Denver-based hamburger chain Smashburger is the darling of the NYC burger blog world—Josh Ozersky and Serious Eats affiliate A Hamburger Today have sung the patties' praise with proper high-resolution photography and grease-spotted chins alike. Funny thing, there is no Smashburger in NYC—the nearest location is in far-off Montclair, N.J. It's far. I have no car and usually don't cross state lines for ground-beef creations.
I did get a chance to check out a newly opened branch in my hometown of Kalamazoo over Thanksgiving. I was sold, not only on the olive burger—Smashburger is known for offering branch-specific burgers; hat tips to regional favorites like the olive melt in West Michigan—but by the expertly seasoned patty, haystack-style fried onions (!!), and a general warmth and corporate savvy lacking at closest competitor Five Guys.
Jim Denburg was similarly bitten during a visit to Montclair. "It really wowed me," recalls the Manhattan resident. But as the owner of several Domino's franchises in the Tri-state region, Denburg wasn't like, "Wow, I should write about this on my Tumblr." He soon found himself in Denver meeting with corporate reps and has since signed on to open three locations in Brooklyn—with hopes of an April launch. Get ready! We caught up with him to talk locations and "non-competitor" Five Guys.
What was your first Smashburger experience like?
Up to that point I was not aware of the "better burger" segment—I was more familiar with the quick-service restaurant or going to a sit-down place. So this concept blew me away. And the milkshake was just sickeningly good.
Why open in Brooklyn?
The rents are really high in Manhattan. I'm kind of intimidated by them. Then I went to Brooklyn and was really impressed with the hustling and bustling, but with much lower rents. So I worked it out with the people in Denver to develop a multi-unit deal for Downtown Brooklyn. I have spent the last six months studying the market.
Explain how it worked with Smashburger corporate. Not just anybody can open a Smashburger, right?
They want to see if I have the experience—somebody with multi-unit experience in the restaurant business. They wanted to make sure I had a certain amount of capital and liquidity. And they wanted somebody who knew the area, which I did.
Smashburger is all about serving a "local burger" at each branch. What are some of the burgers you are considering for your Brooklyn branches?
I haven't made any decisions yet. I want to do a Brooklyner-type burger, and that I have not decided. You have any ideas?
New York has a long history with the steakhouse burger, between Peter Luger and Old Homestead and PJ Clarke's. Maybe work Luger's side of bacon in there?
And if we're brainstorming here, Brooklyn has this tremendous urban farming scene. So maybe use produce from one of those places.
I like that.
You're opening three locations! Where are you looking?
My territory is the downtown business district, so Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Fort Greene and the Atlantic Yards area. I think two can go into that area.
I speculated for a while that you were going to open on my block, at First Place and Court Street in Carroll Gardens. But that does not seem to be the case...
That spot you are referring to, no. I did not look at that spot. Is it a good spot? Because I will look at it.
Who are your key competitors?
People would consider Shake Shack and Five Guys. I don't know. I don't necessarily feel like Five Guys is a competitor. We are a step up in what we do.
Is Smashburger better than, say, Shake Shack?
I've learned in this business to not spend too much time thinking about the competition. I like to think about what I can control. My job is to have the best burger in Brooklyn and I think Smashburger is better, with our process of smashing and searing and seasoning it.
I don't know if you followed the opening, and shuttering, of the Arby's in Brooklyn. That made me sad.
I was not following that, but that's fine. It's what it is.
Photo by Ryan Muir