Farm Burger, the acclaimed Atlanta-based grass-fed-beef burger concept is planting itself in the homeland of sustainable and organic. By late summer or early fall, Farm Burger will open an outpost in Berkeley, Calif.
That’s a big cross-country jump for a concept that only recently branched out from Atlanta—where the first of its three locations there opened in 2010—and opened in Asheville, N.C. But co-owner George Frangos says Berkeley is not the beginning of a national expansion push. The truth, he says, is that it’s a bit of a “homecoming” for co-owner Jason Mann who attended University of California, Berkeley, and learned in that area many of the traditional farming principles that shape Farm Burger.
The concept likely will continue to grow but not faster and not nationally and not through franchising. “Franchising isn’t in our plans at all,” Frangos says. “You know, if we stopped now at five locations that would be fine. But if opportunities are there and they make sense and we’re still happy doing this, we’ll keep growing.”
While insisting he and Mann aren’t thinking bi-coastal, Frangos does admit to a bit of envy about what he has seen on the West Coast. “Working with small farms can be a challenge in the Southeast because the farms really are small. They can be 1 acre,” he says. “I was at a conference in Portland and a small organic farm there is 30 to 40 acres. If I need 30 lbs. of arugula, I may need to find three suppliers.”
Frangos describes Farm Burger as “a neighborhood grass-fed-beef burger joint,” which is fair but incomplete. The grass-fed beef comes from cattle Frangos and Mann purchase and then contract with local farmers to raise in grass pastures without antibiotics or hormones. “We didn’t want to just go to a meat wholesaler and say we want to buy some grass-fed beef. We wanted to control the whole process from beginning to end as much as possible,” Frangos says.
Asked how Farm Burger may change in the coming years, Frangos says he hopes they can buy land and truly raise the cattle themselves and grow produce for the restaurants.
Farm Burger diners can opt for a Build-Your-Own burger that starts at $6.75. Most toppings are free; a few are $1 or $2 more. A half-dozen signature builds called Blackboard Burgers include a ground pork burger topped with shave Brussels sprouts, local apple, candied jalapeňos and white barbecue sauce for $9. There is a chicken and a quinoa-veggie burger as well.
Salads are $3.50 or $7 for large. Sides include seasonal slaw, slow-cooked local greens Gouda grits, sweet potato hush puppies with apple butter and charred-cherry-tomato salsa. Snacks for between-meal fun include mac & cheese with pulled pork cheek, house-recipe deviled eggs, boiled peanuts and chicken pot pie fritters with sherry-date barbecue sauce.
A selection of wines and suddenly abundant local beers is available. These account for 10%-15% of sales, which is fine with Frangos. “We do a lot of lunch business and a lot of families, so opportunities to build beer and wine sales are limited,” he says.
Farm Burger occasionally announces that “we’re taking the burger out of Farm Burger,” as it did last fall in Asheville, and organizes a special dinner to spotlight local farm suppliers. The chefs are unleashed to create multi-course meals that don’t involve burgers and there’s live music. In Asheville, a large chunk of the proceeds from the dinner went to ASAP, a local organization that helps small farms.
Frangos began his restaurant more at the fine-dining end of the business, working at such well-known places as Nora in Washington, D.C., and his own Victory 96 State Street in Portsmouth, N.H.
Asked if he’s ever tempted to try his hand at a more upscale concept, Frangos says he misses the wines from fine dining but not the high-pressure lifestyle. “You have a little more freedom with the menu” in fine dining, he says. “But if I start thinking about it I remember the costs and the hours and I’m pretty happy being where we are.”