Boston has a burger obsession, for better or worse. Tony Maws, Michael Schlow, Michael Scelfo, and other Boston chefs discuss the origins of their burgers and the impact of burger popularity on their bottom lines.
"Do I really want to make this thing called a hamburger?" Tony Maws asked himself seven years ago. He was preparing to open Craigie on Main, the bigger, more centrally-located replacement for his 49-seat Craigie Street Bistrot, and that new location would have something the original Craigie didn’t: a bar.
"Our initial thinking was, ok, we’re probably going to serve the [regular] menu only in the dining room, and then we’re going to have a bar menu in [the other] room," Maws recalls. "And on that bar menu would be this thing called a burger. It seemed like if I was ever going to have one...but I fought with it, just with myself, internally. And this was before burger bonanza of the world. Some people did it; some people didn’t. But we decided that if we’re going to do this thing, this bar, maybe we should have one. And if we’re going to have a burger, it has to be awesome. What does an awesome burger look like?"
The hamburger is one of those conversations that’s like apple pie and chicken soup.
"For me," he continues, "the hamburger is one of those conversations that’s like apple pie and chicken soup — for anything that’s nostalgic, everyone has their own idea of what that burger’s supposed to be like. I knew I wasn’t going to make everybody in the world happy; there’s just no way. So I said I’m just going to block out the noise, and I’m going to make a hamburger that I would like to eat, and if people like it, great, and if they don’t, then I’ll deal with it. But I’m just going to make the burger that I would like to eat."
The burger was created, and the opening of Craigie on Main approached. But that was the fall of 2008. "The economy completely shit the bed. I’m opening up this restaurant in the middle of when the cover of the Wall Street Journal is saying the world is coming to an end; what am I going to do about this?" he wondered at the time. As a result, Maws and his team really started to think about just getting people through the door, "whether they’re doing tastings or not, a burger or not."
"I gotta pay the bills," he thought. "I gotta make sure this happens; I want people to be happy no matter what. Let’s just give them as many opportunities as we can to be those things — in the building and happy."
The restaurant opened, the burger went on the bar menu, and "it lived its own little life and gathered some steam" until one day it landed on the cover of Bon Appetit. "That made us really think: What is this thing called the hamburger, and what role do we want it to play at Craigie on Main?"
Across the river, the recession also played into Michael Schlow’s decision to put a burger on his menu at his now-defunct Financial District fine dining restaurant, Radius. "We had to do something for our lunch business," he recalls. "People were not going out to lunch as often, and we put the burger at the bar. Oddly enough, we started to feel the impact of the recession at Radius before it was sort of officially announced. I remember that in 2007, we started to say that something wasn’t right; people weren’t spending the same way."
The bar started to get quite busy once the burger went on the menu, and eventually Schlow had to put it on the regular menu as well because people in the dining room would ask about it when they saw it go by.
"At the end of Radius’ tenure, there were many, many days that we’d sell well over 100 hamburgers for lunch," he says, "and people would take them back to their office. People would have ‘Friday burger day.’ It was very flattering."
While the Boston burger climate wasn’t what it is today, packed full of burgers well over $10, Schlow and Maws weren’t the first to introduce a relatively pricey burger to their menus. As Schlow remembers it, the burger at The Bristol Lounge (inside the Four Seasons hotel) came first, and it was "always a dollar or two more than the Radius burger," which topped out at $19.
"We tried to make [the Radius burger] look great with a little copper pot of French fries and the homemade bun," Schlow says. "The price was really about not just sourcing all the great products but the labor that went into this thing, like making the homemade buns. It was an expensive burger to make, and we didn’t skimp on the quality of the meat; we weren’t buying some crappy, cheap meat. People would say, ‘It’s an expensive burger' — and then hopefully they would take a bite and say, ‘I’d pay for that.’ I hope the quality and the experience were there. Plus, you had Radius service behind it."
Real meat costs money. It just does.
