino is told, “Okay, we will make you a large mocha Coolatta.”

Burton’s team also writes the names of the customer on the coffee cup. “Most people want that guest interaction,” he says. “Coming from the Marine Corps, one of our pillars was always service.

To accommodate the local coffee consumer – that Burton says has been “trained by Starbucks – customers at Burton’s Dunkin’ shop order at the counter and then move to a pick-up station to retrieve their beverage. Burton calls it a “reverse coffee line that is customer-driven.”

Beyond translating the customer’s order from Starbucks lingo, the Burton team also asks every customer that orders a “regular coffee” if they want the beverage black or with cream and sugar. Those who are familiar with Dunkin’ Donuts want their regular coffee light and sweet; those who are not, don’t.

“It’s a conversation that has to take place at the [point of sale],” Burton admits. That way confusion is averted and customers are happy. It’s a plan Burton and his team will follow as they open three additional stores this year.

Ultimately, he says, competing with Starbucks comes down to two things. First, delivering great products at a great price with great service; second, being involved in the community because “Starbucks is not locally owned, so it’s important we are involved locally.”

Community support

When you have a franchise group led by former members of the United States Armed Forces and a community whose demographics reflect a strong military connection, it’s no surprise that Burton and his partners have chosen to support organizations that support veterans and their families.

Each of the free-standing restaurants in the Burton group is dedicated to members of the military who have paid the ultimate price, whom Burton refers to as “fallen patriots.” Recently, the group dedicated the Camp Pendleton store to Captain Kevin M. Kryst, who was Burton’s roommate and was killed in the line of duty while both were deployed to Iraq. Each year on Kevin’s birthday, the restaurant donates a percentage of its revenue to the Armed Forces YMCA, the charity picked by his family.

“Dedicating the store to Kevin was something I will never forget. He loved coffee and would wake me up each Saturday with a new flavor, so it is fitting that his name be on the wall on the base where he spend most of his career,” says Burton. “Kevin’s name and plaque are a symbol of all of the service members we have lost through the years, they need to be remembered and honored and we are proud to be able to offer that venue.”

Burton Restaurants also supports is the Travis Manion Foundation, which empowers veterans and families of fallen heroes to develop character in future generations. Manion was a Marine First Lieutenant and Naval Academy grad, who was killed in Iraq in 2007 while attempting to save his wounded teammates.

And, the group supports ARTS, a San Diego based creative organization for youth. The acronym stands for “A Reason to Survive,” and it helps southern California youth who are facing adversity develop creative experiences to build hope and confidence.

The jump from active military to active franchise owner has been fairly smooth for this pilot, who became accustomed to rocky flights while serving overseas. Burton strongly recommends a career in QSR franchising for anyone considering life after the military. But, he’s quick to point out that it’s hard to go it alone.

“You need a mentor,” he says, referring to Bob Fox, the man who gave Burton those hundred dollar bills. “If you don’t have one, it’s hard to be successful.”