Editor's note: Grilled is our interview series where we get to know more about our favorite burger makers and burger lovers. The column has been dormant for too long—it's time for us to ramp it up! If there you have any suggestions for people we should grill, drop us a line at [email protected].
J. Dean Loring is an important player in the San Diego burger scene. Burger Lounge, his empire of elevated fast-casual burger restaurants, has set a new standard in the category, starting in 2007, when the first location opened in La Jolla.
In the last seven years, Burger Lounge has grown from a small local chain to a dozen locations (eight in San Diego, four in Los Angeles), with four more slated to open by the end of the year. Every location shares the same unwavering commitment to high quality ingredients, positive environmental practices, and excellent service.
Ok, let's talk burgers.
Name: J. Dean Loring
Location: San Diego and Los Angeles
Occupation: CEO | Co-Founder, Burger Lounge restaurants
How often per week do you eat a burger? Lately I have been on a "Paleo Regimen" (carbohydrate restrictive diet) so I have been limiting my intake of bread. Right now I am eating about one grass-fed beef patty and one free range turkey patty. Normally, I eat about two burgers a week and a lot of fresh fish and vegetable. Everything in moderation, right?
What makes Burger Lounge a new different type of burger restaurant? There is no American food about which people have a stronger opinion than the hamburger, so we don't try to be all things to all people. Burger Lounge takes the common burger and elevates it with ingredients that are better for you and taste better. I like to say we do a "common thing, uncommonly well". Ingredients like grass-fed beef, organic cheeses and hand-crafted buns and house made sauces (like our version of 1,000 Island) make a damn good burger. It's a place where you can eat decadent food that is better for you or super healthy foods like our veggie burger and our truly healthy salads. We are a gimmick free concept that is all about simplicity, execution, good design and value. Our guests leave feeling better because we live to serve them. All good ideas are somehow rooted in simplicity.
How did you first come up with the idea for a restaurant like this? I opened Stars Hamburgers in Northern California's Humboldt County in 1989, where it still exists today. We utilized the same ingredients we do at Burger Lounge including grass-fed local beef. We made our own buns in the stores. Although I sold it after a few years I always wanted to do it again. In 2007 we founded Burger Lounge in La Jolla, CA on a lot of those principles. Today, we have restaurants all over SD and LA. The challenge is to execute that original plan while scaling it into a larger company. It is a lot harder it looks.
Salads aren't something many burger restaurants do well. Why is it important to you to put so much effort into your salads? We look at it like this: Bob and Jane come into the restaurant. Bob wants a burger he can feel good about eating, Jane eats an occasional burger but she prefers salads. Since Jane is with Bob, she too wants a salad she can feel good about eating. She is not interested in chopped iceberg lettuce and a hot house tomato wedge, she wants something that not only looks good, it makes her feel like she is doing her body a favor. Our dressings are also healthy and made by us in our commissary. And, by the way, you could reverse the names of Bob and Jane and the same logic applies. Finally, we always say in our organization, "If it's on the menu it better be good enough to warrant that real estate or why bother?"
Why can't I get sweet potato fries at Burger Lounge? I have a few (mostly lame) explanations for this. Most sweet potato fries are a frozen product with a bunch of chemicals in them. That doesn't fit well with our model. We have experimented with making fresh cut sweet potato fries and we had a hard time getting consistent results. Our fryers have enough going on with our regular fresh cut french fries and space becomes an issue. Potatoes change dramatically throughout the year and it requires constant vigilance. Doesn't everyone including Jack in the Box have sweet potato fries? Finally, I had a bad relationship with sweet potatoes as a child, it's too embarrassing to elaborate.
Do you see Burger Lounge expanding to even more locations? If so, what's the timeline? We just opened four stores in nine months. That was quite a bit of growth for small company. It is critical that our growth does not jump ahead of our ability to manage it, which basically amounts to executing and scaling high volume whole food production. That is not a simple task. Also, a lot of our ingredients come from outside standard supply chain channels, scaling that takes energy and good planning. We will open four more stores in 2014 and probably six or so in 2015.
Would you do us the favor of describing your ideal burger? I like simplicity. I don't like fussy burgers. The meat should be seared on a flat top grill. I like a crust on that beef with a medium rare center. For my taste, the hamburger is all about the juxtaposition of flavors, textures and temperatures. The bun, the meat, lettuce, tomato, fresh onion and an adult 1,000 Island is all it needs. The textures and flavors are awesome as you bite through the burger...and although they must be of superior quality, the protein is always the star. I also like an even more simplistic hamburger like our "Classic Lounge Burger". It's seared grass-fed beef, organic wheat bun, organic American Cheese, organic ketchup, mustard, good pickles and chopped fresh onion. It's like a McDonald's Quarter Pounder made with superlative ingredients. Again, it's all about the quality of the meat; let's not cover that up with a gaggle of goofy toppings.
What topping or condiment, in your opinion, should never grace a burger? Any type of chutney and definitely not bleu cheese. I also say no to fried eggs, apricot sauce, vegan cheddar, Thai peanut sauce, BBQ sauce, Sriracha, any kind of pesto, ranch dressing, A-1, feta cheese, mozzarella, marinara, gruyère, brie, honey anything, spinach, sprouts, bad ketchup, parmesan, chili and Anaheim chilis. That is my short list.
Anything on the side? Super hot steamy fresh-cut french fries, crispy home-made onion rings, or a "nice little side salad." Beverage should be ice cold good beer or a glass of Pinot Noir.
The hamburger is a food item with which most Americans have strong childhood associations. Do you remember your earliest encounter with this delicious dish? I am an S.O.B. ("son of a butcher"). We had plenty of meat in our house and none too few hamburgers. My father used to say that the hamburger was the perfect food because it had meat, bread, fruit, vegetable and dairy. In other words, it encompassed all the food groups in one portable package. My father also taught me how to sweep a room and shake hands. Those are valuable skills.
What's your favorite fast-food burger?
Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steak Burger. They are hard to find. They have about 80 stores around the country. The closest ones are in Victorville and Tucson of all places.
What are some cooking tips you can offer when preparing a burger? Hot, flat surface, good quality fresh beef, kosher salt and pepper. Leave it alone until it bleeds on the top, turn once, that's it.
Sounds good enough to me. Thanks, Dean!
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