Cover Story

Gaining Ground

High-end Burgers Coming to Greater Springfield

It’s called ‘the Frankenstein.’
This is the creation of a Providence-based restaurant called Luxe Burger, and, as the menu declares, it is truly a “monster sandwich.”
How about four so-called “gold-label” burgers (5 ounces each), two jumbo Nathan’s all-beef hot dogs, four slices of bacon, and American cheese, topped with Hereford black bean chili, cole slaw, and relish, two buttered rolls, and a double order of French fries? Finish it all (and your cardiologist would certainly prefer that you didn’t), and you get a free T-shirt.
The Frankenstein will be among many new menu items, including a host of burger concoctions, that area residents will soon have to sort through, as a new and different type of business competition (no, not casinos) unfolds in Greater Springfield.
Indeed, in a region where, until very recently, there were none of the high-end burger restaurants that have begun to populate other areas of the country, there will soon be at least three, depending on how you define that phrase ‘high end.’ Max Burger, part of the Max Restaurant Group, recently opened in the Longmeadow Shops, while Plan B Burger Bars will open an outlet in the Basketball Hall of Fame complex (the former Pazzo site) in early September, and Luxe Burger hopes to open its second location in the former tourism center, just a block away from the Hall of Fame, in time for the holidays. Recently, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, one of the fastest-growing chains in the country and one that some would put in the high-end category, recently opened locations in Westfield, West Springfield, and Enfield, and an independent operation, Bruburger, has opened in Feeding Hills.

Tim Taillefer

Tim Taillefer says Max Burger is off to a fast start in Longmeadow.

With these developments, there have already been several additions to the local culinary lexicon, with many more to come. Max Burger has a Kobe Classic, for example, as well as a shrimp burger and a portabella burger, among many others, while Luxe Burger also touts something called Death By Burger, the Fatty Melt Burger, served between two grilled-cheese sandwiches (Max Burger has one of those, too), and Tory’s Breakfast Burger. Plan B Burgers can get creative, too, with a Double Double (referring to both the burger and the cheddar cheese), an Atlantic salmon burger, the Squeeler (a half-pork, half-beef burger), and even a ‘pretzel burger.’
Just how much of an appetite — in both a literal and figurative sense — the region has for all this is soon to become known, but all those involved are optimistic about their chances for success, even as the field becomes more crowded.
“It’s going to be interesting, and I’m glad we’re in first,” said Timothy Taillefer, manager of the Max Burger location, noting that, at the moment, he’s focused not on the competition, but on getting his establishment, which opened July 23, off to a solid start. And he says it’s already exceeding expectations that were set very high.
Al Gamble

Al Gamble, seen outside the site of the Plan B Burger to open at the Basketball Hall of Fame in September, says his eatery will complement the many restaurants already at the Hall.

Al Gamble, CEO and co-founder of the Locals 8 Restaurant Group, which counts four existing Plan B Burger Bars (all in Connecticut) among the six restaurants in its family, told BusinessWest that the picture unfolding in Springfield mirrors what eventually happened in Hartford.
“We were the pioneers in Hartford,” he said, noting that the group’s first location opened in 2006. “And then others followed — Max Burger, Gold Burger, Burger Baby, and others — and in Springfield, you’re seeing the same thing. What we’ve found is that the competition creates an exciting synergy — people will want to go and try different things; they’ll try us, try them, and then come back to us.”
John Elkhay, president of Providence-based Chow Fun Food Group, which includes the first Luxe Burger, opened in 2010, agreed. He said that, contrary to popular opinion, competition is generally a good thing in the restaurant industry, because it creates a critical mass that can make a city, or even a specific neighborhood, a dining destination. He’s seen it in Providence’s Federal Hill area.
“There are more Italian restaurants side by side there than there probably are in the North End of Boston,” he explained. “People might think, ‘there’s 15 to 18 restaurants in a quarter-mile block; how can anyone survive? They survive because everyone goes there for Italian food; you wouldn’t dare eat anywhere else.
“As a restaurateur, you want to be on Federal Hill,” he continued. “And I think the same will be true for that part of Springfield. More competition drives more people, and everyone gets a bigger piece of the pie.”
For this issue, BusinessWest gives its readers a taste of what could become a compelling battle of the high-end burgers in Greater Springfield, with a side order of speculation on how all this might turn out.

Meat and Greet
Taillefer told BusinessWest that the 200-seat Longmeadow location is the ninth in the Max Restaurant Group family of eateries, and the second Max Burger.
The first was opened in West Hartford in 2010, he noted, adding that, since its debut, results have far exceeded expectations — so much so that company officials began scouting sites for a second location more than a year ago.
They eventually found one they considered ideal in a former Blockbuster video store in the Longmeadow Shops, a large retail complex located less than a mile from East Longmeadow and Enfield, two other growing, affluent communities.
“Based on the success in West Hartford, we felt Longmeadow would be a great fit,” he explained. “The communities are very similar in many respects, although West Hartford has many more restaurants; Longmeadow doesn’t have many, and nothing like this.”
Taillefer, like the others we spoke with, said that what defines high-end or upscale burgers is essentially the quality of the beef — hormone-free, with no antibiotics or steroids, and always fresh, not frozen. Beyond that, it’s how the beef is prepared and the environment in which it’s served that defines this growing class of restaurant that Max Burger has joined.
Overall, he expects that the restaurant’s diverse menu — in addition to burgers, there are also appetizers, salads, soups, and entrees — as well as the large selection of craft beers and full bar will make Max Burger a true destination.

