The Twin Cities Burger Boom

Common logic would suggest that this is no time to open a restaurant. The economy is tanking, news of layoffs comes through daily, and people are cutting back on spending to the bare essentials. Right?

Not so fast, a few restaurateurs say. There’s always room for burgers.

At least that’s what the founders of two soon-to-be Twin Cities burger establishments are counting on. Tom Ryan, the founder of Colorado-based Smashburger, and Phil Roberts, the co-founder of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, which is scheduled to debut its new Burger Jones restaurant concept this spring, believe it is the time and the Twin Cities is the place to bet on burgers.

“Why Minnesota? Why not?” asks Ryan, who, though based in Denver, owns a second house on Minneapolis’ Lake of the Isles. “Minnesotans are some of the most prolific, food-forward people around.”

Courtesy of Smashburger

Courtesy of Smashburger

Ryan launched the Smashburger concept just two years ago after noticing a gap in the $100 billion/year burger industry: Customers wanted more than the average McDonald’s burger but didn’t want to spend money on a sit-down restaurant meal. He designed Smashburger to have broad appeal, offering cooked-to-order, certified Angus beef burgers on bakery-style buns, for “burger lovers and the people who hang out with them.” The menu goes beyond fries, offering haystack onions, veggie frites (deep-fried carrots, green beans and asparagus), smashed chicken sandwiches and hot dogs, Häagen Dazs shakes, floats and malts and bottled beer and wine. Burgers start at $5, with the average check coming in just shy of $8.

“Smashburger fills a gap that fast food and Red Robin are not hitting,” Ryan says. “We’re a convenient and cost-effective way to have a good food experience. And we’re doing even better in the recession!”

The first Twin Cities Smashburger outpost is set to open in St. Anthony in May, and Ryan plans to eventually bring 30-35 locations to the metro area. Last fall, he hired Greg Creighton, a Minnesota native and former president of Leeann Chin, to oversee operations at new locations such as St. Anthony, and he has an aggressive approach to expansion nationwide. As far as Ryan can see, there’s no reason why Smashburger won’t succeed in the Twin Cities.

“We’ve made sure that Smashburger differentiates itself [among burger establishments] at every turn. Our level of service and our value is very distinctive,” Ryan says. “We have a great, great chance to win at our level, and it’s a level onto itself.”

Though the menu at Burger Jones will have a higher price point than Smashburger, Roberts has confidence that his “witty,” table-service burger bar, also scheduled to open in May, will follow the success of the other Parasole restaurants, such as Chino Latino, Salut and Figlio, which have been performing well despite the dampened economy.

“Our restaurants are doing fantastic. We’re in a fortuntate-enough niche that we’re going to be recession-proof,” Roberts says. “Our burgers aren’t going to be gourmet with foie gras. It’s a burger joint at the end of the day, and damn, they’re good burgers.”

Courtesy of Parsole Restaurant Holdings

Courtesy of Parsole Restaurant Holdings

Working with chef Andrew Suthers, who is moving from the W Minneapolis downtown to Burger Jones’ location in Minneapolis’ Calhoun Village Shopping Center, Roberts and his team are perfecting their menu of beef, turkey, salmon and veggie burgers cooked on a griddle. They’ve tested bun after bun to settle on a challah-type roll that will stand up to the hearty burgers, and customers can expect homemade pickles atop their patties. Fans of Salut’s famous fries, take note: you’ll find them at Burger Jones as well, along with sweet potato and waffle fries. And yes, you will be able to order a combo basket with all three and a selection of dipping sauces. Desserts are still up in the air, though Roberts is thinking about pie, but you can count on shakes and malts made from premium ice cream, including alcoholic frozen treats. The restaurant will also feature a full bar, though Roberts emphasizes its family atmosphere.

“We want Burger Jones to be approachable – guys in suits sitting next to guys in hard hats, sitting next to moms with kids,” he says. And with prices beginning at $7.95, he promises the burgers will be “terribly affordable and terribly good.”

