Area Burger Joints
Take the Junk Out of Fast Food
By Steve Holt
Fact: We all crave fast food.
It’s as human as hangnails, bad hair days and squabbles with the mother-in-law. Even the most set-in-her-ways, bleeding-heart locavore must admit that on occasion all she wants is to order her meal at a counter and be asked if she wants fries with that. Maybe it’s one of those late-night munchies attacks. The need for a quick meal on the walk home from work. Or, perhaps, hungry little mouths when a root canal sounds more appealing than making something from scratch.
Fact: For those who appreciate fresh, local food, succumbing to such temptations usually requires a breach of conscience. And, perhaps, a disguise—one of those Groucho Marx glasses-nose-mustache combos, maybe. Wouldn’t want to run into that woman from your community garden on the way home. Pulling your scarf even tighter over your head, you mumble your order to the guy behind the register. Your shame is enough to drive you back to confession, and you gave up religion years ago. And all this before you take that first bite.
Well, take off the plastic facial features and, for God’s sake, put down the square-pattied burger. I bear tidings of great joy. No longer must you hide or compromise your culinary values. You now have alternatives, thanks to the arrival of a couple of new burger joints that are friendly to your waist, wallet and, yes, watch.
Welcome to guilt-free fast food.
Call it the fast-food counterattack. Or maybe a burger backlash. The first decade of the new millennium was not kind to the fast-food industry. There were high-profile books and films flambéing fast food—notably Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s-slaying documentary, Super Size Me. Then, a succession of cities banned the use of trans fats by restaurants, a decree that touched nearly every major name in the industry. Follow that up with several E. coli outbreaks and the continued expansion of the local and organic food movements, and one has a decade rife with industry change. And to think, all this just a few years after our own president confessed his addiction to the golden arches.
Gradually, restaurant after restaurant popped up claiming to be the “new fast food,” offering healthier menu options, often local meat and vegetables and a generally more positive environment for customer and employee alike.
Predictably, many fizzled. But a few sizzled.
In the Boston area, their names are FOUR Burgers and b.good. Both have set out to offer the quickest, highest quality burger without making diners (or workers) feel like herded cattle. Both emphasize the local origins of their ground beef and potatoes, all of which is ground and cut in-house. At FOUR Burgers, customers can even get a glass of Pinot Grigio or a bottle of Allagash Ale with their meal. And with wait times comparable to traditional burger joints, these gastronomical rabble-rousers promise to be family-friendly as well. Can they deliver? For the answer, you’ll have to wait.
After a lifetime in the restaurant business, Rhode Island native Michael Bissanti set out to open a burger restaurant in the Boston area. He wanted to do several things differently than other places, though. Where other joints downplay or completely ignore anything but a standard beef burger, Bissanti wanted to highlight patties prepared with other palatable ingredients—turkey, veggie and even salmon. He’d still serve a beef burger, but he would use only grass-fed varieties from farms within a few hundred miles. He’d serve them all on actual plates. He’d support local businesses and give back to the community.
Celebrating its third birthday this June, FOUR Burgers—aptly named for the number of bunned creations it offers—delivers on Bissanti’s goals and is a local leader in the movement to serve better fast food. It’s a concept Bissanti sums up in one often-misused word: hospitality. Hospitality, Bissanti asserts, is a symphony involving customers, the community, a quality product and the overall experience in his restaurant. The burger must taste good, yes. But the customer must also feel at home in his dining room. Bissanti has caught more than a couple patrons off guard by emerging from the kitchen to bus their dishes and make sure they enjoyed themselves.
“We want to wow them,” says Bissanti, who also co-owns The Paramount in Beacon Hill.
With its location in Central Square—Cambridge’s fast-food epicenter—how does FOUR Burgers fare against its cheaper competition? Well, sales don’t lie. Bissanti says business was up 15% in 2010 from the year before. And FOUR Burgers’ second location—in Back Bay—is set to open in late spring.
The secret—which Bissanti shares hesitantly—is simple: Keep it simple. Narrow the menu choices and do everything well. But simplicity even extends to his recipes. Case in point, his beef hamburger.
“It’s just a basic hamburger. We didn’t mess with it,” he says. “We just wanted to appreciate foods for what they are.”
And customers seem to appreciate Bissanti’s burger philosophy, a number of them regularly ordering just a medium-rare burger on a bun—no sauces, no vegetables. When I was there, a customer stopped by the counter on his way out the door. “That was a damn good burger,” he told the woman working the register.
FOUR Burgers sources all its ground beef from the Northeast, the benefits of which—economically and nutritionally—are not lost on Bissanti. “By sourcing locally, you affect so many people in a short distance,” he says. “It only has to travel a couple hundred miles instead of a few thousand miles, and that is a very measurable difference in the environment.”
A sign hangs prominently next to the cash register touting the benefits of all-natural burgers. No hormones or antiobiotics … healthier … supports family farms … creates jobs … smaller carbon footprint … prevents overdevelopment of land …
And how many burger joints do you know that save their frying oil and have compost bins out back? FOUR Burgers also sells Massachusetts-based Spindrift Sodas, a line Bissanti would like to see eventually replace the Coca-Cola and Pepsi products he currently offers.
