Specialty Burgers Add Spice to Menus

The burger business has changed over the past decade. No longer is it enough to simply offer a regular cheeseburger topped with the traditional standbys of lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard and ketchup.

Burgers need to be bigger and better, either new takes on what have become the mainstream specialty burgers – think bacon and bleu cheese burgers or “cowboy” burgers topped with onion rings and barbecue sauce – or new ideas that, even if they sound a little crazy, often turn out to be delicious.

“Hamburgers are hamburgers. You can go anywhere and get one. But if you want a really good hamburger, come to a place like this,” says Justin Howard, the chef at The Dash Inn on the west side of Youngstown. “Go to a hole-in-the-wall place and get their signature burger because you know it’ll be good every time.”

The signature burger at The Dash Inn is the JD Whiskey burger, topped with a homemade whiskey glaze, pepper jack cheese, onion rings, grilled onions and spring mix greens.

In its 2015 Burger Consumer Trend Report, Technomic magazine reported that customers are demanding creativity with their burgers. Just over half of the customers surveyed want restaurants to offer “a variety of burger toppings” while 61% wanted the ability to customize their toppings and condiments.

Listening to customers, chefs agree, is where most of the ideas for specialty burgers arise, followed closely by simply putting together ingredients that work well together.

At the Sunrise Inn in Warren, chef Dennis Baumiller says one of his first specialty burgers was enhanced with feta cheese, greens and gyro meat.

“And someone told me, ‘This is goooooood,’ ” he says. “And we went from there. We just climbed the ladder.”

For the annual River Rock at the Amp series, Sunrise puts together themed burgers for whichever act is performing, among them the Born in the U.S.A. burger with pepperoni, hot peppers, marinara sauce and mozzarella sticks, and the Thriller burger with hot peppers, bacon, jalapeno chips, onion rings and hot barbecue sauce.

“Sometimes it’s just messing around with ideas with employees,” he says, noting that creating a burger is often a team effort that involves staff and customers.

At Courthouse Grille in downtown Warren, owner Lynne Villers and chef Sabrina Shamblin started their specialty menu with the Grohl Burger – mushrooms, a slice of onion, bacon, a house horseradish sauce and provolone cheese – and have since expanded it to six more burgers. When a customer suggests a burger to add to the list, they spend some time tweaking the idea.

“We don’t want to do what anyone else does. We want it to be special. We don’t want you to find this anywhere else,” Villers says. “And if people keep coming back in for it, then we keep putting it on.”

Shamblin notes orders for specialty burgers often have a domino effect. If one is ordered, then she “better be ready to throw a bunch more down, because you’ll get more right behind it, every time,” the chef says.

With the exception of the Grohl Burger, all Courthouse specialties have a theme around their namesakes: the D.A., the Jury, the Court Reporter. The names, chefs agree, are just as important as what tops the beef patty.

“We have a Tombstone burger,” says Cockeye BBQ owner and chef Erik Hoover, “and we didn’t just want to call it a ‘cowboy burger’ like everyone else. Because who’s going to remember which place had the cowboy burger?”

Instead, he reasons, by paying homage to one of his favorite movies – the 1993 western starring Kurt Russell – and having a unique name, he can draw customers to the Warren restaurant.

In Sharon, Pa., the burger themes at Donna’s Diner are doubly layered, in keeping with the ’50s theme of the diner and what lies on the beef patty. The task, general manager Laura Ackley says, isn’t always easy. But what has worked, she adds, has worked well.

“The Ricky Ricardo is a hot burger with a Cuban flair. The Heartbreak Hotel is a grilled cheese cheeseburger that’s a heart attack on a plate,” she says with a laugh.

Almost all burgers on the menu there started as daily specials that gained enough popularity to become permanent offerings.

“If they’re not selling, we’ll take them off our list [of burgers of the day]. And if they are,” she explains, “then we’ll add them to the full menu.”

As with any other industry, awards are good for more than just bragging rights. In many cases, they bring in new business.

Donna’s Diner has won several awards, including the People’s Choice Award at a contest hosted by Quaker Steak & Lube in Sharon. Courthouse Grille finished third on The Vindicator’s Burger of the Year list in 2015. And in 2011, Sunrise Inn won Burger of the Year from the Youngstown newspaper.

“It went from just playing around with them one day,” says chef Baumiller, to, “after we won burger of the year, spiking up to 300 or 400 burgers a week.”

Even without awards, specialty burgers have become a mainstay on menus. The motive behind their creation isn’t all that different from the rest of the menu: give customers what they want and make good food.

Hoover points to Cockeye’s Slawterhouse 5 burger, a cheeseburger with pulled pork and coleslaw. The pulled pork sandwich, he says, is the top-selling item at the restaurant.

“People obviously like the pulled pork sandwich,” he says. “Our thought was to just put them together to see if people liked it. … It’s not always some mad-scientist burger creation.”

Pictured: Dennis Baumiller, chef at Sunrise Inn in Warren, says after the restaurant won a Burger of the Year award in 2011, the number of burgers they sold skyrocketed to between 300 and 400 per week.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.