And rather than worry about competition from Smashburger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, a Washington, D.C.-based franchise with an Edina location in the works, Roberts welcomes their entrance to the Twin Cities market.

“Smashburger and Five Guys serve really good burgers. They’ve really filled a need and people will be pleased with them,” Roberts says. “We will be a different experience. Burger Jones will be a little more saloony, a little more adult.”

So will burgers provide solace to Twin Cities diners stressing about the state of the world?

“People still want an experience. They need to be in a different world for a couple of hours,” Roberts says. “Maybe they didn’t go to Florida this year or buy a car, but by golly, they’re going out to eat.”

Bet your bottom dollar on burgers.

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Jill Lewis

The great-granddaughter of an Eastern European Jewish baker, Jill Lewis cannot escape her genetic predisposition to carbs. Her love of baked goods, wine, cheese and chocolate may not come in handy for her day job as a Twin Cities PR professional, but it proves infinitely helpful for her gigs as a contributing writer for The Heavy Table and the co-author of the Cheese and Champagne blog. A former resident of Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin and suburban Washington, D.C., Jill now lives with her husband, two young sons and cat in St. Louis Park.

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26 Comments

  1. Do the burgers start at $5 or $8? I see both prices written at different points in the article. I’ll give Burger Jones place a try regardless, but if the burgers start at $8, they aren’t much different from other burgers places around (Blue Door Pub comes to mind).

  2. Author

    The burgers at Smashburger start at $5 and the ones at Burger Jones will start at $7.95.

  3. I’ll check out Burger Jones & Smashburger…but the news that there’s a Five Guys coming to Edina is excellent. Just recently found out about the one in St. Cloud…was hoping they would come this way.

  4. With the exception of maybe Culver’s we are missing a burger chain place that has burgers for like $5 that you can pick up and go. I haven’t had smashburger, but in and out and five guys both do this right.

  5. “Minnesotans are some of the most prolific, food-forward people around.”????

    OK, and Smashburger isn’t an embellished fast-food burger served in a soulless strip mall environment by vacant, disinterested staff.

    Why is the foodie community so easily enraptured by the hype machine? The orgasmic tones in which we bloviate about and idealize yet-to-open restaurant concepts never lives up to the reality of these places.

  6. I’ve really enjoyed just about every post on this blog until this one, which reads like some kind of PR shrill crap copied from a press release.

    And really, how are these concepts substantially different from Fuddruckers? Or even a place like Matt’s Bar or the various burger joint bars that serve Jucy Lucys…

    It’s funny to see restaurant owners that think they have some kind of unique and new concept that’s been around forever.

  7. Yeah, I’m not sure how the Burger Jones concept is different from the myriad local burger establishments we have in the twin cities (nook, groveland tap, matt’s, 5-8, blue door, acadia, etc.) except for the fact that it’s owned by a restaurant group.

  8. I am betting on Roberts and team. Forget the hyperbole…those guys usually deliver

  9. i had Smashburger twice when i was in Denver over the holidays and it’s FANTASTIC

    i was actually hoping we’d get one someday, but never thought it’d be this year!

    wait until you try it folks, if you don’t like it then, fine, but don’t write it off just because it seems like a “press release”

  10. oh, and I had Five Guys in DC for the first time last summer, and also excited for that

  11. I had a burger at Five Guys in Madison a few months ago. Can’t wait for that. Does anyone know where in Edina this will be?

  12. Looks like Five Guys will be at Centennial Lakes in Edina, basically 73rd and France.

  13. FlashJack04/09/2009Reply

    Everybody seems to have their own way to reformulate an American Classic. Culver’s never really lived up to the hype, but maybe these guys can.

    The Five Guys in Saint Cloud was decent, but nothing to drive out of your way for, though I did the first time. Fries were fresh, but mushy and hard to eat after a few minutes.

