Pair of local restaurateurs hit the road on a cross-country epic journey with a simple mission: find the best burger in the Lower 48.
Ken and Dan Bothman’s hamburger odyssey kicked off in Columbus, Ohio, touched down in 12 cities across the United States and Canada and spanned more than two years.
In Manhattan alone, the restaurateurs who own La Fiamma Wood Fire Pizza sampled burgers at more than 27 hamburger joints pulsing with lines of hungry customers and emitting beefy smells.
They gleaned elements of America’s best burger joints in an effort to create the perfect burger eatery here in Bellingham. They gathered a collection of experience they’ll serve up affordably and without frills to the masses at Fiamma Burger on Railroad Avenue this fall, after a long and sometimes arduous journey in addition to their tasting travels.
The two began tossing around the Fiamma Burger idea almost immediately after opening La Fiamma in 1998. The restaurant’s continual, consistent success and profitability, along with Ken and Dan’s business plan to diversify, got burgers on their brains. According to the Bothmans, Bellingham lacked a burger place the self-admitted foodies wanted to nosh at.
“We felt there wasn’t that burger joint that Bellingham could think of as its burger joint,” Dan said.
They knew they didn’t want to open a gourmet-burger restaurant; that was Bob’s Burger & Brew’s turf, and they definitely knew they didn’t want a typical fast food-type establishment. They wanted an all-natural burger place.
And even though Ken admits he’s not a big burger-eater, he said they started calling this fantasy business “Fiamma Burger,” like an unborn child whose tentative name sticks.
“I would say to myself, ‘Fiamma Burger,’ and I’d go, ummm, yum, and I didn’t even know what it was,” he said. “We hadn’t even made one yet, but just the idea of a ‘Fiamma Burger’ sounded really good.”
Two years ago, they began to seriously contemplate the idea.
“Really early on I’m thinking, ‘Oh cool, it’s burgers, this’ll be easy. We already have a full-service restaurant, and its really complicated with a full menu and everything — and we’re thinking, burger shop. Wow. What’s to it?’” Ken said. “But then we had to actually spend a year figuring out how to make a burger that’s really, really good…”
“But still just the bare-bones, most basic burger you can imagine,” Dan finishes.
“You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a
navigator uses stars.”
— Charles Kuralt, CBS journalist
“I’m an obsessive researcher, so I scoured out all the burger joints in the places we were going and read all the hamburger blogs,” Dan said.
|BURGER NATION: The Bothmans didn’t limit their research to just New York City. Their cross-country jaunts, done over the course of two years, included 12 other cities, from Vancouver, B.C. to New Haven, Conn.|
The Bothmans get focused when it comes to business ideas. For La Fiamma, they vacationed in Naples, the venerated birthplace and mecca of pizza, for inspiration. This time, they zeroed in on North America, and with guidance from blogs such as burgerclub.org and ahamburgertoday.com, pilgrimaged to 12 cities, including Los Angeles, New York City, Minneapolis, and Chicago (see map, page A14). Many places they visited were for pizza expos or already-planned vacations, and the two simply added a burger-tasting component to their trip.
Seattle’s Red Mill Burgers, which boasts burgers devoured by famous fans such as Meryl Streep and James Earl Jones, was their initial inspiration.
But along they way, Ken said, they discovered most of the burgers they tasted were, in a word, awful. Burger tasting proved a herculean and sometimes stomach-turning task. Unless the burger was exceptional, they’d only sample a quarter of one at a time.
“After one full day of eating burgers I was practically crawling on the sidewalk,” Ken said. “We were in SoHo, Manhattan, and there was one of those upscale salad lunch places and I just heard this ‘ahhh’ (cue Ken’s imitation of a religious revelation song) and I walked in there and had this huge salad. I could just feel it going through my blood, I needed it so bad.”
The most successful joints were tiny, nondescript spaces that just made really good burgers for long lines of sidewalk-bound customers, and Ken and Dan took note.
One of their favorites, Shake Shack in New York City’s Madison Square Park, sells hamburgers for $3.23 and “taxi dogs” for $2.54, as well as sundaes and custard.
Shake Shack’s owner and chef, Danny Meyer, owns several upscale New York food destinations, including Union Square Cafe and Blue Smoke, and Ken said he admired Meyer’s business philosophy of never having to walk more than five minutes between any of his restaurants.
“That’s the idea of finding your place and digging in deep,” he said.
On another excursion to San Francisco, the two discovered they preferred grills, or griddles as Dan expertly elucidated — just one of the many burger terms he’s collected in the past two years — over char-broilers. That’s $30,000 they’ve since spent on a state-of-the-art griddle.
Then they discovered that freshly baked buns were the only answer. That’s $25,000 more they’ve spent on a bun oven.
Later, they realized they liked the texture of loosely-formed patties and therefore had to have a special patty machine that shapes the burgers and keeps the patties juicy. That’s $6,000 more out of their pockets.
“Its critical to know as much as you can,” Ken said. “It’s a science. It forms the basis of your food.”
“Looking hard for a drive in, searching for a corner café, where the hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.”
— Chuck Berry, “Back in the USA”
Interspersed with Ken and Dan’s search for the perfect burger was their quest for its perfect future location.
The two spent six months in negotiations with the Gateway Building’s developers, but the deal fell through last spring.
While disappointing, Dan said the experience was a valuable exercise in planning and design, an experience they transformed into their mobile burger unit — a bright orange concession trailer embellished with a space-age dog logo.
