Let’s switch things up a bit by talking about fast food, or rather, the concept of “fast casual.” The rise of the “fast casual chain” is a recent trend that is having a major impact on the food industry. The term refers to restaurants that straddle the line between fast food and sit-down dining, such as Chipotle, Panera, or Cosi. There’s no table service, but the meals are supposedly made with a little more TLC (and attempted nutritional value), and with a slightly higher price tag, so the customers are meant to feel a bit classier than when they order a Double Down at KFC (if you don’t know what that is, the internet is calling your name).
Business at these chains has skyrocketed in recent years, leapfrogging over formerly popular sit-down restaurants like Applebee’s and Olive Garden as well as cheaper spots like McDonalds and Wendy’s. In fact, the trend has led to an embrace across the board of the “Chipotle Effect” — where fast food chains are remodeling their menus and their venues in order to reach up into the fast casual market. For example, Wendy’s latest revamp designs have ditched the carpet and hokey red roof for sleek industrial design that seems a bit like our favorite burrito store (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/wendys-redesign-fast-food-restaurant_n_1159108.html#s557410&title=New_Seating_Arrangements). And if you poke your head in a few McDonalds chains in Manhattan, I think you’d be surprised by the dark wood and lounge seating. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a Ronald McDonald statue — clearly bright yellow and red proved too garish for the new Mickey D’s.
Not all of the “Chipotle Effect” is superficial, however. By focusing on the caliber of its own ingredients, Chipotle has led the charge on more ethical sourcing in general. There is a growing shift towards transparency of what goes into our processed fast food, so while that carnitas burrito might not do wonders for your waistline, at least you know the pig you’re eating was grass-fed.
I couldn’t help but think about all of this when I visited BurgerFi this weekend, the newest burger chain to hit Manhattan (and only a block away from my friends’ apartment!). I would wager that BurgerFi considers itself in the fast casual category, and although the company is based in South Florida, a quick glimpse around the first NY location may strike a customer as remarkably familiar. BurgerFi also focuses on locally-sourced, natural ingredients and eco-friendly policies, touting their recycled napkins and “chairs that are made from recycled Coke bottles.” Check off the modern design, check off the trendy organic-focused attitude, but how does BurgerFi fare in the most important measurement — satisfying four hungry customers for lunch?
From the sidewalk outside, BurgerFi is most reminiscent of a retro-fitted garage, featuring a wide-open dining space with a counter against the back wall. Not to disparage the creativity of the architect, but there were some pretty striking similarities to the Shake Shack aesthetic, a branch of which lies only a few blocks away on 86th St. The decor was very industrial, featuring lots of corrugated steel and neon on the outside with wood tables inside and chic lightning fixtures. There is coke-bottle manufactured outdoor seating under a metal awning, and a couple larger communal tables to go with the small two-tops and four-tops inside. Between the restaurant design and the categories of the menu (burgers, dogs, fries, and frozen custard), the similarities to Shake Shack seemed to be adding up fast.
BurgerFi does win points for its service. The location only opened up last month, so the employees were still very enthusiastic, even at noon on a Sunday. Laura and I got free samples of the frozen custard while we were waiting for the rest of our lunch crew, and when we approached the counter the employees had a call and response cheer at the ready “Welcome to BurgerFi!” “Where everything’s natural!”
Like a few other fast casual chains, after ordering at the counter, you’re given a numbered buzzer that goes off when your order is ready. You then have to go up and claim your order. It went pretty smoothly for the four of us, although Laura was stuck waiting for slightly longer because she had ordered the “bucket of fries” (actual name) for us to all share.
Besides being natural (and eco-friendly), BurgerFi’s game seems to be the multiplicity of choice. You can build your own burger (or hot dog), or choose from their menu of preset combinations, but you get 2 free toppings with those and can then add more, at additional cost. BurgerFi also offers fries and onion rings, cupcakes, beer and wine, and at least at this location, they have those ridiculous Coke machines were you can combine as many different soft drinks as you desire. We didn’t get them, but I spotted an order of onion rings on a nearby table and they looked absurd — not the thin, namby-pamby onion rings at Burger King, but thickly breaded, full-on half a layer of onion width rings, like someone had made a miniaturized Bloomin’ Onion.
I wanted to have the authentic experience for my first foray in BurgerFication, so I opted for the straight up BurgerFi Burger, but I was also intrigued by their VegeFi Burger, which is a quinoa-based patty, and the Brisket Burger (as we all know, I do love me some brisket).
Again, like Shake Shack, the standard BurgerFi Burger is a double patty, but I went for the single burger since I was planning on ordering a shake and sharing fries with the table (I aim for the barest minimum of restraint). My burger arrived in a wax paper sleeve, the BurgerFi name branded into the potato bun. It was about the same size as a regular fast food burger (and my Burger Joint burger), and cooked to about the same medium temperature. The bun was slightly firmer than the one at Burger Joint, which I appreciated, since I’m not a fan of accidentally Hulking-out and turning my burger bun into a Wheat Thin. The standard toppings are lettuce, tomato and the BurgerFi sauce, which seemed to be the same basic Thousand Island dressing style sauce you see on the Big Mac or the Shackburger. It was a pretty straightforward burger, and was the least favorite part of my meal. Not that it was bad or unappetizing — it was not too overdone, cooked so the meat was still a little tender (although not particularly moist), and the ingredients were clearly fresh (including the tomato, which had actual flavor). It just wasn’t anything beyond a solid beef burger.
