For this Burger Week 2013 Eater Interview, we caught up with Burger Lounge's president and CEO, J. Dean Loring, on the cusp of the opening of his tenth Burger Lounge location (six, soon to be seven, in San Diego, three in Los Angeles), scheduled for Thursday, April 18 in Del Mar's Flower Hill Promenade.
What's your background in food?
I'm what's called an S.O.B., or son of a butcher, and grew up in a very food-driven family in Northern California. In my 20's, I started my first hamburger-centric restaurant in Humboldt County called Stars Hamburgers; we served all scratch-made products and grass fed beef. This was in 1989. In many ways, it was similar to the Burger Lounge menu of today.
In 1998, I opened Cody's La Jolla, a bistro near La Jolla Cove, but I wanted to get back into a hamburger-type restaurant so I partnered with Michael Gilligan, a banker, and in 2007, we founded the first Burger Lounge in La Jolla.
Why La Jolla?
I'd been living in La Jolla for a long time and I was familiar with the neighborhood. I found a small space at the corner of Wall Street and Herschel Avenue, so we decided to test the restaurant concept there and it was a success. Just a few months later, we opened in Kensington and Coronado.
What are some of the key things that you've done to differentiate Burger Lounge from other chains?
We wanted to do a common thing uncommonly well, and we accomplish this by using mostly whole foods and organic and sustainable ingredients. We looked for an American grass fed beef, so we could understand the supply chain from production all the way to the table. It was a fairly simple concept; the challenge was to execute it at a high level. There's also the service component; often with fast-casual, the relationship with the guest ends at the cash register. We've always felt there was a huge opportunity beyond that to do things in a more full-service capacity.
Where do you get your meat?
We source from a ranch called Sun Fed in Northern California that's been run by the same family since the 1850's. Our other source for grass fed beef comes from Raincrow Ranch in Missouri. We insisted in using a domestic product to ensure freshness.
Now that you also have a few Burger Lounge locations in Los Angeles, have you noticed a difference in the city's burger culture compared to San Diego?
Not to any large extent. I think both cities have embraced the hand-crafted hamburger and there's a lot of places that do it well; we have a "less is more" concept that's straightforward and gimmick-free and we feel it really resonates with people.
In San Diego, people really embraced the idea of grass fed beef very early on, and really understood it; that was kind of a surprise and a delight.
You're next local Burger Lounge is set for Del Mar....what other spots are you eyeing?
We've been looking in North County, north of Del Mar; we're also exploring Orange County and Pasadena. After Del Mar, we're opening in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles in June. There's over 20 million people in Southern California, so we've got a long way to go, but the natural progression would be to go into Northern California too, where I'm originally from. We feel like we can control the quality of the brand by not franchising, and it's important for us to keep geographically in touch so we can best execute and manage the brand by keeping on a steady path and not going to far-flung places too early.
Any plans to expand the Burger Lounge menu?
The menu's in a constant state of change; we did a limited edition wild game burger series and we're doing a spring lamb burger starting May 1. We're also working on a new fresh albacore sandwich that'll start as a special in the summer and might make it onto the permanent menu.
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