Maws, on the other hand, doesn’t remember paying much attention to other burger prices at the time. "Most hamburgers in this world are cheap hamburgers," he says, "and I think that’s the crying shame of this whole thing. There certainly was a group of people who said, ‘Oh my God, Tony is offering this expensive burger. How can a burger be $18?’ That’s thankfully lost steam because more people are offering burgers in price points that are similar to that."
At Maws’ second restaurant, The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, a more casual spot that opened in late 2013, the burger is $16. "Every once in a while you still hear it," Maws says, with a tinge of exasperation. "People are like, ‘Wait, this kind of place should have that kind of burger.’"
"To me, bottom line, regardless of what the place looks like, regardless of whether there’s a tablecloth or not, and I feel very strongly about this: If you’re not actually going to buy a burger for $15 or more, then you shouldn’t eat it. You make your own decisions, and I pass no judgment, but you don’t want to know where that [inexpensive] beef came from; you don’t want to know how it was treated. If you want to put that in your mouth or your kid’s mouth, all the power to you, but don’t come near me. And I feel very strongly about that. Don’t come to me and say, ‘Your burger is $16!?’ If you buy real meat (from a real person) that doesn’t have hormones and doesn’t have antibiotics and wasn’t ground out of all the random crap on the floor, then real meat costs money. It just does."
In early 2014, Russell House Tavern alum Michael Scelfo opened his first solo project, Alden & Harlow, and his "secret" burger (not actually a secret — it’s listed on the menu) was an immediate success. But he wasn’t initially enthusiastic about serving a burger. At Russell House, he popularized an ever-changing "secret" burger that he promoted via social media, and he also served tens of thousands of regular burgers (on English muffin buns) during his time there. (At Alden & Harlow, there’s also a "secret secret" burger that changes weekly and is off-menu and promoted via social media.)
I would have been fine never seeing another burger again in my life.
"When the time came to do [Alden & Harlow], I knew I did not want to do a burger here, because quite frankly I sold so many burgers over there that I would have been fine never seeing another burger again in my life," Scelfo says. "Going into this, I wanted to take the things I had really wanted to do over [at Russell House] and gotten to do in smaller plate form and come over here; that’s kind of where this whole concept came from. But I also knew going into this that I didn’t want to be the type of person [who thought it would be] beneath me to do a burger, so I was going to do it. But I just wanted to do it a certain way."
Scelfo’s burger comes from nostalgia. Creating it was "a really romantic process of exploration," drawing inspiration from his grandmother as well as from childhood fast-food memories. "Most of the emphasis" of Scelfo’s burger development process was about getting the grind just right — he ended up with a very specific combination including a special, secret aspect he knew no one else was doing — and everything else was "all the things I love about burgers when I ate burgers," he recalls. "Everything comes from a personal place when I’m coming up with stuff."
For the bun, Scelfo says that he "definitely didn’t want to do a brioche, and I was pretty sure I never wanted to see an English muffin again in my life." He started thinking about how much he loved those butter-drenched country pull-apart rolls that come from the freezer section — and then he realized it was a classic Parker House roll he was picturing. Starting from that recipe, he experimented a lot, ultimately finding that a Parker House-style roll was too soft and absorbent, turning to mush when exposed to all the burger elements. But with some tweaking, he ultimately found a Parker-inspired bun that has some added elasticity and strength.
As for the pickles, Scelfo was "obsessed" with his grandmother’s when he was growing up, and those are precisely the pickles he makes today and serves on the burger. "I remember those from when I was seven, eight years old, my son’s age, going down into her basement — they were old-school Italians. They jarred and pickled everything that came out of the garden and worked through it all winter. It was really bad-ass."
The idea of the crispy cheese tuile was inspired by Umami Burger in Los Angeles, although Scelfo localizes it with Cabot clothbound cheddar. "It’s one of my favorite aspects to the burger, but in the beginning it was the most challenging ingredient, and it had to do with the fact that it had to be put on at the right time and in the right place," he says. If it’s put directly on the hot burger, it loses its crispness and gets "chewy and tacky, like a Jolly Rancher." A little higher up in the pile of toppings, and it gets soggy. Ultimately Scelfo and his team found that it needs to go all the way up at the top of the pile at the very last second.
