Since Rich Melman opened R. J. Grunt’s in 1971, he has been Chicago’s undisputed restaurant king and and an industry visionary. Several of the many restaurant concepts created by his company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), have become national chains. Among them are Corner Bakery Café, Maggiano’s Little Italy and Big Bowl. More than three dozen of his casual- and fine-dining restaurant concepts dot the city. In 2010, a tiny, limited-menu burger stand called M Burger was created out of what had been the chef’s-table dining room at Tru, one of LEYE’s fine-dining restaurants. They punched out a wall for a door and started serving burgers.
BurgerBusiness.com spoke with LEYE Division Chef/Partner Tim Hockett, who guided the creation of M Burger and is keeping it growing, about an unusual burger-business success.
BurgerBusiness.com:I can recall dining at the chefs table at Tru, but I certainly don’t recall thinking, “You know, this space would be great as a burger shack.” Who did think that and how did it come to be?
Tim Hockett: I worked at Tru from 2001 to 2004 and then left and moved to Virginia. My wife was getting her Ph.D. so we relocated to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville for a few years. I came back and was working with Rich Melman as a divisional chef. He usually picks a few chefs to work with him to tweak the concepts. And with Rich, everything starts with the food. Before he moves out a wall or considers a space, it’s about a great bao or burger or an incredible sushi roll. He develops a concept around food that he likes.
So I was helping Rich out in 2008 when fine dining came to a halt. I was just hanging out at the chef’s table on a snowy winter’s day. I’d been to Shake Shack [in New York City] the year before, and I was falling in love with burgers again. When you cook high-end food, you may think the burger’s beneath you. You want to do foie gras and truffles. But Danny Meyer’s incredible burger at Shake Shack changed my thinking. So I’m sitting there at Tru thinking, “This is the perfect site for that.”
Because I just was looking out the window and there were just hundreds of people walking by at lunch. I walked out in about a six-block radius and saw that there was just nothing on that side of Michigan Ave. for lunch. There’s a Corner Bakery, which is something we started about 14 years ago, but not much else. Northwestern Memorial Hospital has spread out and taken over from [Tru] to the lake, so there are thousands of employees without many [lunch] options.
So the market need was there? Good place to start.
Exactly. But also it was a way to use the chef’s table space that wasn’t being used much. The whole “kitchen table” idea became a little tired. In the 1990s it was a hot idea when Charlie Trotter and Tru were letting people come behind the scene and eat in the kitchen. And we thought a burger stand would be something affordable for the people there. There really wasn’t anything like it. And then, too, the burger is kind of the holy grail for Rich. Pizza, burgers and fudge are three items he’ll never be satisfied with. He’s always looking for the perfect incarnation.
What was his reaction to the burger stand idea?
I called him up and said, “Hey, I think I know what we can do with this space.” At first he laughed and told me to keep thinking about it, which his nice way of saying he was going to pass on it.
But we actually built a whole mockup [of M Burger] out of cardboard at another site so he could walk through the square footage and see that it would work. When he saw it built, that’s when he fell in love with it.
We’re talking about a really tiny space for that first one, aren’t we?
Oh, yeah. It’s like 300 square feet for that one. No. 2 is just over 500 square feet and with the third we went back to 385 square feet. The fourth, at Water Tower [mall on Michigan Ave.] is just over 1,000 square feet.
Did the small space necessitate keeping the menu small or did you simply want it to be spare?
I knew I couldn’t do a grilled burger. I love In-N-Out on the West Coast and Shake Shack on the East Coast, and they’re both old-school roadhouse griddled burgers, and that’s what I wanted to do. I knew we could only fit 12 people in that space. If 12 are there, it’s packed! We wanted to do 500 burgers a day. That was the goal. And all that necessitated doing a smaller, thinner pressed patty.
How much thought and testing went into the signature burger choice?
We tasted 40 or 50 different versions of the burger. We tried green chiles, and Italian flavors and all that. What it came down to was that we liked simple the best. In fact, our latest addition to the menu is called the Old Fashioned. We went back to ketchup, mayo, lettuce, pickle, tomato and onion and American cheese. It’s hard to beat that.
Did you do a custom grind?
