Slater’s 50/50 has been upfront about being over-the-top since Scott Slater and Chef Brad Lyons opened the first in Anaheim Hills, Calif., in 2009. Known for its 50/50 burger patty made from equal parts ground beef and ground bacon and for its 100 beer taps, Slater’s 50/50 is nationally recognized for its creative Burgers of the Month. April’s selection was the $13.95 Resurrection Lamb Burger, a patty of ground lamb mixed with ground beef topped with a spread of goat cheese and candied pecans, light-amber honey, baby greens and sliced Granny Smith apples. A sixth Slater’s 50/50 opens next month in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. BurgerBusiness.com spoke with Co-founder Scott Slater about his concept.
So what bar were you in when you had the epiphany that a 50/50 beef/bacon burger would work?
Actually I was tailgating at a San Diego Chargers game and the conversation was about bacon being the best thing you can put on your tongue. I was a little hung-over, and what’s better when you’re hung-over than bacon and a burger? When you’re tailgating, it’s early in the morning but you’ve got a grill so I asked a butcher to make up 50/50 bacon/burger patties.
This was before the first Slater’s?
Oh yeah. That was in college.
So you carried around this wild idea for a while. And then you had another crazy idea: Get into the competitive burger restaurant business.
That was four years ago. The “better burger” business as we know it now was just coming together. The Counter was still new. I wanted an idea that wouldn’t go out of style and burgers, bacon and beer will always be popular.
But really there’s always been “better burgers.” Before me the Islands, Red Robins and Ruby’s Diners were the better burgers. The restaurant business always tries to continuously do things better. I consider Slater’s to be part of a new generation of burger concepts with better food, better service and better techniques that are coming through. In 10 years there’ll be another revolution probably and I’ll want to be part of it.
Right now we’re just trying to take burgers, bacon and beer to the next level and I’m good with that.
Slater’s has earned notoriety for out-there burgers. There’s your B’ B’ B’ Bacon Burger that’s 100% ground bacon, the Peanut Butter and Jellousy Burger and others. Did you strive to be ahead of the curve from the start?
As a consumer, when I go out to eat I’ll look for the most cockamamie thing on the menu and order it. One, I’m curious, but also if a chef is going to put something really daring on the menu, I figure it’s going to be really good or he wouldn’t dare do it. That’s the mindset for Slater’s 50/50.
We’re creating new burgers every month. Brad Lyons and I are trying po’boys, elk burgers, Filipino pork bellies, whatever we can get hold of. We’re always looking for ideas.
Which of all of them was least well received?
I can’t think of one that was really terrible. I had a recent item that I’m forced to change, although I don’t agree with my customers on it. It was a jalapeňo mac and cheese with a beer cheese. We used Avery Ellie’s Brown Ale for the cheese. It adds a bitter flavor but it’s supposed to. It’s beer cheese. But our customers seem to have expected a smoother, less bitter flavor so that’s one of the most returned items on the menu. The beer geeks and I love it, but the guests want it to be different so we’re changing it.
Give me a sense of the ideation process for new burgers that you and Brad use.
I wish I had a nice concise systematic plan I could wow you with but I just don’t. We’re constantly looking to innovate out of sheer enjoyment of new things. Maybe I’ll hear something or read something about what another burger place is doing and that’ll be the start.
Our current Burger of the Month is the Buffalo Buffalo Burger and I don’t even remember how that came about. I think I was saying we should do a buffalo burger and Brad said we’ve already done one. So it was, well, how can we do it differently, better, for a new one? How about Buffalo Buffalo? So it’s a bison burger with all the Buffalo hot wings flavors [shredded celery and carrots topped with spicy Buffalo-sauce-infused sharp Cheddar, grilled onions and jalapeño with house-made buttermilk ranch and hot-sauce dressing].
The process is organic. We don’t go on formal restaurant tours or set out to encounter ideas. We’re just both curious by nature so it happens organically. The ideas are there.
You mentioned elk and bison. Are you emphasizing exotic meats?
