During my trip to Denver last fall, I heard about a newer burger place called Smashburger. They get the name from the way they make their burgers. The initially smash them onto the grill to get the some of the juice out of the patty and they cook the burger in those juices. It helps sear the patty and keeps some of the remaining juices inside. I found out there was a Smashburger location in the Des Moines area and it just so happened that I would be in Des Moines for a day trip to call on my dealers. I wanted to give Smashburger a try.
Smashburger began in 2007 in Denver. The founder, Tom Ryan, was a veteran of the fast-food restaurant industry. He got his start working for Pizza Hut and was part of the team that developed the Stuffed Crust and Meat Lovers pizzas. Ryan went on to Long John Silvers and after a short while, he was picked up by McDonalds to develop new concepts. Ryan headed an internal group that came up with McGriddles, yogurt parfaits and the Dollar Menu while at McDonalds.
Ryan left McDonalds to be part of the executive team at Quiznos. Along with CEO Rick Schaden, Quiznos saw a significant jump in franchises when Ryan was the chief marketing and branding officer. In 2007, Schaden sold Quiznos to CCMP Capital, an arm of monetary heavyweight J.P. Morgan. Schaden and Ryan then formed their own investment firm, Capital Consumer Partners (along with Dave Prokupek), and their first venture was coming up with the Smashburger concept and providing $15M in funding to start the chain.
The initial Smashburgers were located in Denver, but today there are nearly 40 locations in 12 states with a nearly equal number of planned stores that will open in early 2010. Earlier this year, it was announced Rick Schaden had left Smashburger and had been named the CEO at Quiznos again. Ryan, Prokupek and company president Scott Crane run the day-to-day operations of Smashburger.
The interior of a typical Smashburger location is sort of a casual contemporary. The color scheme is mainly red and white. There's a number of booths and table throughout the place. You order at the main counter, pay up front and they'll bring your food out to you at your table after giving you a number.
The menu at Smashburger is rather interesting. They have five basic burgers, or you have the opportunity to make your own burger with three different types of buns, five different cheeses, and over a dozen different sauces, dressings and toppings. For a price, you can also add on another burger patty, bacon, a fried egg, onion straws, and a handful of other premium toppings.
Smashburger also features grilled chicken sandwiches, salads and hot dogs. They feature a number of sides including something called "Smashfries" - regular french fried potatoes that are tossed in a mixture of olive oil, rosemary, garlic and other herbs before they're deep fried. For the health conscious - I'm guessing - they also have "Vegetable Frites". They consist of asparagus spears, carrot sticks and whole green beans that are quickly fried to keep the veggies from losing their "snap".
While the menu is similar at many locations, each region adds a different flair to the menu. The menu in Des Moines adds an "Iowa Smashburger" which is one of their burgers topped with Maytag Blue Cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, onion rings, lettuce, tomato and and mayo on an egg bun. In the Twin Cities, their specialty burger has cheddar and Swiss cheese on top, followed with garlic grilled onions and lettuce, tomato and mayo. In Nebraska, the "Husker Burger" is topped with A-1 sauce, onion rings, garlic grilled mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Unfortunately, you can't get the "Arizona Smashburger" other than off of the menu in Arizona. That has habanero cheese, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, onions, chipotle mayo and jalapenos. Now, that sounds like a taste explosion in your mouth.
It was well after the noon-time rush when I found the Des Moines location in suburban West Des Moines (see map). Located in a strip mall near the corners of University Ave. and 22nd St., it's sort of difficult to get into the parking lot for Smashburger if you're traveling from the north. You have to take a left at the light that takes you down a small street which allows you to get into the parking lot near a Mexican restaurant and then drive around to the front of the strip mall where Smashburger is located.
I went to the counter and took a quick look at the menu. While I was intrigued by some of the toppings and add-ons, I decided to go with Smashburger's "All-American" burger - a 1/2 pound (or 1/3 pound) burger topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles and served on a fresh baked egg bun. I figured that if Smashburger was good, I could easily go back and try my own concoction at some point. And while the "Smashfries" sounded interesting, I was just going for the burger that day. Smashburger also offers cold bottles of beer to go along with your meal, but I still had some calls to do that day so I just got a bottle of water with my meal.
Now, smashing a burger goes against every fiber of my being. But quite honestly, that's how old-time burger joints made their hamburgers for years and year. Instead of hand-pattying the burger, they would scoop the burger into a ball. They'd place the balled-up burger onto a hot griddle grill and then smash them down with a spatula. As I said earlier, this technique allowed the initial juices to come out of the meat and help make the outside of the meat sort of crispy. This also kept a lot of the remaining juices inside the burger. Now, of course, keep in mind that this could only be done on a flat grill top as if you smash a burger on a grate over an open fire, the juices just make the fire flare up. Smashburger also seasons their burgers during the cooking process helping to make the somewhat crusty outer shell of the burger even more pronounced.
It wasn't more than about 10 minute later when one of the girls from behind the counter brought out my All-American Smashburger. The bun was light and fluffy, the toppings were generous and I could already tell the burger was still juicy even after the smash. And that was completely confirmed after my first bite. There was still a good amount of juices that dripped out of the burger onto the wax paper. The somewhat crunchy outer shell of the patty was curiously good. The taste did remind me of some old time burger places that I remember when I was a younger kid. The toppings were very fresh and flavorful, as well. And even though it was a 1/2 burger, I made short work of the meal.
I was back in Des Moines on a recent trip back from Minneapolis. It was late in the afternoon - about 4 p.m. - and I hadn't had anything to eat since having a small pastry early in the morning. I went back to Smashburger and got a "build-your-own" burger this time. I started with the half-pound burger on a spicy chipotle bun. Then I had them top it with pepper jack cheese, red onion, pickle slices, jalapenos, ketchup and mustard. I have to say that it was pretty damn good - and pretty damn hot! The jalapenos were freshly chopped. Yow! I had to down two Bud Lights with the burger just to help cut the heat.
OK, I was impressed with Smashburger. It's a different taste to their burger, but one that is far from being displeasing. By smashing the patty, no two Smashburgers look exactly the same. And by being able to build your own burger, each Smashburger can be very unique. In a world where a number of burger places with a relaxed and casual atmosphere are popping up all over the place, Smashburger does a real good job of differentiating themselves from the others. I'm sort of glad that I finally found one!