Whats Old is New Again

What’s Old is New Again

The Evolving Oregon Burger

A perfect storm of increasing consumer culinary adventurism and nostalgia, a historic economic downturn and the honing of restaurateurs’ survival skills in the last few years has fueled a resurgence—and reinvention—of the classic American burger. In moving away from white tablecloth concepts, opting out of franchise opportunities, or simply riding a massive contemporary wave with their own twists, Oregon operators are putting their handmade stamp on a food that is far from showing signs of declining in popularity.

The burger has invaded every level and type of restaurant and bar today. Somewhere inside the boundaries between established quick service models and upscale eateries lies a vast territory rife with imaginative offerings, both harking back to what Salem’s Willamette Burger Company owner Janet Henry calls “old-school”—what is more old-school than a burger joint?—but catering to newer tastes for local sourcing and variety.

How do innovative burger concepts appear in Oregon? According to Craig Knouf, owner of the new Original Wow! Burger, which recently opened in Wilsonville with additional units coming in Vancouver and Portland, local demand for variety works for the genre: “Burgers are America’s favorite food. Customers have a burger choice on almost every corner in America. The average Oregonian is much more exposed to culinary variety than they were a generation ago. From very specific ethnic restaurants and grocery stores to the countless television shows dedicated to food – people are simply more sophisticated as it relates to food. Consumers want more options than the national chains were offering. Restaurant goers across the U.S. are demanding variety, quality, and affordability.  In addition to these basic three “must haves” Oregonians are leaders in the national local food movement; they take pride in knowing their region offers some of the highest quality and unique food products in the country.” Customers at Wow! Burger walk in the door and grab a mark able form attached to a clipboard to choose toppings and condiments, as well as protein - including non-beef alternatives like Diestel turkey, Oregon chicken and Kobe beef hotdogs - then pass the completed form across the counter. Here, the burgers come on fresh baked buns and are made with “cruelty-free” ingredients. A sign alerts customers who walk in the door: “You are the architect of your own burger destiny.”

In some cases, the move to burgers is a strategic shift in trying times. Industry veteran Joe Rapport, who earned his chops with Wolfgang Puck at southern California’s Ma Maison and co-founded 50 Plates and JoPa in Portland, started the walk-up Joe’s Burgers and fast-casual Joe’s Burgers & Bar in the Portland metro region. He puts it like this: “The advent of Joe’s Burgers marked a directional about-face for me as a restaurateur. Having long been part of the full-service dining scene in Portland, I couldn’t help but notice how the industry was suffering from the continuing economic downturn. People still want to go out to eat. They just want to do it more cheaply. Burgers fill that need nicely.” Rapport’s eateries feature old-fashioned hamburgers, hotdogs and shakes. The burgers are made with Oregon natural beef, hormone and antibiotic-free, from cows fed on a vegetarian diet. An interesting combination: the “American classic-style burger,” sustainably raised, prepared and served. And by eschewing complicated menu items, Joe’s Burgers perhaps bucks more talked-about taste trends: Says Rapport, “Customers are not required to have an appreciation of more adventurous food to enjoy a Joe’s burger. That is the beauty of it. It is not complicated or intellectual. You don’t have to have a higher consciousness or be ‘more informed’ to enjoy our food.” The choices include burgers, all-beef hotdogs, hand-spun shakes and sodas.

If comfort foods are an answer to economic concerns, burgers remind consumers of a “slower, more carefree and nostalgic time,” notes Joe Rapport, adding, “I think people tend to cocoon and gravitate to the familiar during uncertain times, it’s comforting.” They are also reminiscent of a time before the broadcasted hypersensitivity to consuming certain foods. Again, Rapport: “As with bacon and cupcakes, at some point you have to come out of the closet and profess your undying devotion to foods you love.” Still, the love affair need not be heartbreaking: “We use Oregon natural beef that is hormone/antibiotic free and raised on a vegetarian diet. It is better for the cows and better for us,” says Rapport. And Wow! Burger, in using natural proteins with no steroids or antibiotics, and offering plenty of alternatives to a “side of fries,” can also stake a claim to more sensible eating. continue →