“That’s the only high-fructose corn syrup in the whole restaurant,” Bissanti says, pointing to the soda machine.
If there is a downside to FOUR Burgers and its counterparts, it’s the price. You’re going to pay several dollars more per person here than you would ordering off the value menu. A burger with lettuce and tomato will run you $7.50 at FOUR Burgers, for instance. But hopefully by now we’re aware that, as with the China-made knickknack from the big-box store, a buck or two fails to account for a hamburger’s true cost—to the animal, the farmers, the meat packers, the environment and your body. That said, you’re still going to pay less here than you would at a steakhouse.
The primary silver lining to the price, though, is that our spending more allows restaurants like FOUR Burgers to spend more on local and grass-fed beef. Bissanti says he’s thrilled eaters are willing to pay more for better meat.
“People must be asking for it more or [restaurants] wouldn’t do it,” he says. “When people are also willing to dig a little bit deeper to support it, it’s even more encouraging. Kind of gets you out of bed in the morning.”
A number of major fast-food chains have made changes in response to consumer demands and media criticism. Wendy’s introduced a line of salads and switched to “natural, real-cut” fries. McDonald’s expanded, healthier menu includes oatmeal with fruit and snack-sized wraps. But for an increasing number of consumers, a few cosmetic changes to an industry wrought with problems is not enough. We want the assurance that in exchange for a meal on the run, we’re not sacrificing quality, health or ecology. In this way, the healthy burger revolution is a sight for sore eyes.
But how will fast food lite hold up against the toughest critic around: a 4-year-old?
With neither the time nor the ingredients to cook at home, my wife and I took our little guy to the Washington Street location of b.good, another of the Boston-born burger restaurants. Founders Jon Olinto and Anthony Ackil opened their Back Bay location in 2003. Since then, the business has ballooned to seven locations in Boston, Cambridge, Dedham and Hingham. Built on the motto “real.food.fast.,” b.good boasts all-natural, mostly local ingredients and superior quality foods.
But if there is a weakness here, our ankle-biter will sniff it out. Too long of a wait. A condiment out of place. A burger piled too high for a little mouth. A poor choice of paint colors, for crying out loud. Throw into the mix that he hasn’t had his nap, and all bets are off.
Move over, Ruth Reichl.
As we enter, an employee is changing the trash barrels. She sees our little boy first. “Hey there!” she chirps. “You hungry?” Immediately, Mr. No-Filter clams up. She introduces herself. “What’s your name?” He answers, shyly. She asks how old he is. She has a 5-year-old.
At this point, I figure she knows he’s reviewing the place. He’s been made, and she’s just buttering him up. But regardless of her motive, it works—he’s immediately at ease. He confidently orders his favorite, the cheeseburger (toy not included). My wife gets the West Side turkey burger—which comes loaded with avocado, cilantro, tomato and chipotle salsa. I choose the Adopted Luke turkey burger, which features mushrooms, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese and barbecue sauce. We get two orders of their air-baked fries—one sweet potato and one regular—to share, as well as an order of crisp veggies. Throw in a couple of drinks, and our total comes to around $30.
As we’re waiting for our orders to come up, my wife reads to our hungry boy from a cardboard centerpiece sitting on the table. It tells story of the Lawlors, a family in Merill, Maine, whose cattle farm provides the grass-fed burger meat to many of b.good’s locations. Nothing like impromptu teaching moments while waiting for fast food.
After no more than a 10-minute wait, we are chowing down. All three burgers are perfectly cooked and dripping with the toppings we requested. Well-done. The fresh vegetables—broccoli, carrots and red peppers—are crisp, tasty and grown by a farmer named Dick in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, a sign on the wall tells us. Frank, from Hatfield, Massachusetts, provided the potatoes for the crispy, air-baked fries. Thank you, Dick and Frank.
So how did the boy like it? Well, aside from the burger half we set aside for the next day’s lunch, his plate was clean and he was left clamoring for more fries. He even loved his portion of the vegetables. Also, we’ve discovered a scientific correlation between how much he hums during the meal and his enjoyment thereof. This night, those dining around us were amply serenaded.
Our healthy, sustainable family fast-food outing was a huge success. Our bellies were full, and most importantly our consciences were clean. As for finishing our meal in a reasonable block of time, we didn’t fare so well. I guess our son hasn’t gotten the memo that in America, taking one’s time while eating is considered in poor taste. This may technically be considered fast food, but with a 4-year-old, it’s anything but.
704 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge 617-441-5444
134 Boylston Street Boston
131 Dartmouth Street Boston 617-424-5252
137 Massachusetts Avenue Boston 617-236-5480
272 Newbury StreetBoston 617-236-0440
255 Washington Street Boston 617-227-1006
24 Dunster Street Cambridge 617-354-6500
Legacy Place, Dedham 781-251-0222
Steve Holt lives, writes, gardens and eats (a lot) in East Boston. His work has appeared a number of local and national publications, including the Boston Globe, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Sojourners and Christianity Today. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.