Smashburger – Omaha

By: Jason; Food Geekery Blog

A little over a month ago, Jess and I were driving over to Jason’s Deli to grab a quick bite to eat and we noticed a new restaurant opening almost next door.  It was called “Smashburger” and I had never heard of it.  Doing a bit of research led me to find out that it is both a relatively new (first store opened in Denver back in June 2007) and fast expanding:

The company has sold franchise agreements that will total more than 200 locations over the next five years. The company, joint venture and franchise development deals are part of Smashburger’s plan to open 500-plus restaurants across the country, 30-60 in 2009.

That is crazy!  So, what is Smashburger?  According to the co-owner, Tom Ryan:

Ryan wanted to created a concept different than that of a standard hamburger restaurant. He noted that among the things separating Smash Burger from Red Robin or McDonalds is that customers can order breakfast, lunch or dinner from the counter, along with beer and wine.

“We’re not fast, but we’re certainly better quality,” Ryan said. “Everything is made to order; the buns are buttered to order.”

Smash Burger also offers onion blossoms and Haagën-Dazs ice cream floats.

  • The other cool thing is that Mr. Ryan has a pretty spiffy resume:
  • Business and Menu Developer for Pizza Hut
  • Senior Vice President of Business Development at Long John Silver’s
  • Executive Vice President, Worldwide Chief Concept Officer, US Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President of Menu Management for for McDonald’s
  • Chief Concept Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, and Branding Officer at Quiznos
  • Ph.D. in Flavor and Fragrance Chemistry – Michigan State University.
  • Masters in Lipid Toxicology – Michigan State University.
  • Undergraduate degree in Food Science – Michigan State University.

What else?  Well:

Tom is known for developing business building concepts, products and marketing programs throughout his career, including Stuffed Crust Pizza and Lovers™ line at Pizza Hut, McGriddles, Big ‘n Tasty, Dollar Menu, and Fruit and Yogurt Parfaits at McDonald’s and Steakhouse Beef Dip, Prime Rib and Sammies at Quiznos.

The guy obviously knows how to create a restaurant menu, a theme and a marketing concept, but how does it all work in the real world? Also, and more importantly, how does the food taste?  Well, today I found out.  I was invited as part of the Omaha Food Blogger network to come in the day before they opened and try out the fare.

When Jess and I arrived we were greeted by Ann Pedersen and were given a place to sit and told we could place our orders. From our localized menu, I decided to get a 1/3lb Spicy Baja Burger (with a fried egg added on top) along with the veggie frites.  Jess got a custom burger: 1/2lb burger, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard, bacon and cheddar cheese on a multi-grain bun with the “Smashfries” on the side.

Once we placed our orders we were given a number and we went to sit down and wait.  While waiting we were introduced to the President of Smashburger, Scott Crane and told that while we ate we’d get a chance to sample everything they offered (if we wanted).  After only about a five minute wait our food was brought out, which is pretty good as they were also doing a “Friends and Family” meal and were pretty packed solid.

Now, I don’t really eat fast food and when I go to restaurants, in general, I want the food to be good.  Really good.  I cook 99% of the food I eat myself, so when I go out I like it to be at least as good as I can make.  Why am I telling you this? Well, simply because a lot of places either go for speed or cost or just play it safe when it comes to flavor.  This is definitely not something Smashburger does.  The burger was perfectly cooked, slightly pink inside, but we were assured, and shown, that it was temped at over 160°.  For those who didn’t know, a burger at 160 is cooked and could be brown or pink.  From the USDA:

Thomas J. Billy, administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, explained that USDA studies show that the color of cooked ground beef patties can be quite variable. At 160 degrees F a safely cooked patty may look brown, pink or some variation of brown or pink.

“The bottom line is that if you cook your burger to 160 degrees F on an instant-read food thermometer, you can enjoy a safe, juicy burger,” said Billy.

