August 27, 2010

Time for Plan B – made-to-order burger joints

The smart restaurateur always has a Plan B filed away for activation in times of economic drought, when Plan A begins to wither on the vine. In Northern Colorado, the B stands for Barbecue – and Burgers.

The recent florescence of BBQ in the region has been well documented in this space. Purveyors of smoked meats seem to be holding their own, although the long-awaited Nordy’s in Old Town Fort Collins does not seem to want to open. Now it’s time for the custom hamburger joint to step up.

Back in the day – the mid-1990s – there were basically two places to sit down and eat a prepared-to-order burger in Fort Collins: CB & Potts and Charco Broiler. The Potts burger was and is enormous; the Charco Broiler version came garnished with fancy slices of raw carrot. In the last 15 years, the list of Potts’ burgers has grown to 19, and while Charco Broiler now offers 15, the carrots are gone.

Today, including the two perennials, there are no fewer than nine burger joints cooking in the fast-casual niche. In the small-chain-but-growing-rapidly category there are Five Guys Burgers and Fries from the East Coast, who boast “nothing ever frozen”; Culver’s from the Great Lakes region, home of the trademarked ButterBurger, where only the custard is frozen; and Denver-born Smashburger. The most recent Zagat fast-food survey named Five Guys the Best Burger in America, sending Ronald McDonald and the Burger King to the bottom of the top five.

Then there are Colorado’s own Big Al’s Burgers and Dogs; Stuft: A Burger Bar and Larkburger, which belong in the (almost) one-of-a-kind category.

Larkburger, the most recent entry in the burger-and-fries sweepstakes, arrived at the Corner of College Avenue and Drake Road in Fort Collins earlier this month. The upscale place is the offspring of Vail’s well-regarded Larkspur, Chef Thomas Salamunovich’s fine dining establishment that serves “couture cuisine that is both sophisticated and approachable.”

“The Larkburger was on the bar menu at Larkspur, and in the spring of 2005 we decided to do burgers,´ said Adam Baker, president and operating partner for Larkburger. “I was in fine dining management for 17 years, at Larkspur since 2000. I think that a high-quality burger place is just a better business model than fine dining.”

He explained that there are many moving parts to fine dining. Along with the talented cooks at the center of the operation, there is an extensive staff necessary to support the kitchen. The wait staff must be up to the food, a talent pool not necessary attracted to life in a ski town.

“In fine dining, the peaks and valleys are so extreme,” he said. “One night you might have 40 people to serve, on another 400.”

Baker opened the first Larkburger in Edwards, down the road from Vail, in 2006.

“It opened well, it did well, and it has grown,” he said. “We had opened our second Larkburger in Boulder when the economy really went bad, but given that our model was simple and our price point was user-friendly, the economy actually treated us very well.”

Next stops were the Denver Tech Center, where the restaurant draws from both a business population and high-end residential neighborhoods, and Fort Collins, another college town filled with burger eaters.

“We make good food,” Baker said. “We make everything here. People might make a lot out of our commitment to composting all our waste. That’s a given for us since we do create a lot of waste. But what really distinguishes us is good, fresh food.”

And judging by the line that wound around the block on opening weekend, the $2 introductory burgers – certainly prepared at a loss – won’t hurt either.

Although Larkburger is off to a good start, it does have competition. When owner Jake Fitzsimmons was re-evaluating his concept at Eliot’s Mess on College Avenue downtown, he decided that while his high-quality sandwiches did attract a lunch crowd, they didn’t do much for dinner.

“People don’t think of sandwiches as dinner,” he said. “They are lunch. But a burger is good any time.”

The Stuft concept is also easy to manage. Basically, there are two sizes of patty and three choices of bun – four, if you must count the lettuce wrap, and “no bun” doesn’t count. After that, diners build their own burger with toppings, a system first brought to town by sub franchise Which ‘Wich across from the Colorado State University campus. Easy.

Big Al’s on Mountain Avenue also goes simple. You can have anything on your burger as long as it’s lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles and cheese. The only burger spot without chain aspirations (being part of the Hot Corner Concepts family), also has a secret non-burger weapon: The Chicago Dog with absolutely authentic neon relish and sport peppers. Now that King Weenie is open, it’s dog-eat-dog downtown.

How well these Plan B restaurants do will depend on how one distinguishes itself from the others – and if Fort Collins can support them all. Meanwhile, there are some mighty good burgers there for the sampling.

Mother of invention

Speaking of invention in a time of economic dearth, how about putting two establishments – one a weekend special occasion place, the other a breakfast and lunch spot – under the same roof? Share the space, and the rent.

“We had a full kitchen left over from the Wildrock Cafe and Hooters before it,´ said Tad Buonamici, the idea guy for Neal Cashman who owns Times Square Dueling Piano Bar and Grill on College Avenue just south of Drake Road. “The only liquor license we could get was hotel/restaurant, and so we have always served food. But the piano bar is a special occasion place that is open only on weekend nights.”

Buonamici explained that the Gray family has for years run a breakfast and lunch cafe in Ault, serving mostly hungry farmers.

“The family was looking for a location in Fort Collins, and we had space available,” he said. “So now we have Gray’s Cafe at Times Square, open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day but Tuesday. And we have a kitchen that covers 40 percent of our rent.”

Wildrock should have been so clever.

By the numbers

The first quarter of 2010 seems so long ago, but the numbers for restaurant sales are just in. The data show a nice increase from the fourth quarter of 2009, which saw the lowest sales on record since 2007. Compared to the first quarter of 2009, El Paso County enjoyed the biggest growth, up 6.8 percent, while Weld County suffered the biggest loss, 4.8 percent. Larimer County was just flat, with a tiny increase of 0.9 percent. Maybe the second quarter will look better.

Jane Albritton is a contributing writer for the Northern Colorado Business Report. Her monthly column features restaurant and hospitality industry news. She can be contacted at jane@tigerworks.com.

The smart restaurateur always has a Plan B filed away for activation in times of economic drought, when Plan A begins to wither on the vine. In Northern Colorado, the B stands for Barbecue – and Burgers.

The recent florescence of BBQ in the region has been well documented in this space. Purveyors of smoked meats seem to be holding their own, although the long-awaited Nordy’s in Old Town Fort Collins does not seem to want to open. Now it’s time for the custom hamburger joint to step up.

Back in the day – the mid-1990s – there…

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