Tom Galis loves burgers but the burger business itself is starting to leave him a little cold. Galis (officially Gialamboukis, but no one calls him that) operates the six Goodburger locations in New York City, and he readily concedes that his restaurants’ are like reliable Toyota Corollas parked among amenity-laden BMWs. It may not be flashy, but Goodburger delivers simple, high-quality, affordable burgers (a Single is $4.50) in a market that’s trending upscale and topping-crazy. Galis won’t go there. Simple is smart, he insists.
Galis, who began his foodservice career selling hot dogs from his family’s cart in Times Square, and whose restaurant concepts have included Café Metro, Oxford Café, Food Merchants, Food Exchange and others isn’t easily discouraged. Like many other small-scale burger-joint operators who battle the Big Burger Brands every day, Galis believes that his honest approach will prevail. He spoke with BurgerBusiness.com about the struggle.
So, I understand that Goodburger is hardly your first rodeo. You’ve developed other restaurant concepts before?
Oh yeah. I’ve been on the restaurant scene in New York since about 1994. Since then I’ve opened or renovated about 30 restaurants. I started off as a manager at a sort of quick-service cafe concept that had sandwiches, soup and salads for the corporate lunch crowd. That’s how I got started.
How and when did you jump to the burger category?
You know how you’ll be talking to your friends about your fantasy team, your ideal team? Well, Goodburger was my fantasy concept. I’d left the company I was working for and had sold my shares in it and wanted to do something I had in my mind. My ideal was something that was a simplified version of [restaurants I’d run].
You get all these kitchen stations and order sheets with hundreds of items and it all gets overwhelming and it doesn’t work. What I wanted to do was to simplify. Create an operation that didn’t need a high-price manager or order sheets with hundreds of items for the menu. I thought that was the new model.
You opened the first Goodburger in 2005, when simplicity wasn’t the goal for most new restaurants.
No. Back then in New York we didn’t have a lot of other concepts that were similar. Chipotle opened here in about 2003, and when I saw them, it gave me inspiration. I said what I’ve been thinking, they’ve been doing. I got to see that their model was simple, but that it works well.
So I stated Goodburger. I wanted to keep it close to the burger/soda fountain roots. I didn’t want a hundred different toppings and a Blue Cheese Burger and what have you. I just wanted it to be simple with good quality.
You use Hereford beef, right?
Yes. We looked at a lot of choices and chose that. Hereford isn’t as widely known as Angus, but it’s a great quality beef that no one else was using. So we decided to go with it and have our own distinct flavor.
People in New York don’t know it. I really wanted to educate consumers and show them the difference between Hereford and what they’re getting at McDonald’s or wherever.
You grind it yourself?
Yeah, that’s important, that’s part of educating people about what to look for in a burger. They have so many choices. All these burger places have come into our market lately, like Five Guys. You need to know about your burger, about the beef and the grind and the difference between cooking on a flattop and charcoal grilling.
Which Goodburger does?
Yes, we grill with briquettes.
Other than by using a different beef, how do you separate yourself and stand out in a market that, like you say, is getting more and more crowded?
Yeah, that’s been a challenge. It has gone crazy. When I opened the first Goodburger in 2005 there wasn’t anyone else doing burgers on a high [quality] scale other than basic fast-food a la McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Burger King. Sure, you could go to Peter Luger and have a hamburger and pay $18 but that wasn’t for the average consumer.
Our thinking was there’s no one doing a really good quality product at a reasonable price, so let’s give it a shot. We opened the first location at the end of 2005 and all of a sudden a lot of other burger places started popping up.
Everyone’s in burger now.
Everyone. Here in New York about 15 or 20 years ago there was a big burst of popularity in burgers. When one guy does well, everyone else wants a piece of the business. But the burger market got oversaturated and it lost the sizzle and aura it had. You know, the more you give consumers what it is they want, the more it loses its appeal.
Now it’s a trend again and it’s almost oversaturated again. The good thing is that when the New York Times saw the trend, thank God they acknowledge in their article that we had one of the best products.
How important was that review?
Oh that was huge. We got a great review. Our first location wasn’t fantastic. It was a little east of midtown where all the action was. It was on 43rd Street and Second Avenue: close to the United Nations but a few blocks from midtown. As soon as the article came out, people found us. People walked a couple of blocks for a Goodburger and they were hooked.
What’s your opinion of the power of online reviews and bloggers?
Oh, don’t get me started. It’s a forum for the average consumer or wanna-be food critics to give their opinions. It gets out of control, you know? I say they should only be read with a grain of salt, so to say. Anybody can write something about whatever they want without having any knowledge or experience or training. Let’s just leave it that they shouldn’t be taken very seriously.
Some people like us, some don’t. Some think we’re overpriced; some think we’re a good value. It’s opinions. At the end of the day, if you have three stars on Yelp, I think it’s a good thing. That’s where we are, and the majority of reviews are favorable. But these opinions shouldn’t be a benchmark for making a decision. Go to the papers or to GrubStreet.com or some other respected outlet where the writers have a sense of what’s going on and they’re impartial.
Is the burger segment so crowded that you’ll likely move on to something else? Or do you plan on opening more Goodburger units?
My whole background is multiunit development, so I’d be foolish not to look at other concepts, too. Right now we have six Goodburger locations, strategically situated in midtown and downtown. I think if a really fantastic class-A location comes up, we’d open another Goodburger. If not, I’ll concentrate on other concepts as well, because, really, we’re getting to that point of oversaturation with burgers again in New York City.