"Would you like fries with that?"

That question has often been a derisive punch line pointed at aimless graduates. But Smashburger is proving that restaurant jobs are nothing to sneer at. Over the past three years, the Denver-based franchiser has created nearly a thousand jobs, bringing its total employee count to 1,393. It has done so in large part by giving talented workers ample opportunity to move up the ranks--and even travel overseas.

Since its founding in 2007, Smashburger has emphasized promoting employees from within. "Culturally, we're trying to create an environment with a lot of growth, where people can get ahead very quickly," says David Prokupek, the company's CEO. Meeting that goal begins with a rigorous vetting process for franchise owners, particularly in new markets. The company only awards franchises to people with previous experience owning and operating restaurants. Those owners are then entrusted with building teams for their locations, including general managers and assistant managers.

Front-line employees at Smashburger are evaluated just as thoroughly as upper-level managers. The company has developed a hospitality index for evaluating potential hires in its restaurants. It measures, for instance, how well candidates can execute detailed menus and handle the stress of a high volume of orders. The company prides itself on rating equally high for service as for food--a feat Prokupek says is rare in the food industry. Employees who hit high benchmarks are eligible for bonuses, which the company calls Smash Cash.

Talented employees, of course, are usually hungry for additional opportunities. Prokupek seeks to demonstrate that restaurant management can be a rewarding, long-term career. "It's a career path in which you can do very well financially," he says. Smashburger offers multiple ways for its restaurant staffers to move up. In addition to managers who oversee individual franchise or corporate-owned locations, the company also employs district managers, who are responsible for several restaurants within a region. The district managers report to the corporate office and apprise the company on developments within each of its markets. 

Some restaurant managers move to cross-functional teams within the company's innovation group. There, they work with staff members from operations, technology, and marketing to test out new ideas for Smashburger's 181 locations. For instance, innovation group members developed a new system for the company's restaurant in Brooklyn to begin offering delivery service.

Yet other exceptional managers move on to training roles, in which they help to orient staff in newly established locations. This function, says Prokupek, has become especially important as Smashburger expands internationally. This year, the company has opened restaurants in Kuwait and Canada, and it plans to establish locations in Costa Rica and Panama next year. For its restaurants in Kuwait, Smashburger tapped two managers from its restaurants in Denver to go abroad to train employees. "They got to leave home and live in a different part of the world," Prokupek says. "It's an opportunity they might not get somewhere else."