Not really. We’re going to keep it simple on our set menu. We already have seven proteins available. I don’t want to add more and I can’t imagine taking any off. So where we’ll possible use other exotics is with the Burger of the Month.
Has the menu changed much over four years?
The concept’s the same; there’s haven’t been any substantial changes. Every six to eight months we roll out a new menu. Two, three or maybe four items are taken off to make room for something new to keep it fresh. Sometimes Brad will come up with a Burger of the Month that’s so good we just have to keep it on.
But we’re always trying to keep up on trends and what people want. Right now we’re adding a kale and quinoa salad to our next menu because that’s hot and I’m a big fan of both. We’re active on social media, too, to keep tuned in to what our guests say and want and enjoy.
You’re about to open your sixth location in four years. That’s moving fast. Do you feel in control of the expansion?
Really, so in control that I almost feel bored. I have a Construction Team taking care of Rancho Cucamonga. I have an Opening & Training Team taking care of hiring and a great Operations Team overseeing all the other locations. So I walk into a restaurant now and it’s like, so what’s next?
I wouldn’t be expanding if it weren’t that way. I halted our expansion for a year after we opened San Diego [in 2011] because I wasn’t happy with my operations. I really dug in and made sure our three stores were operating at consistent levels. Not until we reached those levels was I comfortable with our expanding to Pasadena and then Lake Forest and now Rancho Cucamonga.
And we’ll continue to do it that way. After this wave of openings, if I’m not happy with how things are, I’ll have no hesitation stopping again. I’ll never dilute my brand. That’s why I won’t franchise.
Not now or not ever?
My concept is not franchisable. The menu’s too unique and difficult. Like me! I’m not the guy to work with franchisees. I’m way too entrepreneurial and too wacky.
Does that mean that Slater’s 50/50 will stay a regional brand?
Oh no. I’m planning on going nationwide. Just not through franchising. No one else will be running a Slater’s 50/50.
Is it more the concept or your refusal to cede control?
As I say, the concept’s too complex for other people to run. We’re casual dining and there really aren’t many casual-dining concepts that are franchisable. A Subway is pretty cut and dried: Here’s the meat; here’s the cheese; there’s the register. One plus one equals two.
But we’re using fresh product, local product, and there are a million ways to do our burgers. Each of our restaurants has 100 beer taps and the beer choices are constantly rotating. You can’t have other people making those decisions.
The rise of craft beers transformed the burger business. What has it meant to Slater’s?
It’s incredible. I attribute much of my success to craft beers. Four years ago, craft beer was just starting, as were better burgers. We were one of four or five restaurants in Orange County doing craft beers. Because we were in early, now when breweries come up with small batch beers, we’re at the top of the list.
We have a corporate “beer monger” now. His job is to visit each of our restaurants to make sure that our lists are current, our beer lines are clean, and our glassware is clean and to ensure a good variety on tap.
So it’s not just a big part of the business, it’s a big part of our personality.
How carefully do you try to watch your food/beer balance?
You pay attention to that, yes. The Anaheim store is 65:35 food to beer but the rest are 70:30. Anaheim has a bit more of a bar crowd. But the ratio’s been consistent; we’re a casual-dining restaurant.
Hey, but if the tides change and guests want more booze, we can do that. I’m not one of those “chef-driven” restaurants that think, “It’s my way or the highway.” I’m adaptable. I want to give guests what they want.
So what do you think will be the next adjustment you’ll make in the concept?
I really don’t know. There seem to be a lot of new concepts opening with the design-your-own-burger idea that we do and I don’t know how long that will be fresh. Maybe we’ll just be adding more of the outlandish Burgers of the Month to the menu and focusing on that. I don’t see that happening, but off the top of my head that’s what I think.
But you won’t move your focus away from burgers, right?
No, but we’ve never been just burgers. Our specialties include our Pittsburgh Pastrami Sandwich and Fried Chicken & Pancakes. We have Irish Quesadillas with mashed potato and our Famous Bacon Brownies. Burgers are a major portion but just part. But Slater’s 50/50 isn’t moving away from that. If I want pizza, I’ll go open a pizza place.