We have some great meat partners that [LEYE has] been working with for years. We have a great burger grind that Rich has developed over 40 years, starting with R.J. Grunt’s. So we tweaked it out to our needs and we were there. And the Grunt’s burger is still great. Topped with Cheddar and mustard, it’s one of my favorite burgers in Chicago.
Is it like a Shake Shack burger?
You know, we tried the Shake Shack grind, which is a four-meat grind, with chuck, short rib, brisket and sirloin. We tried different versions of that. But when it comes down to it, what we’ve developed with Grunt’s is what we decided to stick with. It’s a chuck burger that’s a double-grind secret blend. It’s pretty solid.
You’ve worked at Vong’s Thai Kitchen and Tru and other upscale restaurants with LEYE. Do you ever come up with funky burger ideas that you wish you could add to the M Burger menu as a limited-time special?
We have about 20 items off the menu, our “secret menu,” so that’s our way of expanding the menu. We like to do that for our regular customers. At our first two locations, probably 75% of the business comes from people who come in twice a week or more. The Hurt Burger [with barbecue sauce and pepper-Jack cheese] was one of our most popular off-menu burgers for about a year until we put it on officially. So if we have something we’re playing with, we may let regulars know about it off the menu.
Can you share one “secret menu” item with me?
Sure. One of our favorites is the “Doctor Betty.” It’s a version of our vegetarian Nurse Betty [with tomato, avocado and pepper-Jack], which is named for Rich’s favorite nurse at Northwestern Hospital. So the Doctor Betty is the Nurse Betty with a beef patty added on. That’ probably my favorite lunchtime snack; cheese, beef, tomato, avocado spread. It’s a spicy California style burger, I’d say.
Our Huron location is next to the Apple Store on Michigan Ave., so with all the kids coming there they’re invented some new favorites. We have something called The Barnyard now. Everything that’s in the barnyard. So there’s chicken breast, a [beef] patty, bacon and turkey breast with American cheese, secret sauce, lettuce pickle and onion.
Only the young could eat that.
Yeah. The other new thing is our turkey burger. We partnered with a farm in Pennsylvania for our chicken breast. Great product; all natural. And they have a turkey farm next door. They offered us a ground turkey and at first I declined because I didn’t think it was something we needed, but it’s 95% lean. Light as air. One of the best turkey burgers I’ve ever had. So we patty that in-house. We have a house-made barbecue sauce called Angry Bird that we put on that’s just delicious.
Has the growth of the burger segment surprised you?
It is surprising, especially since the price of ground beef is way up. I’ve never seen anything like the prices we’ve been seeing. It’s definitely not the most profitable niche at this point. And I think the market will drop a few players off.
But I think the niche we’ve tapped into is different. We’re trying to get back to what the original fast food burger was all about. We don’t want anyone to take a number and wait at their table for 10 minutes. Our transaction time is 45 seconds. It’s all about what McDonald’s was doing originally. We’re cooking the burgers for you, you know? It’s more like In-N-Out, and they do a great product. In that sector, that independent-burger category, there’s room to grow. The “better burger” segment, where dinner for four is $40? I think that’s getting a little saturated.
Do you miss running a kitchen?
I work with other LEYE concepts, including Nacional 27, Osteria Via Stato, Tru and any new openings, so I have plenty of creative openings to get in there and cook. But M Burger is my baby.
Is Rich Melman taking care of the baby as he develops it?
Rich’s model has always been to be the best. To make the best food and have the best customer experience. That’s what we’re trying to do with M Burger, certainly, so as we grow it—we’re going to add a couple of locations this year—we want to do them all right and for a specific reason: Make sure the neighborhood we’re going into has the need for it, and that we’re keeping to our standards.
Rich never has been one to develop a concept too fast. He’s always been deliberative. How much size can M Burger carry?
We were the first LEYE concept to ever open two locations in the same city in the concept’s first year. We had four after our second year and we’re hoping to add two this year and maybe three next year. We want to develop our core team here in Chicago, like Rich always has done, but LEYE has other restaurants now in California, Minnesota, Las Vegas, D.C. So it’s likely that if we grow M Burger [outside Chicago] we’ll grow with our partners there because they know the neighborhoods. They’re always on the lookout for a great space.
I think the sky’s the limit. That’s one of the great things about working for LEYE: There’s not much holding you back.