“When the Gateway building fell through, we had all this momentum and a huge buzz going…” Dan said.
“Well, and then Dan bought (the mobile burger unit) on eBay,” Ken finishes with an eye roll. “I got an e-mail from him and he was like, ‘um, I think I bought a trailer in Tulsa, Oklahoma’.”
The business partners share a moment of what appears to be an amused remembrance of this past annoyance and laugh about it.
They used Dan’s spontaneous purchase at last summer’s Farmers Market season, slinging their new burger recipe and using the time to experiment with how to make and market the Fiamma Burger, breaking Farmers Market vendor-sales records — actually doubling them — while they were at it.
They had to employ “line calmers” and order takers to assuage the up to 50 customers wanting to try the Fiamma Burger, Ken said.
It was hard work — at the time, La Fiamma was at capacity, so Ken and Dan had to prep for the burger unit’s menu at odd hours when the restaurant was closed, sometimes midnight, sometimes 5 a.m.
From the experience they learned that narrowing Fiamma Burger’s menu to a simple six items worked.
“People love cheeseburgers, that’s mostly what we sold,” Ken said. “So why have 15 things on the menu when 80 percent of your business is going to be one item.”
The mobile-burger-unit experiment also gave them the confidence to continue pursuing a larger venue.
“If we could sell 200 burgers per hour from a trailer, we knew it would work,” Ken said.
“Everyone has a right to a university degree in America, even if it’s in Hamburger Technology.”
— Clive James, essayist
The Station Pub, a longtime fixture of the Railroad Avenue bar scene, closed in August 2005, when the Washington State Liquor Control Board withdrew its license after the pub received four violations between October 2003 and December 2004. The LCB had received numerous other complaints about the pub from citizens, local business owners and police.
Ken and Dan seized the opportunity, and bought the building last winter for $400,000, a figure they said seemed overpriced but worth it, especially considering the work they’ll put into it. Their engineer used an expletive during the walk-through and everyone else told them to just tear it down and build anew.
But Ken and Dan did not want to be in the development business, and said they’ve been able to do the renovation for less than it would have cost to rebuild. They began work on the building in November and hope to complete it by this fall. The entire price tag for the building’s purchase and renovation will be approximately $1 million.
The location seemed fitting because of what Ken said was their holistic business approach to help revitalize downtown, which in turn translated into a boon for their restaurants. In fact, the two likened the situation to their decision to move into La Fiamma’s current building on Railroad, which was fairly dilapidated when they first considered it.
|ALL IN THE NAME OF RESEARCH: Ken and Dan Bothman, in preparation for the opening of their own burger eatery, Fiamma Burger, ate their way across the country, tasting as many burgers in as many far-flung locations as they could stomach. The two are also co-owners of La Fiamma; Fiamma Burger is set to open on Railroad Avenue, in the former Station Pub site, this fall.|
“It’s the same thing with this Railroad building. It was a terrible blight for downtown,” Ken said.
When Dan moved to Bellingham in 1991, he said the block was full of seedy taverns and card rooms.
“The bad guys took over and they were drawn to (Railroad Avenue) for good reason, because no one else was there. And as you add — it’s a proven fact — more desirable activities, then those guys don’t want to be around kids and families,” Ken said.
Fiamma Burger will add a more modern, urban element downtown, accenting what Mallard Ice Cream has accomplished nearby, they said.
Ken and Dan both said they feel that Fiamma Burger will represent what is good about revitalization without gentrifying the area, and will be accessible and affordable to everyone, Ken said.
“Hey, if you can panhandle $4, you can buy a Fiamma burger. You can’t be drunk or disorderly in there, but we’ll take your money,” Ken said.
While Ken acknowledged downtown is getting more expensive, he insisted hip things are still happening there.
For instance, on a recent mid-July jaunt to rent movies from Film Is Truth, Ken said he encountered an outdoor concert at the Depot Market Square, and live music at both Wild Buffalo House of Music and Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro — a thriving, happening scene, in his opinion.
“When two or three of the more hip music venues close in a year, people kind of freak out, because we’re known for our music scene. But I think they’re going to find a place for (the music scene) and it’s going to shift,” he said.
“Loneliness and cheeseburgers are a dangerous mix.”
— Matt Groening,
creator of "The Simpsons"
The Fiamma Burger voyage seems to have rounded its last corner; Ken and Dan can see the end point through lenses polished and honed by savvy burger-tasting skills and perseverance.
They’ve had help from a business consultant; interior, exterior and kitchen designers; architects; their contractor; and, of course, burger makers and bloggers across the country.
They’re satisfied with the end result.
The basic Fiamma Burger … drum roll … will consist of a freshly baked egg bun, stuffed with an all-natural Misty Isle Farms beef burger blended with secret seasoning salt to subtly broaden the flavor, stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes and onion and smeared with secret sauce, topped with cheddar-jack cheese (if preferred), for $5 to $6.50.
Fiamma Burger will also sell an Isernio’s brand chicken burger with the same fixings, a veggie burger made from scratch (rice, oats, vegetables, soybeans and 11 secret herbs and spices), as well as french fries, onion rings and milk shakes.
“We’ve done a burger which is still a burger. It’s not health food, but it’s just high quality, made from scratch and using all-natural beef, and what we’ve found is there’s a huge market for people that are just kind of starved for this burger because they’ve been sort of shut out by fast food,” Ken said.
“They want to eat a burger they can kind of feel good about, even though it is like a million calories and grease and all that kind of stuff. But it’s a treat, and they’ll feel good about it.”