After posting the results of our Tour of Better Burgers, I was invited back to try the seasonal specialties at Burger 21 in Latham. This gave me a chance to learn more about the business model of this store that scored a surprising and resounding victory.
Franchisee Bruce Anderson told me the chain is run out of Tampa, FL by the same folks that own the Melting Pot, a fondue establishment with a local operation in Crossgates Mall, Albany. Bruce is a partner in that as well as a location in Syracuse. He chose to open Burger 21 in Latham in 2013 because it’s near his home.
The Burger 21 concept is “a burger with a chef behind it”. There are 21 different burger choices on the menu, including a seasonal special that changes every quarter. All but two veggie burger varieties are made from scratch in house as are 5 of the 10 sauces in the sauce bar, and lettuce and tomato are hand cut. They use Certified Angus beef, which as we know is good stuff.
You can choose patties made with chicken (Bruce praises the Monterey Chicken Burger in particular), turkey (a Cobb Salad Burger), seafood (ahi tuna and shrimp) and veggie as well as beef. The idea is to “cut out the no’s” when a family goes out for dinner because everybody can find something they like.
The environment is the most distinctly different thing about Burger 21. There’s no food preparation in sight; the kitchen is inside a walled space with a shake bar in front of it. This divides the interior into appealing nooks and crannies instead of the big open room found in other burger places. You place your order at a kiosk as you enter and are given a number; a server brings your food to the table. The whole idea is to deliver “more than you expect in a fast casual place,” according to Bruce. About 15% of the orders are takeout (which seems quite low to me) and those waiting are invited to have a seat at the shake bar rather than standing around.
Gender split among customers is 50/50, compared to most burger chains that skew male. I think the design of the store has a lot to do with it. To throw a few stereotypes, guys like to think of themselves as burger mavens and are attracted by the sight of meat cooking on a grill or griddle; women, who might be the ones actually doing most of the cooking at home, maybe appreciate the quieter atmosphere (wth no noticeable smell of frying meat) and being waited on.
I was there on October 21, a changeover day, and tried both last quarter’s Southern Lucy (burger stuffed with two kinds of cheese, topped with onion strings and bacon aioli, on a bed of tomato jam) and the new Pizza Burger (pepperoni, tomato sauce and pesto—it really does taste like pizza sauce). Both the concepts were well executed with a harmonious flavor profile. My only quibble was that the heavy saucing causes the bottom half of the bun to get soggy, but Bruce says patrons have not complained.
As a single location in a big market, the Latham Burger 21 doesn’t do a lot of advertising but relies on outreach to the community to build business. One day each month (the 21st, of course) 10% of profits go to a local organization; this month it was the Shenendehowa High School Robotics Club. In addition, throughout October 21 cents from each milkshake sale goes to breast cancer research. (The shake also has a pink element to honor breast cancer awareness; this year it is pink whipped cream.)
“Fast casual” places nationally have peaked in popularity, according to industry sources, but this store seems to be doing just fine. It was busy on a Saturday afternoon, with mostly family groups. I’ll be back on the 21st of next month—but plan to explore the more basic burger (it’s called Burger 101) with LTO and my usual pickle and mustard and let the quality ingredients shine through. And this time I’ll get to eat the whole burger by myself, maybe with a side of sweet potato fries with toasted marshmallow topping from the sauce bar.