Michael Symon—TV Iron Chef and B Spot owner—won the People’s Choice award for the fourth time at this year’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival Burger Bash. But the Best of the Bash award was won by someone who doesn’t have a TV show or a string of restaurants: Brad Halsten, owner of The Burger Dive in Billings, Mont. His Blackened Sabbath burger with blackened spice, bacon, a beer-battered onion ring, garlic-basil mayo, goat cheese and arugula bested some of the biggest names in burgers. Halsten won $10,000 and a promise from Red Robin, which sponsors the award, that his burger will be the inspiration for a future entry in its Finest premium-burger line. BurgerBusiness.com caught up with Brad Halsten back in Billings.
How did a burger chef from Billings end up on a stage in Miami with an oversize check?
Well, I’d heard of the Burger Bash and I always wanted to go test myself and my place against the top burger joints and the chefs I’d seen on TV. I wanted to be part of it.
So last June I searched out who was in charge of the food festivals in New York City and South Beach and I found [festival founder] Lee Schrager’s name. I figured I’d just send him an email and see what happened. He could ignore me or tell me to go away or respond. And within two hours I got a reply from Lee that said, “Just returned from Montana and you’re on my radar.”
Coincidentally a week or two before I contacted him he was here and ate at our place. I guess that’s what he does, but he already knew us. Then in August we got an invitation.
You had six months to prepare? How many burger ideas did you go through before deciding what you’d serve?
Honestly not a whole lot. I really only tried a couple of ideas and with the first one that I started serving to customers—we called it The Test Pattern—they said, “This is the one.” Some regulars said it was the best burger they ever had. So we went with it. We served it as a special off and on just to keep getting feedback.
It’s a twist on the Blackened Sabbath burger I already had on the menu. We just took it to a new level. We changed it from blue cheese to goat cheese because that’s kind of hot right now. And I added arugula to the bottom bun because I watched videos from past Bashes and Spike Mendelsohn [of D.C.'s Good Stuff Eatery] was a judge one year. He said one of the things they were looking out for were soggy buns. I wanted to make sure I didn’t have a soggy bottom bun. I put mayonnaise on the bottom bun and added arugula to keep the burger juices out.
Who knew arugula would make you a star?
Really. People are pretty excited around here. We don’t get a lot of attention in Billings. I’ve had a hard time attracting TV shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” to come check us out even though I know we’re up there with anybody, I feel.
You opened in 2010. Why a burger joint?
It was a dream of mine. My wife and I were social workers working with emotionally disturbed kids. But I’d always wanted to open a restaurant and my wife supported me.
You’d done no restaurant cooking before?
I was a guy who cooked at home and loved it. I took the leap into the restaurant business without any experience, which I know usually doesn’t work out well. But it’s worked out right for us. We had a concept that people in Billings loved right off the bat.
How do you describe the concept?
Just a local burger joint where everything’s fresh. We don’t open bags of frozen food. Potatoes come in and become fries. We cut our sweet potato fries here, too, and we make onion rings with a local beer from down the street. A local bakery designed buns for us. So it’s fresh and noncorporate. Billings is a big chain restaurant town, although it’s beginning to change a bit.
I think people are raising their standards on food a bit. They’re being educated by what they see on Food Network and what they read. They want fresher and better in every cuisine.
What was the best selling burger on your menu before the Bash win?
Probably our Juicy Lucy [a half-pound burger with melted cheese inside and lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo on top for $9.25]. But it’s the [$9] Blackened Sabbath now, both the original and what we did for the Bash.
You’re a family-run business?
We thought it was going to be a small operation. So the original plan was that my wife, my dad and I would run it. It’s not big but we have 17 employees now with 10 to 12 working at any one time. My oldest son works with us now.
Is that straining operations too much?
It’s manageable. We had a solid base. We’ve set records for March, which isn’t usually our busiest time. We’re doing summer sales levels right now.
Does that have you thinking about where to put Burger Dive No. 2?
Not really. I really enjoy having this one unique place. Down the road maybe. And maybe a different type of restaurant. But right now I like having this place that’s unique.
And you still aren’t open for dinner, right?
No. Just for lunch. We close at 4 pm.
Why is that?
I have kids in junior high and high school. When I left my other job, I wasn’t going to be the kind of guy who was married to his business. I come in and work hard and I still have my evenings and my weekend evenings to spend time with family. That was really important to us.
Even with your recent boom you haven’t been tempted to move closing back to 8 pm or so?
No, I honestly haven’t. My family’s really important.