This burger was perfectly juicy, not dry, and was very flavorful.  We were told that they use only Angus Chuck at an 80/20 blend and that all their meat was seared for at least 10 seconds on their griddle using pure butter. The taste is amazing, can’t say I’ve made a better burger at home, to be honest.  The flavor of the sandwich as a whole was great… it was spicy, but not eyewateringly spicy.  Jess, who is a huge burgervore, had this to say:

“Screw Wendy’s.”

A bit of background, during this time of year Jess’ hours become crazy at work and she ends up eating mostly fast food.  Wendy’s was her favorite burger, but for almost the same cost at what she’d get there, she can get this and apparently it is her new favorite. One thing I noted, the 1/2lb burger is a bit “drippier” than the 1/3lb burger.  I don’t find this to be an issue, but it was noted by another person sitting with us and I thought I’d share.  Now, onto the sides…

Veggie Frites

Veggie Frites

Smashfries

Smashfries

The fries were great… salty and crisp, but the seasoning was wonderful.  If you like rosemary, you definitely should get these.  They are nice and light, but full of flavor.  The cool side, though, were the veggie frites.  These were pan fried veggies that were lightly seasoned and perfectly crisp-tender.  They were soft, yet were able to snap.  I don’t think I’ve had anything like that at any other burger joint and I really think I’d get them as my side in the future.  Some of the other things we were allowed to sample:

Häagen-Dazs shakes (vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate): Great… not only did it taste good, but you could actually drink it through a straw without getting an aneurysm by sucking too hard.

Strawberry Shake

Salads: Was too full to try these, but they looked stunning.

Smashwedge Salad

Hot Dogs (Chili Cheese and Chicago): Jess tried the Chili, I tried the Chicago.  Both were supurb.  Jess is very critical of chili dogs and usually is upset after getting one.  This, though, she asked me to get her again this weekend.  The Chicago was great, too.  Turns out not only do they use one of my favorite tasting dogs (I grew up eating Hebrew National), but they cut ‘em in half and sear them on the grill to get some extra flavor.

Chicago Dog

Scott’s favorite burger: Turns out the President’s favorite burger is a 1/3lb patty, american cheese and a fried egg all on a “standard” roll.  I didn’t think it’d be that tasty, but it really was.  I’m not a big fan of American cheese, but I think this would be really awesome with Swiss instead.  The burger was juicy enough that you didn’t even notice it didn’t have any condiments.

We were offered more to try, but we were all completely stuffed at this point.  We did, however, get offered a chance to get a tour of the kitchen and watch them make their burger, so how could I say no?

As you can see, they literally start with a ball of fresh ground beef.  It’s not a pre-shaped patty or anything like that.  Once they butter down the grill they smash it (that’s where the name comes from) and sear it for a minimum of ten seconds.  Once that’s done they toss on some seasonings (salt, pepper, secret spices) and flip it… what’s cool is that it is so stuck from the sear they have to almost scrape it up.  Once it’s flipped they cook it until it temps at 160° and they pull it off and right onto one of their toasted buns.  The whole setup is pretty clean, their walk-in is quite small, as their menu is pretty simple.  The fresh veggies and sauces all sat by the buns, waiting for the burgers… all-in-all, a very nice operation.

Once we were all done we got to talk with Scott some more and he gave us some more insight into the company and where it may go in the future.  This location is the 33rd location they’ve opened and so far it is going perfectly for them.  We were also told that the franchises are only able to be purchased by seasoned restaurateurs… no amateurs.  Not only will this help protect the brand, it will ensure that everyone has a perfect product.  Very good idea, in my mind.  You need someone who knows food to run a place like this.

So, that ended my first trip to Smashburger, but it won’t be my last.  This is great news for my tongue, though terrible news for my waist.  Oh well, that’s why they make sweatpants, right?  Have any of you tried Smashburger?  Do you have your own favorite burger joint?  Tell us about ‘em!