And the rest of the ingredients? "It’s kind of like a Big Mac. I really love Big Macs; I grew up on McDonald’s and fast-food burgers," he says, "and I really love the onions, lettuce, Thousand Island vibe." For the sauce, he returns to a salad dressing recipe from the same grandmother. "It was basically ketchup, mayo, anchovy — and she used to buy the green cans of Kraft Parmesan cheese and dump a shitload of that in there. We grew up on that. We added some other stuff to it; we wanted to go a little bit more Caesar/Thousand Island hybrid, so we make an aioli, beef up the anchovy a little bit, add a couple other little ingredients here and there." One key to Scelfo’s burger: He brushes that sauce on the bun before grilling it (and then tops the finished burger with it as well).
The burger was an early success, quickly starting to appear on various lists here and there and constantly selling out. "I thought it was good," he says. "I didn’t think it was anything great. I mean, that’s how I feel about the place in general. I’m constantly surprised at how well the place has been received. I’m truly humbled by it. It’s a good burger, but I didn’t think it was going to be a ‘thing.’"
And then those little mentions turned to bigger mentions — Josh Ozersky, Tasting Table, Bon Appetit — "and it snowballed from there," he says. "I still don’t know if it’s good enough to get all that press, but it’s been a fun thing to do, and I like that we sell out of them. We know that from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. is our burger push; it gives us a really healthy first pop for the night. We hit the ground running every day with this kind of built-in burger audience, and then they’re gone, and we focus on the things we’re excited about at the moment, which is our constantly-changing menu and the cocktail program and stuff like that."
While Maws, Schlow, and Scelfo all express gratitude (and a little bit of bewilderment) for the business their burgers have brought over the years, there can be downsides to having an ultra-popular dish, particularly if it’s at a significantly lower price point than the rest of the menu.
"Look, here’s the thing," says Maws. "Restaurant economics — we could talk an entire semester about it — but to boil it all down, you build a restaurant, and it’s all a big spreadsheet formula. It all has to add up to something that is successful. People don’t like to talk about that, or the public doesn’t always seem to understand. They don’t want to hear my bitching and moaning about whether we make money or we don’t. All I can tell you is we don’t, and it all has to add up, and if it doesn’t add up, then I don’t get to do this. So I built Craigie on Main, and we said, ‘We’re going to be a restaurant that is our version of fine dining, and it’s going to have these tasting menus, and that requires this equipment and this amount of people to do it, this labor, this overhead, this rent, all these different things.’ And you add that all up so that I can cook that food. That’s the food that I wanted to cook there and the people wanted me to cook there."
Well, then I'm going out of business, flat out.
"If I take that and then I only sold hamburgers," he continues, "which at Craigie on Main is a huge, dramatic difference in check average ($19 compared to what you would pay for a tasting menu [$98 and up]), and that’s all I sold? Well, then I’m going out of business, flat out. It’s a huge hit. Now if I were a restaurant that was focusing on the hamburger, then I would build that restaurant economically to support that. We didn’t build Craigie on Main to do that."
"We said, ‘Look, we have this thing that people like. Let’s make as many as our suppliers can supply for us.’ That was absolutely part of the equation. We tried to work with some other meat when there was a big demand, and it just wasn’t the same burger, so I didn’t want to do that. We had to look at it economically and see what we could support. There’s a line out there at 5:30, and I knock on wood every day that they’re coming in to spend two-and-a-half hours eating multiple courses, because that’s what that restaurant is about. If I sold too many burgers, I wouldn’t be able to do that."