However, I think in terms of getting the most bang for my buck, it’d be better to build my own burger or go for some of the more intriguing add-ons, like blue cheese and Peter Luger Steak Sauce, or even go Bobby’s Burger Palace style and get potato chips on my burger. I have my own preferences and predilections when it comes to burgers. There are times that I’m looking for a real meat-forward experience (oy, the phrases I come up with for this blog), and in that case I’m going to probably throw out a little more cash for a burger I can order medium-rare, like hitting up Five Napkin Burger or even Jackson Hole. But when I go to Five Guys or Shack Shack or BurgerFi, I’m looking for what the toppings can add to my overall taste experience, since I can’t modify the burger meat itself. I think during my next visit to BurgerFi I’ll probably try out the Brisket Burger to see how the meat compares before I delve into the land of cheese and toppings.
I also went with the traditional route for my shake, in order to more fully taste the frozen custard. BurgerFi offers just two flavors of its custard: vanilla and chocolate. I’ve been a lifelong black-and-white shake drinker, so I chose that over the tempting Red Velvet or Peanut Butter shakes. BurgerFi also sells cups and cones of the custard, with a wide array of mix-ins, and the once again similar-to-Shake-Shack-named Concretes, which features custard spun with toppings, like a higher quality McFlurry. Alas, BurgerFi does not have the rotating calendar of special flavors like Shake Shack, but the custard I tried was good enough to come back for, even with plain-jane vanilla and chocolate.
I am curious to see how BurgerFi’s custard business makes out in an area pretty saturated with frozen dessert options. On that block alone you have both 16 Handles and Pinkberry, and there are a few Tasti-D Lites and the Shack itself not too far away, not to mention Emack and Bolio’s just a few avenues down.
My shake came with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkles on top, which was an unexpected bonus at a restaurant with no table service. BurgerFi also takes the time to line the sides and bottom of the cup with chocolate syrup, which allowed me to continue blending it with the custard as I drank it. Well … drink might not be the most accurate verb. Because it was frozen custard, the consistency was closer to a Frosty than a real milkshake. Don’t get me wrong, it was still delicious, and I slurped it down, but I ended up using a spoon, which almost makes me wish I had just gone for a concrete. Overall, the components of the shake were well-blended, and I could still taste the vanilla custard despite the generous application of chocolate syrup, making it a very solid entry into the black-and-white pantheon.
As a devoted french fry lover, I was bound to enjoy the fries regardless, but BurgerFi actually surpassed my expectations with its potato entry. The fries come in regular, large, or the bucket size. The cashier explained that the bucket is intended for four people, so it seemed to make the most sense for all of us to share. (A word to the allergy-prone — a large sign near the counter states that BurgerFi cooks all their food in peanut oil.) And lest you be satisfied with merely well-executed fries, you can also add toppings to your spuds, such as salt & vinegar, parmesan & herbs, or BurgerFi’s homecooked chili.
Although “bucket” is a bit of a misnomer (carboard tray of fries doesn’t have the same ring), the order came out piled high with medium-cut fries that were well-salted and maintained their crispness as we tore through Mt. Starchmore. Even without the superlative add-ons, BurgerFi’s fries are probably the best I’ve had in a while, beating out the chips at Jones Wood Foundry in both texture and flavor.
After a few days digesting my meal at BurgerFi, I still feel pretty confident that I’ll be back soon. Although nothing in my meal was earth-shattering, each piece of my lunch was speedily delivered, well-executed, and satisfying. And BurgerFi definitely tops Burger Joint in terms of price point for a similar meal — my whole meal, including my contribution to the bucket of fries, cost around $12. Despite my initial skepticism at the seemingly overabundance of options at BurgerFi, it’s actually the precise reason I plan on returning. Now that I know the foundation of their menu is solid, but not tremendously exciting, I want to explore some of the odder flavor combinations to see if a larger menu gives a larger return. Truthfully, I usually can buy into the American value of added-options = added value. There’s a time and a place for a curated meal (including my beloved Jim’s Steaks in Philly where you can only get your cheesesteaks made a handful of ways), but sometimes you want the luxury of choice.
That luxury, plus some eco-and-wallet-friendly policies, make BurgerFi a worthwhile local lunch spot. Sure, at first glance they may not stand out from the growing fast casual crowd, but I’ve got no problem with buying a burger I know will settle a bit better in my stomach and on my conscience than a Whopper Junior. Of course, the culinary landscape in New York is always changing, and BurgerFi is just one of a number of national chains finally entering the NY market. For example, LA’s highly touted Umami Burger is only a few weeks from opening their first store on the East Coast in Manhattan’s West Village, so BurgerFi may soon find itself with some stiffer competition.
I guess I’ll just have to take a jaunt downtown and find out. You know, for our collective peace of mind.
1571 2nd Ave, New York