What a long, strange trip it’s been. Ryan Harkins and Matt Chernus were among the early food-truck heroes when they got the Grill ‘Em All rolling the streets of Los Angles in 2009. They built their fame on a menu of heavy-metal-themed burgers like the Behemoth (grilled-cheese buns, Cheddar, barbecue sauce, pickle, grilled onion and bacon). They took part in—and won—the inaugural season of Food Network’s “The Great Food Race” in 2010. And on Jan. 19 this year they went from wheels to brick-and-mortar with the opening of the Grill ‘Em All restaurant (aka Valhalla) in Alhambra, Calif., with an expanded and still irreverent menu. BurgerBusiness.com caught up with 32-year-old Ryan Harkins and 33-year-old Matt Chernus just before the daily 3-6 p.m. Hair Metal Happy Hour (Miller High Life drafts are $2, all beers in cans are $1 off and the half-pound Winger burger—with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, Thousand Island—with fries is just $8).
Tell me why burgers and why a truck in the beginning.
Ryan: Well, burgers were easy. It’s pretty much our favorite food. I could eat a burger every day; and, really, I pretty much do. If I could eat burgers for the rest of my life I’d be a happy man.
But we just experimented with a bunch of burger recipes at backyard barbecues. It got to the point where Matt and I wanted to go out and try them for ourselves. We didn’t have the capital for a restaurant and it just happened to be around the time the Kogi [Korean barbecue] truck had popped up. We looked into it and said, “Let’s go for it.” The rig was small enough and the capital needed was smaller too.
Had you two been working in restaurants before that?
Ryan: Yeah. Matt was bartending [and at one time was a pro wrestler] and I’d been cooking for about 15 years.
But not necessarily at burger restaurants?
Ryan: No, at a variety of places. Everything across the board.
When you decided to do the burger truck, did friends and family think it was great or that you two were crazy?
Matt: I think most of them thought we were crazy because it was such a weird idea. Or maybe a stupid idea. I even said, “Are we really going to do this?” But really we decided that anything that was different from what we were doing at the time was going to be a step in the right direction. I was at that point where I was going to work and thinking, “Is this all there is to my career now?”
And it was an adventure. The idea of a food truck was pretty much uncharted territory at the time. It seemed like a nomadic profession. We just went in there and made up our own rules. There was no guidebook or “Food Trucks for Dummies.” There probably is, now [“Running a Food Truck for Dummies,” Richard Myrick, John Wiley & Sons, 2012].
Did you break your own rules? Did you put it all together just right from the start or did you modify and improve as you went?
Matt: Oh, we made a lot of mistakes. The first time we took the truck out, the doors where you came to order were so low that people were bumping their head when they ordered anything. So we had to figure that out fast. We sent a friend to a grocery store to buy firewood. We’d drive up on top of the firewood to raise the truck up a couple of inches so people didn’t hit their head.
Really, that was just the first of the problems we had. It was a little scary at first because every day there were minor emergencies or breakdowns and stuff. But every day we got better and better at dealing with them.
How was it long before you thought, “I think we’re on top of this”?
Ryan: It took a while, but once it clicked, it really clicked. We realized we had a pretty good thing going and we started to build a really strong Twitter following and then all of a sudden we were asked to do “The Great Food Truck Race.” It was tough. We were at a point where we thought we had some momentum and did we want to risk leaving. When we decided to do it, people thought we’d gone out of business.
They’ll forget you quickly in this business.
Ryan: Yeah, we found that out. When we came back there were a lot of food trucks on the streets. But we couldn’t say anything. We signed a contract that said we couldn’t tweet about it or tell anyone. So basically we just disappeared off the face of the earth for six weeks.
But you guys won, right?
Matt: Oh yeah!
Ryan: You are talking to the Grand Champs!
Beyond the $50,000 prize, was it worth the time invested?
Matt: Oh yeah. Definitely. After we got back and the show aired, it was just IN-SANE. Totally. It was six weeks of great advertising for us, which was just awesome.
Did you splurge on a second truck with your winnings?
Ryan: We went to a second truck about mid way through the series airing. We maintained it until we got the restaurant and got rid of one of the trucks. We still have the other one.
You’re not still working in the truck, are you?
Matt: Well, currently the truck’s not even running. The restaurant’s been open just a couple of weeks so we’re focused on making sure that it’s running smoothly.
Was the decision to move from truck to bricks and mortar just a matter of getting the capital to do it? Or was it being sick of being in a hot truck all day?
Matt: A bit of both. Mostly it was waiting until the time felt right. We both felt that when we finally found the right place and it all came together, we’d know it. If one of us had said the site didn’t feel right, we wouldn’t have done it. So I guess all the worlds aligned.
Was there something you knew you’d want to add when you opened a restaurant?
Ryan: Well, beer on tap. We really wanted a draft system and a beer program. We were able to add more burgers, too. We only have a few of them from the truck menu. The truck ones we don’t have on the restaurant menu we have as a secret menu.
We were able to do more burgers but also we can more depth to them, which is cool. Your resources in a restaurant kitchen are so much better. It’s just nice. It feels like home again. It feels good to be back in a kitchen where it’s more standard, more predictable thing than the truck.
Was anything else added to the menu?
Ryan: We have fried chicken, which we didn’t with the truck. We have a hot dog, but it’s on a burger. It’s called “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which is a Stooges song. It’s a half-pound burger with a quarter-pound Nathan’s hot dog on top with chili, cheese and house coleslaw. Well, everything’s house-made. It’s an awesome burger.
And now you’ve inaugurated a burger of the month, too!
Ryan: Yep. For March it’s the Rick Reuben [named for heavy-metal producer Rick Rubin]. That’s corned beef; sauerkraut that we braise in a local beer called Figueroa Mountain, a red ale; Thousand Island dressing and Swiss.
How many seats do you have in the restaurant?
Matt: About 50 inside and 20 outside.
Ah, you’re in California and can still sit outside.
Matt: When the weather warms up this spring, and then this summer, it’s going to be so nice to sit outside and people watch and have a burger and a beer.
And not be in the truck?