On a late fall trip to Appleton to see a couple dealers, I drove by a new burger place in town with a name that jumped right out at me - Serious Burger. I asked one of the guys at one at the American TV store in Appleton if they'd ever eaten there before. His reply was, "Yeah, once. It was good, but it was so expensive. I don't know if it will last." I still decided to give it try before I left town that particular day.
Serious Burger is the brain child of Marc Waltzer, an Appleton area restaurateur and Culinary Institute of America-trained chef. Waltzer's primary business is consulting restaurants on developing new products. As the head of Premiere Culinary, Waltzer has not only worked with restaurants such as TGI Fridays, Rock Bottom Brewery, and Panera Bread, but also with food industry giants such as ConAgra, Sara Lee, Tyson, Hormel and Kellogg's developing new ideas for pre-packaged foods.
Waltzer is also something of a "foodie", looking for food ideas at restaurants around the U.S. After eating in a Seattle pizzeria, Waltzer decided to open his own wood-fired pizza place - Wild Truffle Pizza - in Appleton. Using only fresh ingredients and using a pizza dough recipe that took two years to prefect, Wild Truffle was an immediate hit in the area for people looking for gourmet pizzas.
Waltzer (pictured right) then turned his attention to perfecting the common burger. In May of 2011, Waltzer opened Serious Burger in a small strip mall near Fox River Mall (see map). Using grass-fed beef grown on a farm in Colorado, Serious Burger grinds a combination of four different cuts of steak to make their burger meat. Walther also contracted with a local Appleton bakery - Breadsmith - to develop a French brioche bun made with organic eggs and European butter. From there he went to a number of Wisconsin dairies to get the eclectic cheeses that he tops his burgers with, as well as using bacon from Nueske's - a small Wisconsin meat packer who has become well-known for having some of the best smoked meats in the Midwest. (The New York Times once described Nueske's bacon as the "beluga caviar of bacon".) Add to this, Serious Burger also offers other particular toppings such as organic fried eggs, garlic aioli, roasted Crimini mushrooms and charred tomatoes. Obviously, there are a number of reasons why Serious Burger is more expensive than your normal burger joint.
(As an aside to this story - Waltzer found himself in a little trouble late in 2011 when he was charged with misdemeanor prostitution and disorderly conduct for an incident in his home with a former restaurant employee who said he offered to pay her for sex when she was cleaning the Waltzer family home. A trial was to happen on Dec. 22 of last year, but evidently three similar charges from former employees of Waltzer's surfaced in the meantime and the trial is now scheduled for March 26.
Update March 20, 2012 - Waltzer was fined just under $2700 for violating a city prostitution ordinance. Prosecutors dismissed misdemeanor prostitution-sexual contact and three counts of disorderly conduct against Waltzer saying that if the case went to circuit court, the outcome would likely be a fine with no jail time or probation given to him.)
Serious Burger is not a large place seating only about 40 people. Most of the tables in the long and narrow restaurant are high with tall chairs. There's kind of a contemporary industrial motif to the inside of Serious Burger. There are two entries into Serious Burger - one on each end.
The menu for Serious Burger is on the back wall behind the counter. You place your order at the counter and they'll give you a number to take with you to your table. After the burger is made, they'll bring it to your table. Each burger is made to order so there is a wait. On the menu, you have your choice of three different ways to cook your burger - Red (Medium rare), Pink (Medium) and Brown (Well done), along with approximate times it will take to cook your burger - 6, 8 or 10 minutes, depending upon how thoroughly you want it cooked.
Serious Burger has six specialty burgers you can order. Or if you want to make your own, you can do that, too. Their basic burger starts out at $5.99 and from there you can add six different types of Wisconsin artisan cheeses for $1.00 extra. You can order up to three condiment and/or veggie toppings for free - each one over the limit will cost you an extra 25 cents. They also offer premium toppings (organic fried eggs, caramelized onions, sauteed spinach, roasted mushrooms, etc.) for an extra 50 cents each. Nueske's bacon is an extra buck and they have a choice of specialty sauces you can add for another 50 cents each. So, ordering a burger with the works adds up quick at Serious Burger.
I decided to make my own burger concoction and I got a burger - medium - with Swiss cheese, organic ketchup, yellow mustard, raw onions and pickles. I almost got a couple three slices of Nueske's bacon, but decided to just go with the basic burger on this trip. The girl taking my order asked me if I wanted a side of fries to go with the burger and, quite uncharacteristically of myself, I said, "Yes!" They have hand cut French fries served with organic ketchup, along with truffle fries, sweet potato fries and beer-battered onion rings made with Leinenkugel beer. I just got a small order of the hand cut French fries.
Seated at a high table near the front counter, it was about 12 minutes from the time I ordered my burger to the time the girl brought it out to me. The presentation was pretty basic - the burger was on a tray that was covered with a paper that was designed to look like newsprint with fake articles printed on it. The French fries were plentiful and served overflowing in a wire basket with a small handle.
The burger, itself, was big and juicy, sandwiched in between a very large brioche bun. But the bun was spongy and very soft. When I squeezed the buns on the top and the bottom, they became much smaller and easier to put in your mouth.
I'll have to say that the burger at Serious Burger was seriously good. Very good. It was one of the best artisan-gourmet style burgers I've ever had. The meat was lean, yet very juicy. It was cooked the way I like - medium with a little pink in the middle. The condiments were fresh and a great complement to the burger. But the star was the French brioche bun. It was moist, spongey and light. Very, very tasty. Overall, it was an excellent burger.
The fries, however, were over-seasoned with sort of a salty seasoning on them. The organic ketchup - eh, I couldn't tell if it was different from your run-of-the-mill bottled ketchup. The fries were good on their own - full of great potato flavor. But they really needed to back off on the seasoning. I don't eat a lot of salt and I think that even for someone who does salt their food this would have been too much for them.
Given Marc Waltzer's legal problems and the fact that their burgers are pretty high-priced, I don't know if Serious Burger has much of a chance of sticking around, especially in a small-town market like Appleton. But I hope they do because I thought the burger was very, very good. When I do my new Best Burger List for 2012 (coming up soon!), Serious Burger will definitely make it into the Top Five of gourmet burgers that I've had. I hope to go back and try a burger with a fried egg and Neuske's bacon - that is if they're still open when I get back up to Appleton later this year.