Let's say, for a moment, that you're a retired executive from a large corporation. And for funsies, let's call that corporation McDonald's. What do you do after climbing the corporate ladder starting out as a grill cook and working your way up to be the C.E.O.? Do you become a NASCAR owner? Do you contemplate becoming a Smashburger franchisee? Do you have a passion to find the perfect burger and have a place that is comfortable and affordable to have such a burger? If your name is Ed Rensi, that's exactly what happened after he retired in 1998 from McDonald's. And along with his long-time friend, Tom Dentice - also a former executive with McDonald's - they opened their first fast casual gourmet burger place Tom & Eddie's in August of 2010. I don't quite remember how I heard about Tom & Eddie's, but I had it bookmarked as a place I wanted to try. On a recent trip into Chicago for business, I had a chance to try one of their burgers.
Ed Rensi was going to school at Ohio State, working three jobs and had no car when he saw an ad for a "grill man" at a new drive-up restaurant by the name of McDonald's. It was 1966 and Rensi's wife, Anne, was pregnant with their first child. In order to make ends meet, Resni ended up working 100 hours a week - at .85 cents an hour - his first year at McDonald's. However, his dogged determination paid off and within a year he was promoted to manager of the McDonald's store in Columbus. He ended up becoming a regional manager in Philadelphia, eventually getting promoted to regional Vice-President. In Philadelphia, Ed was instrumental for the development of the first Ronald McDonald House, a temporary home for families who children are suffering from serious illnesses. Rensi was eventually promoted to the Oak Brook, IL headquarters of McDonald's as Vice-President of Training and Operations. Ed was responsible for product development and in 1983 oversaw the project that eventually became Chicken McNuggets. He was elevated to the Chief Executive Officer position the following year.
At right, Tom Dentice and Ed Rensi (Picture courtesy Northwest Quarterly)
Tom Dentice's rise through the ranks at McDonald's is similar to the journey his good friend Ed Rensi encountered. It was 1965 and Dentice had just finished an 8-year stint in the Air Force. He needed a job to help pay the bills as he had a wife and a baby at home. He saw an ad in a local newspaper for a "manager/trainee" for a McDonald's franchise in Columbus, OH. He got the job and within the next year he hired a young college student by the name of Ed Rensi. As Rensi rose through the managerial and executive ranks at McDonald's, he never forgot his first manager. Dentice eventually became the V-P for Training and Operations, retiring as the Senior Executive V-P for Franchising in 1998.
Hamburgers never left the blood of both Rensi and Dentice and both had been thinking about a gourmet burger that was affordable and served in a place that was fun for the family. After initially looking at becoming Smashburger franchisees, the two traveled the world - together and separately - eating burgers of all kinds (Rensi said he gained 21 pounds during his travels) gaining knowledge of the upscale burger business and trying to figure out exactly what they wanted to do for their concept.
Rensi and Dentice began a partnership program with the College of DuPage's culinary and hospitality program, working with school chefs and students to develop a unique menu that featured burgers, chicken sandwiches, salads, sides and gourmet milkshakes. Over an eight week period in late 2009, Tom & Eddie's hosted a test restaurant that served over 1000 meals to students, friends and community organizations in return for feedback about the food and concept. Tweaking the plan along the way, the two were confident that their fast casual concept would be ready for the public.
From the beginning, they wanted to make sure that people knew that Tom & Eddie's would not be another McDonald's with cheap burgers. They visited test kitchens, looking for the very best beef to make their hamburgers from. They settled upon a 100% fresh Angus chuck natural beef with no hormones or antibiotics introduced into cattle who also only ate a vegetarian diet on the farm. For the animal-rights people, the beef Tom & Eddie's uses is "certified humane" by a national non-profit organization that inspects and certifies farms and facilities that raise beef in a humane way.
Rensi and Dentice also worked with Chef Charlie Baggs, a food industry veteran who heads his own consulting firm in the Chicago area. They hired Baggs' corporate chef Lance Avery to help give their foods a signature taste. Finally, they decided up on getting their fresh baked buns from the Turano Bakery in Berwyn, IL. Turano hamburger buns are some of the best around.
Finding a facility was the next thing and they settled on a former Boudin Bakery location in the Yorktown Center mall in west suburban Lombard, not far from the McDonald's corporate offices in Oakbrook. They ordered in two 3-foot long flat top grills - one for the burgers, and the other for the other foods that cook at different temperatures than the burgers - and opened their doors toward the end of August 2010. The first location was a hit and they soon opened a second Tom & Eddie's location in far west suburban Geneva, then a third one in north suburban Deerfield, then a fourth one in far north suburban Vernon Hills. They are working to open a fifth T&E location in Naperville in the coming weeks.
The Lombard location is located on the southwest corner of the Yorktown Center mall just off Highland Avenue in what they call The Shops on Butterfield, across from Rock Bottom Brewery and caddy-cornered from Brio Tuscan Grille (see map). Tom & Eddie's is a fitting restaurant for the mall which has a number of upscale restaurants in the immediate area including The Capital Grille, D.O.C American Bistro, and the Claim Jumper. (There's a Cajun restaurant at Yorktown Center called French Quarter that I'd like to try at some point.) Parking is plentiful in front of Tom & Eddie's.