Over at Alden & Harlow, the burger matches up a little more easily with the price point of the overall menu. "I think once you get even a dollar above where we are, the expectations change dramatically for people," Scelfo says. "I did a lot of research as to what people were charging locally for their burgers and where I felt ours fit in that spectrum, and I was really conscious about pricing it at the spot it’s at right now [$16] and leaving it at that spot. Short of some weird situation in the marketplace that I can’t control, I can’t see myself ever having to change the price of it."
"And it doesn’t really hurt check average so much," Scelfo continues. "We tend to find that people don’t just come in for a burger and leave; they definitely explore other parts of the menu. I think we’ve done a good job of proving that we’re about way more than just burgers, and it’s always made me very happy that people prefer to talk about vegetables when they talk about Alden. So to have a great burger but be first and foremost a kind of place where people focus on vegetable execution and the lack of pretension that people get at this place, all that stuff is really important to me. I don’t bum out too much about the burger."
The sudden popularity of a single labor-intensive item like a fancy burger can also be a burden on the systems that are in place, from prep space to service.
"We didn’t build that kitchen to produce massive amounts of hamburgers," says Maws, referring to Craigie, "so it all has to fit together to make it what it is," down to details like the choice of fry that accompanies the burger.
At Radius, the burger’s popularity caused a sharp increase in to-go business, unusual for a restaurant at that level. "People weren’t calling up for, like, torchon of foie gras to go," Schlow laughs. "We’d do a little bit here and there, but it was very rare [before the burger]. My former partners and I, we really thought about how we could make a to-go business out the back door somehow, but it just ended up not being possible based on how the building was situated. But I’d say if we did 100 burgers, 20 of them were usually to go. That’s a lot for a fancy restaurant. I loved it."
We weren't set up as a burger restaurant, obviously.
"We weren’t set up as a burger restaurant, obviously," he continues, "and we really tried to think about how we could do that volume of burgers and French fries — and how we could do them really well if somebody wanted them to go. There’s nothing worse than a cold, soggy French fry, so we came up with all these ideas and different ways of wrapping things so that when you got the burger, I hope that people felt that it was almost as good as having it there."
While Maws and Scelfo first realized their burgers had become a "thing" due to press, the turning point for Schlow came in the kitchen. The chef at the time, Patrick Connolly, was "muttering something under his breath about ‘the damn burger.’ I asked him what was the matter," Schlow recalls, "and he told me to go look in the walk-in. There were just sheet trays and sheet trays and sheet trays of burgers formed, and I think that’s when I knew — holy shit, what did we do here? Was it going to turn into Radius Burger & Beer?"
But Schlow embraced it, and he and Connolly shared the attitude that they never wanted to run out of anything, not even the burgers. "We hated the idea of something being written on the menu and not being able to offer it," he says.
Maws and Scelfo, on the other hand, are set in their limits (18 at Craigie, 30-40 at Alden & Harlow). While the quantity isn’t quite as limited at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, the burger still runs out occasionally. "I don’t want to serve today’s hamburger tomorrow, same as I don’t want to serve today’s fish tomorrow or today’s pork chop tomorrow," he says, "so we come up with our orders as best as we can, and sometimes we’re right about it and sometimes we’re wrong. I can’t always predict what everyone’s fancy is on any given night, and that’s part of the game. It seems to ruffle people’s feathers for some reason [when the burger or other items run out]. But you wouldn’t like me to be the restaurant that just has random stuff in the freezer that I can just keep pulling out. That’s not what we do."
I've had people literally yell in my face and threaten me with all sorts of online madness over these burgers.
As for Scelfo, he has seen the lack of a burger bring out the worst in customers. "I’ve had people literally yell in my face and threaten me with all sorts of online madness over these burgers," he says, "but we just smile and apologize and tell them to try again next time, explaining that they go early, and that’s kind of it." While some people assume that the limit is a gimmick meant to build hype, that’s "the furthest thing from the truth," says Scelfo. "If nothing else was selling, and I only sold burgers and this place was empty by 6 p.m., I would sell nothing but burgers for survival alone. It’s just not the case."
