Using a metal press, Jeff Porter smashes a ball of freshly ground beef onto a hot flattop grill and holds it there for several seconds to sear it.
It’s a simple technique but the most important one in creating the signature item of Sespe Burger in Boardman.
Ever since Porter and his wife, Christina, started the business in September, their sizzling and flavorful burgers have developed a fan base.
Searing the meat creates an irresistible layer of carmelization. After a dash of a secret seasoning mix is cooked in, the juicy burger is topped with cheese, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, Thousand Island dressing and sautéed onions, and placed on a grilled bun.
It tastes like – Southern California.
The hallmarks of the restaurant are a short menu that is big on flavor. In addition to the burgers are patty melts, BLTs, pastrami, chicken and avocado and egg sandwiches; a variety of loaded fries; and breakfast burritos.
Sespe Burger takes its name from the scenic Sespe Creek area in Ventura County, Calif., where Jeff grew up.
Jeff says the food was inspired by the many burger stands that dot Southern California, known for wrapping sandwiches in a way that leaves one end open.
It’s a likely holdover from the car culture of that region. “You can eat it while driving,” he says.
The story behind Sespe Burger – which earned an Unsung Hero Award in The Business Journal’s Rally Around Small Business program – also begins in the Golden State.
Christina, a Boardman native, moved to California after graduating from a culinary school in Pittsburgh. She met Jeff at Mobi Munch, a company that develops and launches food trucks, where they both worked.
After marrying and having two children, “I moved them back to Ohio,” Christina says.
The business was designed to not just fit the Porters’ lifestyle, but to be a big part of their lifestyle.
It’s a lunch-only place with a very small dine-in area that is closed because of the pandemic. Sespe Burger has always done a strong takeout business and that continues.
Customers can call or place orders from its website.
The shop at 8252 Market St., Boardman is convenient to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Boardman campus and many automobile showrooms as well.
“We have a lot of loyal customers from the car dealers,” Christina says. “They eat out every day and we’re in their rotation for lunch. We have two little kids at home, ages 2 and 4, and we wanted to have a lunch business. So it’s a good location for that. We’re home by 4 p.m. and off on Sunday. We have the lifestyle we wanted.”
In January, the Porters extended their hours until 7 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays – the days the dealerships stay open late – but cut back again when the coronavirus hit.
As restaurants closed their dining rooms and laid off staff, the couple did what it could to help those who felt the pinch.
“They could direct-message us or email us. And we would provide them a lunch,” Jeff said. About 10 displaced workers a day were being served. But that number trailed off after restaurants began to reopen.
The Porters employ five at Sespe Burger, not counting themselves.
The couple has been working as a team since their California days. Although their duties overlap, Christina is the chef and handles the finances, while Jeff looks after daily operations, marketing and personnel.
The Sespe Burger template takes a page from the food truck industry: outsized flavors, a simple menu and fast production.
It began with a mobile burger cart that the Porters took to street events and brewpubs, including Birdfish in Columbiana and Paladin in Austintown. They still operate the cart as they expand their business in other innovative ways.
“We launched a lemonade stand on July 6,” Christina says. “We make it here out of fresh lemons and juices and also can it here. Someone said it tastes like a lemon shake in a can.”
Proceeds from the sale of June’s Lemonade – it’s named for their daughter – are donated to charity.
“[June] came up with the idea,” Christina said. “She wanted to have her own lemonade stand in here. So we named it after her and let her pick the charities.”
Second Harvest Foodbank, she says, will be the first to receive a donation check.
Pictured: Jeff and Christina Porter operate their business as part of their lifestyle. A can of their lemonade is in foreground.