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Making a different burger

Hubert Keller is a classically trained chef and owner of the acclaimed Fleur de Lys restaurants in San Francisco and Las Vegas. He had eaten maybe five burgers in his lifetime before he launched Burger Bar 12 years ago—a multi-unit polished casual spot that he claims was the first “better burger” concept. “It was a risk at that time for a fine dining chef to do burgers,” he said, “but I did a lot of research, ate a lot of burgers and watched a lot of people eat burgers.” We sat down with Chef Keller during the 2013 Restaurant Leadership Conference to find out how he differentiates his restaurant and his burgers.

How did you differentiate

Burger Bar from the start?
I needed a couple of hooks. First, I decided on a build-your-own-burger concept. Customers choose their meat—beef, lamb, buffalo, turkey, salmon or vegan—one of three buns and about 50 toppings. Along with the typical cheeses, pickles and condiments people can choose everything from grilled asparagus to black truffles. Most important, we built a butcher shop right into the restaurant where guests can see us grind the meat fresh every day. Every burger is made by hand—no presses. And we put 24 draft beers on tap and offer more than 100 by the bottle.

Do you use a proprietary blend of meat?
I use one cut and one grind of Black Angus beef. Once all the toppings are on a burger, you won’t taste if it’s 20 percent hanger steak or 30 percent short rib, so why complicate things? Plus, too much description puts the customer to sleep. But I also offer a Kobe beef burger and an antibiotic-free grass-fed beef burger.

What made you decide to open your third location in Beijing this year?
Some “experts” told us a burger here wouldn’t work because the Chinese don’t eat with their fingers, but we did a lot of research and discovered that the burger is already established in China. The Beijing Burger Bar is the same concept with the same prices—starting at around $10 for a basic burger. But the space doesn’t adapt well to a large draft beer selection, so we’re offering four beers on tap and a selection in bottles.

How are you differentiating the menu in China?
I’ve made a few accommodations to Chinese tastes and culture. Instead of buffalo, we’re making burgers out of yak meat and instead of sliders, we’re offering meat-filled steamed buns. We’re also introducing a duck burger and including some Asian sauces in the topping selections. Our chef has lived in Beijing and helped develop these new items.

Are Chinese burger customers different from American ones?
The Chinese consider imported ingredients to be the best, so we note that our meats are imported from Australia to give them more cachet. Angus is also a word that connotes quality. They also believe that if a menu item is less expensive, it’s less good. The Chinese have different perceptions of what is “fancy.” We continue to keep our eyes open to see what will be accepted in China; what sides work, what products don’t speak to customers, what sells and what doesn’t.

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