John Elkhay

John Elkhay, seen with some friends and several of the Luxe Burger concoctions, believes competition only helps those in the restaurant business by making the city a destination.

And he believes that term will definitely apply to Sunday afternoons (and maybe Sunday, Monday, and Thursday nights, as well) in the fall. “People have already been telling me this will be a great place to watch a football game,” he said as he started switching on the nine flat-screen televisions, with a 10th likely to be located on the patio.
Taillefer, who spent six years as assistant manager at Max’s Tavern (also within the Hall of Fame complex) before being named general manager of the second Max Burger, spent several months “in training” at the West Hartford location, an experience he believes will prove invaluable.
His previous experience includes stints at the Delaney House in Holyoke, Legal Sea Foods in Boston, and, when he was in high school, the Captain Rivi’s food stand at what was then known at Riverside Park in Agawam (now Six Flags).
“The burgers would come at you on a conveyer belt,” he said of his assignment at the amusement park’s fast-food eatery. “Let’s just say I’ve come — and burgers have come — a long way since then.”

Steer — Clear
Gamble would agree, and he’s had a front-row seat for some of the latest evolutionary twists and turns. He formed Plan B Burgers (the ‘B’ stands for beef, burgers, beer, and bourbon) with partner Shawn Skehan in 2006. The chain is a division, of sorts, of the Locals 8 Restaurant Group — which also owns the Half Door European Beer Bar and Tisane Tea & Coffee Bar, both in Hartford’s West End — so named because, in some parts of Europe, the neighborhood restaurant is known simply as the ‘local.’
“That’s a play on who we are culturally — it defines what we’re about,” he explained. “We want to create a lot of restaurants where locals feel like it’s their restaurant; to do that is a long, complicated process that revolves around connecting to the community you open restaurants in.”
From its roots in West Hartford, the chain expanded into Simsbury, Glastonbury, and Milford, said Gamble, adding that, beyond the next wave (Springfield and Stamford, Conn.), the group — named one of the fastest-growing U.S. companies by Inc. magazine in 2009 and 2010 — plans to take the concept national.
Locals 8 was contacted by the Basketball Hall of Fame to gauge interest in assuming the space vacated by Pazzo, which shut its doors more than a year ago, Gamble continued, adding that the company believes the location offers great opportunity in the form of the local demographic base, the tens of thousands of cars that traverse that stretch of I-91 on a daily basis, and the growing restaurant infrastructure in and near the Hall.
He described that complex as a high-profile site, with a good tenant mix that includes restaurants such as Max’s, Samuel’s, and Mama Iguana’s.
“That was something we scrutinized internally,” he explained. “We asked ourselves, ‘if we came to that site, would we split the demographic of consumers or would we add to it?’ We talked to the restaurateurs who were there and talked to people in the South End, and felt that we would add to the mix and bring more people seeking diverse products to that area. I think we’re a complement to the mix that’s there.”
As he talked with BusinessWest amid construction workers readying the former site for its new use, Gamble said he was eyeing a Sept. 1 opening date — roughly a week ahead of the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
Elkhay said the Chow Fun Food Group has grown steadily over the years, and now includes an eclectic mix of eateries.
There’s Rick’s Roadhouse, which markets itself as “an escape from fine dining”; Ten Prime Steak and Sushi; XO Café, which “celebrates the fusion of fine cuisine, wine, and funky art”; Harry’s Bar & Burger, a small (600 square feet) establishment that serves sliders, hot dogs, shakes, and craft beers; and Luxe Burger, which was created with the logic that spawned many of the high-end (or higher-end) burger restaurants.
“Every restaurant has a hamburger, except really high-end dining, and even they’re in the hamburger business,” said Elkhay. “So I’m thinking that I must be crazy to do an exclusive hamburger place. But when you go into a niche, you get so many loyal customers.
“And when you’re focused on a hamburger, and a hamburger only, you’re able to be better, be more consistent, and do it for value because that’s all you’re doing; you’re not doing all the other things that are distracting, like entrees, fish cutting, and other things. It’s just hamburgers.”
He said the restaurant did extensive research and testing before launching, eventually settling on Hereford beef (“it tastes just like it did when the cowboys ate it 150 years ago — it’s like an American heartland steak”), a unique method of cooking it (the skillet), and a build-your-own format that he believes has created several thousand possible combinations of everything from toppings to buns to side orders.
The Springfield venture represents the first time the group has replicated one of its concepts, said Elkhay, adding that the group sees vast potential in Springfield and, more specifically, the growing restaurant corridor along the riverfront.
“Springfield wants to be a restaurant destination place like Providence,” he noted, “and we’re very proud to be part of the new turning point in Springfield. The more, the merrier — that’s our philosophy.”

The Ground Game
Elkhay said the Frankenstein has become part of the culinary culture in Providence. One of the local television news anchors tried (unsuccessfully) to polish one off recently, he said, adding that there is about a 30% success rate when it comes to finishing the $17.99 burger.
“We have a lot of hockey players who have tried it,” he said, noting that Providence College is not far from the eatery. “Usually, though, it’s not the size of the person that will determine whether they can finish it; sometimes, the skinny guys can finish it more easily than the bigger guys.”
Whether the sandwich becomes a hit in Springfield remains to be seen. But one thing Elkhay is certain about is the climate for high-end burgers in Greater Springfield. He believes the market is ready for some spirited burger competition, and will benefit from having so many options when it comes to what can be placed between two buns — or grilled-cheese sandwiches, as the case may be.
And that’s no bull. Well, actually, it is — lots of bull, and it’s coming to Greater Springfield.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]