For some other chefs in town, burgers can be fun, but they’d rather people order something less familiar. At Bronwyn, chef/owner Tim Wiechmann introduced the "Bronburger" a while back — a local, grass-fed beef brisket/beef leg/bacon patty, topped with Emmentaler cheese, ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, and a sliced pickle, served on a pretzel bun. But it quickly came back off the menu; now, it’s a bit of a secret, and only five are generally available per night. Wiechmann hopes that instead of defaulting to a familiar item, diners will be open to newer, more experimental dishes.
"An upscale burger allows for a lot of fun in terms of meat selection, artisanal baking, first-rate condiments," says Wiechmann. "But yes, we limit the number of ‘secret’ burgers we have, as it’s not our mission to be a burger restaurant."
At Puritan & Co. in Inman Square, chef/owner Will Gilson was initially adamant about not having a burger on the menu, but he recently added a patty melt (which, arguably, is still not technically a burger) at brunch and at the bar. "In my last job, when I was running Garden at the Cellar, [the burger] was a necessity to basically make our revenue," he says. "The environment was more conducive to it [than Puritan & Co.], but what started to bother me towards the end of my time there was that we would be sourcing amazing, responsibly-raised, antibiotic-free, free-range products, and we would painstakingly make something, and people would come in and say, ‘That’s awesome...I’ll have the burger.’ I think the thing that’s frustrating as a chef of a fine-dining restaurant is that you want to make sure that you still have the ability to enjoy a burger without feeling as though it’s a necessity for a revenue stream, because it becomes a very easy, accessible, pedestrian choice for people to make when they look at a menu they don’t understand."
"Cost-wise, there are restaurants that have most of their entrees in their high $20s, mid $30s, and then at the bottom of it is a burger for $16, and someone’s like, ‘Ok, I’ll get that today,’" Gilson continues. "It’s totally fine; I enjoy a good burger. But we just wanted to make sure that we didn’t run into the same issue here. If we didn’t need to do it to get people in the door, then we didn’t want to do it. I think that we held out pretty long, and we still won’t serve them at dinner time in the dining room."
Now, the patty melt is often the first or second most popular item on the brunch menu, and its popularity comes in waves at the bar, where it’s not listed on the menu. "It just one of those things where you want people to come up to the bar and ask about it," Gilson says. "I don’t like the whole idea of it being a secret burger; it’s just one of those things you have to know about."
Like Scelfo, Gilson drew on the past to create the patty melt; it’s a "throwback" to Friendly’s. "I liked the childhood nostalgia of going to Friendly’s with my dad and getting a melt, and it was always fun," Gilson says. "It was a different way of eating a burger than the more common or mundane ones that you would see."
River Bar’s executive chef, Patrick Gilmartin, was also reluctant to put a burger on the menu at first. "I knew once I put a burger on the menu that it would outsell everything else," he says. "Once we came up with a burger that fit our style and showed off all the same uniqueness we strive for, it became a source of pride to me to sell as many of them as we do." (Gilmartin’s burger, served on a local Stone & Skillet English muffin, is topped with bacon spring rolls.)
Despite the occasional angry customers who miss out on limited quantities of burgers, despite check average issues and the simple fact that their restaurants weren’t built to handle massive amounts of burgers, despite burger-obsessed headlines sometimes overshadowing all of the other hard work the chefs put into dishes that mean more to them, Maws, Schlow, and Scelfo have only good things to say about the popularity their burgers have achieved.
I love making people happy and bringing them in the door any way we can.
"I’m glad people like it," Maws says of his Craigie burger. "If there’s a nice little line outside of the door at 5:30, I think that’s awesome. I love making people happy and bringing them in the door any way we can." He concedes that it was difficult dealing with the initial explosion that came from that Bon Appetit cover. "We weren’t a restaurant that was going to produce unlimited burgers, and dealing with the PR that came along with that and people’s responses — that was a lot of work. But I think it was a good problem to have. Look, at the end of the day, I’m a pretty fortunate guy. I’ve been very lucky that they’ve talked about a lot of the food that we’ve cooked at both Craigie on Main and Kirkland, and I’m not going to ever complain about that. It could be way different, and it hasn’t been."
