Jeff Dichter and Lenny Lighter opened m:brgr brgr bar in Montreal in January 2008 as a way to help kids by feeding people of all ages. A percentage of sales is donated to the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Foundation for Research into Children’s Diseases.
The story begins when Dichter was told his 2 ½-year-old son Zak had 9 months to live. But “the miracle of medicine [at Montreal Children's Hospital] and every other miracle we called upon” confounded the prognosis. Since then, Dichter has been an active fundraiser for the hospital and children’s charities. Zak, now 21, works at m:brgr, which his father envisioned as a means to providing a year-round stream of contributions for child-illness research. With irrestistible burgers and a heart-warming backstory, m:brgr almost immediately became one of Montreal’s hot, hip spots.
Now Dichter wants to develop the m:brgr concept—with its extensive, creative build-your-burger menu and beer, wine and spirits bar—into a North American chain that will help kids that much more. BurgerBusiness.com talked with him about the origins and future of the brand.
How did you decide on the m:brgr concept?
I’ve been referred to as a foodie but I’m not quite sure what that means. With my previous companies I’ve done a lot of traveling all over the world and I’ve had the good fortune to be in a lot of great restaurants and meet chefs and restaurateurs.
One day I was at a trade show in Las Vegas and I walked into [Hubert Keller's] Burger Bar. I sat there for two hours and thought, “This guy’s a genius. Montreal needs something like this.” So I took about a year and a half and did a lot of research, ate a lot of burgers and came up with m:brgr.
Where did you eat great burgers?
You know, probably the best burger I’ve had to date, I’m going to say, was at db Bistro Moderne [in New York City]. But it’s different. It’s not what we do. Our AAA Beef BRGR starts at $8.75 and Daniel Boulud’s starts at $32, but it’s a really good burger.
You must have eaten some not-so-great burgers, too.
Yes, I just came back from five days in New York and I did 30 restaurants in five days. Not all of them were burgers, but I did eat a lot of burgers and a lot of bad ones. Even burgers that are supposedly the top burger here or the top burger there.
Does it surprise you how the burger culinary scene has exploded in the past few years?
Yes and no. Burgers have been around for so long, and people love them. I’m surprised that at m:brgr we’ll get tables of women—young women or middle-age women—and they’re just eating burgers. People love burgers, and especially good ones.
Our starting point from the beginning was that you had to be able to eat just the burger patty and have it be amazing, even though hardly anyone eats it like that. But that was our No. 1 criterion.
What makes a good burger?
Quality of the beef. And we’ve developed a special spice mix we use. I believe a burger on a wood-burning or gas grill is better than on a flattop. Not to say I don’t like some of the flattop burgers that are out there, but that’s what I think makes a good burger.
You have a great menu, but help me out. What is “poutine”?
Poutine is a Quebec dish. It’s french fries, gravy—usually beef-stock or chicken-stock gravy—with cheese curds. And then you can go crazy; there’s all sorts of toppings you can put on. We do a poutine with porcini mushrooms and truffle carpaccio. We even do it with shaved black truffles when they’re in season. We do a Michigan poutine.
Yes, what’s with Michigan? You also offer “Michigan sauce” for burgers and a Michigan hotdog.
Michigan sauce is basically a chili but without the beans. So it’s a meat-tomato sauce; almost like a Bolognese sauce. We do it with regular fries or sweet potato fries. We mix it up. We’re just about having fun.
What else makes m:brgr a Montreal concept?
Well, I tweaked it a bit for Montreal. It’s a great vibe here. We have a really good bar scene. We have all age groups, depending on the time of day, which I love. Babies to golden agers. On Friday and Saturday nights it gets young and the music’s blasting. It’s a place to have fun.
There must be times when you sit and watch the action and marvel at what you’ve created as a hospital fundraiser.
Yes. I knew it would be successful because I knew the city needed something like this, but I didn’t think it would take off like it did, as quickly as it did. The first year we were voted best new restaurant [by the Montreal Mirror]. This year we were voted best burger. People love it, and I love that they’re loving it!
So what’s next then? Is there room in Toronto or elsewhere for another m:brgr?
Definitely. The plan from the beginning was to develop it into a chain. We’re in negotiations on a lease for a second location in Montreal. From there we’ll likely go to Toronto. I’m talking with people in Vancouver about doing an m:brgr there as a joint venture or as a licensee. Also on my list for expansion are Miami, Chicago and Boston, and then we’ll see.
How will a second location be different?
It’ll be a little larger with more seating, but the basic concept will be the same. There are a number of cities in North America that could use an m:brgr because we’re very different from Five Guys or Smashburger or The Counter.
The primary difference is our room. Not just the size, but it’s more of a party place at night. We’re table service and very high on great service. We sell a lot of wine and every wine is available by the glass. We see it as a whole package. Today you can’t just give someone good food. People want to go out and have a good time. And that’s how we look at ourselves.
Five Guys is successful and I like their burgers. But it’s different. They’re more upscale fast food. That’s not us, but there’s room for all different types of burger joints.
If you weren’t going to open another burger concept, do you have an idea floating in the back of your head for something different?
Yeah, I do. Possibly the same type of concept but with pizza. Some guys are doing it here, but I don’t think they’re doing it as well as they could. It’s such a different business though. It might work. But right now I want to concentrate on building m:brgr into a chain.