    I work downtown Minneapolis, and have been wondering when my lunchtime burger spot (My Burger) will expand beyond the skyway. They hit that $5 price point.

  14. I Never Ceased To Be Amazed04/22/2009Reply

    At midwestern lack of taste. A hamburger, just about easiest thing cook. Stop by Kowalski’s / Lunds on the way home, get the grade of beef you desire, cooks in about 6 minutes. I get the idea that lettuce and tomato must be some fancy resturant product you don’t normally have at home.

  15. Quality: poor
    Price: very high
    Atmosphere: pretentious
    Customer Service: poor

    I have rarely (I don’t go back to those places) as dry a burger as their rarest burger.
    Not a good meat flavor.

    I had high hopes for a place with a little variety in an area with many single style food places. Applebees had variety and better food.
    A group of friends are at the lakes regularly and eat at various places. Unfortunately, the choices generally only have narrow types of food which makes it harder to find a place that is good for a group that might want some choices.
    I went to Burger Jones because most people will eat a burger and I saw a claim that they had good beer there. Boy was I disappointed.

    They are trying to give this place an upscale atmosphere and charge for it. It doesn’t work if the food is poor. $10 for a sub par hamburger doesn’t do it.
    They also need to have a few more good beers without charging more than the typical rate in the area.

    A person of some status above the server/waitress level came over and asked for my opinion. I told her but got the feeling that she actually did not care what I said. “hope you will be back soon” isn’t really an appropriate response to a customer that has complained about the food.

  16. Say what you want about the food (I thought it was good)but I thought the beer list rivaled any in town. Anyone that has the balls to put Delirium on tap gets my beer vote!

  17. RE: Burger Jones beer list.

    Yes, they have a couple of unusual ones on tap like D.T. and Strongbow (hard cider) but only a handful of beers.
    This is a very short list.
    Compare it to places like Stub and Herb’s, Mac’s Industrial (expect a lower bill for better food from either of them) or at a much higher level of food Barley Johns or the Muddy Pig.
    All of them have a more than twice as many good beers.

    I had the Strongbow because there really wasn’t a beer that I wanted or couldn’t get in many other places. If I was a fan of Belgians I would of had the D.T. since it is a wonderful example of the style.

  18. Bill,

    Either you are a big fan of domestic beers such as Coors Light and Budweiser or your just talking to talk. I won’t defend the food but I remember seeing beers such as Surly Bender, Rouge Dead Guy Ale and at least a dozen other great beers on tap as well as a very extensive beer geeks bottle list. Get your facts before sounding off and next time you are there ask for a black and white, there are not many places around that can pull that one off.

  19. Having heard much of the hype regarding Burger Jones, today was the day to see if it is true or not. NOT!!!

    Had a cheeseburger with cheddar. Very ordinary. Bun o.k.; burger o.k.; service quite good; onion rings quite good.

    Will I return? Not in this century. The hype is misplaced.

    Much better burgers in many places—-one is the Shortstop in Coon Rapids. No ambiance, but great burgers.

  20. A Smashburger is coming to Tulsa. Wish them best of luck as we have dozens of the best independent owned burger joints in a 5 state area.

    Wow, $5 Bucks for just the hamburger? Geezzz, sounds like you folks are getting ripped off big time. We get a 1/4 pound grilled Cheeseburger of prime beef, loaded with everything, pickle, onion, fried onion, lettace, tomato, mustard and mayo on a toasted bun. Plus a giant order around 30 6″ in length, of Hand Cut Fries, and a large 32 oz Drink with shaved ice here in Tulsa at our burger joint Freddie’s Hamburgers for $5.50 plus tax.

    Burger meat at the local butcher that is a combo of all the trimings made at the to order meat counter sells for 98 cents per pound if one chooses to make their own burgers at home.

    Hamburger buns are 79 cents for eight at the grocery store, and a bottle of mustard runs around 40 cents.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/34670403@N08/page4/
    Few other choices of Burgers in Tulsa…..

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