As for Scelfo, he doesn’t let it get him down when people just want to eat burgers. "I think it’s a good burger; it’s not a knock on my ego to see burgers go out," he says. "I know how much people love them."
And at Radius, Schlow certainly had his non-burger "personal favorites" on the menu, but his main goal was just for "the guests to be happy," even if that meant they were ordering burgers and ignoring everything else. "What made me so proud of that burger," he said, "and I tell the cooks this all the time: It doesn’t matter what dish we’re making. When you have somebody crave something, you should take real pride in that. They may know that they’re going to have the burger before they ever walk in the door. It’s like Hamersley’s chicken. People knew they were going to have Hamersley’s chicken before they ever got to the restaurant. They knew it a week before when they made the reservation. So there’s pride in that, that you’ve created something people crave. I think that it brought new guests in."
Even though Radius is no more, Schlow brings back his burger now and then for special events at Via Matta and Tico, and one day it could live again in a more permanent space. "If there’s one overriding social media message that I get over and over again," Schlow says, "it’s ‘When are you going to bring back the Radius burger?’ We’ll find the right location to build someday, but it’s got to be the perfect location. That’s a tough business, the burger business. We’re not Shake Shack or one of those big chains. You have to do real volume for it to be worthwhile, so if I found the right location, I’d do it. I wouldn’t make some big burger hall — it’d be something small enough, [good for] a date night. ‘What are we doing? Going to the movies? Getting a burger.’ That would be a fun project."
"Our whole company has always been about that," he continues. "Whether it’s successful or not. Happy’s and Barrio weren’t successful; I’m not embarrassed to talk about them. It hurts that it didn’t resonate, but we’re always trying to do something that’s a balance of creativity and community. You look at a place and say, ‘What does this area need? What would this area like?’ We thought we were correct, and we were wrong. But then you look at Radius, where we were in the Financial District almost 17 years ago, and I remember people saying that I was crazy. ‘You’ll be home at 8 p.m. No one’s going to eat dinner in that location.’ It was great to prove them wrong and to be so successful for so long. I’d love to see a restaurant like that built some place great again. I wouldn’t make it as big; that’s the only thing. A smaller, modern-day version of that."
They all have names in my mind, all these things I want to do.
Scelfo, too, could see burgers in his future. He loves to do "a spin" on "things that are personal" (like his upcoming Naco, a Central Square taqueria slated to open in May). "I have so many things like that that I would love to be able to do at some point. I’m obsessed with pizza, and I would love a chance to just do a pizza joint at some point. I already have a name for it in mind. They all have names in my mind, all these things I want to do. And burgers are another. Alden was one, and hopefully there will be others."
(As for Maws: "I’m not thinking about any other restaurants, are you kidding me?" he laughs. "I’m thinking about tomorrow. Taking my son to hockey, and I’m his baseball coach. And running two restaurants.")
In the eight years since the birth of Schlow’s and Maws’ burgers, Boston’s burger obsession has only grown. Numerous chains are pushing into the area, and restaurants at all price points are offering burgers, whether they’re an integral part of the menu or a whispered special.
But the burger is not cyclical.
"Everything’s cyclical," comments Schlow, thinking about how today everyone’s about "sharing and small plates," which will eventually go out of fashion before coming back around. "But the burger is not cyclical," he continues. "Burgers will be around the same as pizza; they’re never going to go out of fashion. I don’t care how many health reports come out. All the people that say ‘I’m not eating any gluten’ — for a burger, they’ll eat gluten (if they’re not celiac, obviously)."
"I do find it funny," says Maws, "and it’s just funny — no regret, no nothing, but ironic maybe, humorous certainly — that after 12, going on 13, years of being a chef in Boston, I’m still being interviewed for a hamburger. And you know what? If in five years, that’s still the conversation, so be it."