The inside of Tom & Eddie's could sort be described as contemporary art deco. There are a number of two seater tables and a set of higher four seat tables along the large windows that allow an abundant amount of light to shine into the restaurant. Three-sided booths are along a half wall and bench seats are along the back wall with tables. The kitchen area is open to the left of the main counter and there is a soda pop dispenser along with shelves of hot sauces in the center of the restaurant. An outdoor patio was available for al fresco dining.
The front counter is where you order your food and drinks. The menu for the restaurant is located on the wall behind the counter (or you can get a printed menu to take with you). Burgers are the draw at Tom & Eddie's, but they also feature a "Lean and Green" part of their menu that features salads, chicken sandwiches, veggie burgers and burgers that are made out of ground turkey and ahi tuna. And the prices are more than reasonable. Most of the burgers, depending upon the toppings you add, are under $10 bucks.
Tom & Eddie's feature seven signature burgers including the Ampersand that is topped with gouda cheese, applewood smoked bacon, barbecue sauce and Tom & Eddie's in-house made haystack onion straws, then topped with a fried egg. The Blue Chip features a burger topped with a sliced avocado, Tom & Eddie’s roasted garlic aioli, a tomato slice and crumbled blue cheese topped with homemade potato chips. The Love Me Dew has Tom & Eddie’s homemade spicy mayonnaise, topped with pepperjack and peppadew sweet piquanté peppers. And the most interesting of them all is the Bushel and a Peck - they start off with Granny Smith apple slices, then add homemade walnut butter, melted Brie cheese and finish with caramelized onions. Although that doesn't sound appealing to me in the least, I have a feeling my wife would love something like that.
Or, you can "build your own" burger at Tom & Eddie's. And that's exactly what I did. You have your choice between a 1/2 pound or 1/3 pound burger and then you choose from three fresh baked gourmet buns - sesame seed, ciabatta or multi-grain. If you want cheese on your burger, they have everything from American, Swiss, pepperjack, gouda, brie and blue cheese. Then you get your choice of 10 different condiments that include organic ketchup, garlic aoili, Jamaica sweet relish, basil pesto and an eggplant spread. And then you have a choice of 10 veggie or fruit toppings that include lettuce, sliced red or caramelized onions, sport peppers (for the hot dogs they have on the menu, no doubt), hot giardiniera (it IS Chicago), and something they call puckered pickles.
From there, you can order "premium toppings" including sauteed crimini mushrooms, a fried egg, extra cheese, applewood smoked bacon and fire roasted tomatoes. It seems like a lot of choices, but I sort of knew what I was going to get once I saw the combinations they had. I ordered up a 1/2 pound burger cooked medium with Swiss cheese on a sesame seed bun. I had them put the organic ketchup and yellow mustard on it (but I found that when I got to the table that there were bottles of yellow mustard and Heinz organic ketchup already there), as well as a sliced red onion. I also had them put the crimini mushrooms and some Applewood smoked bacon on it, as well. The girl behind the counter asked me if I wanted any sides - they have hand-cut fries, sweet potato fries, the haystack onion rings, or fresh made potato chips. I figured that the burger would just be fine for me.
For something to drink, I ordered a glass of the Two Brothers pale ale. The girl who took my order was too young to pour and serve the beer, so she asked another lady, to do the honors. As the other lady poured my beer, the girl gave me a number on a plastic strip shaped like a paddle. She said, "This is your key and you put this in your holder on the table and we'll bring your food to you."
The other lady, who poured my beer - Tammi - asked me if I'd ever been to Tom & Eddie's before. Since I hadn't, she sort of showed me the ropes. She said, "Well, you get your pick of tables, then you put this little paddle in the holder. If you need anything like another drink or more food or whatever, you just hit this button on the base and we'll be right there!" The contraption is called the "Key Call Table Locator System" and it is part of a system that allows for monitoring of orders and sends a signal back to the food pick-up area to show where the customer is seated in the restaurant. It also allows Tom & Eddie's to monitor, record and average times that it takes for a customer to receive their food after they've ordered.
Tammi told me, "Our concept is similar to the fast casual concept like Panera Bread has where the food is made quickly after you've ordered. Only we bring the food to the table rather than having the customer wait for it. It just gives us a little more of a personal touch with our customers."
About 15 minutes after I ordered my burger, Tammi brought it to the table. The presentation was very nice - the burger was served on a concave, sculptured plate. It had a load of sauteed crimini mushrooms on top of the bacon with all sitting on a thick slice of Swiss cheese. Three large red onion rings were with the burger - any more and I would have taken some off. The gourmet sesame seed bun had rack marks across the top. It was light and fluffy, and felt substantial.
The first bite told me this was an excellent burger. The Black Angus beef had that wonderful flat-grilled juicy taste to it. The burger was cooked to a perfect medium with a little pink in the middle. The crimini mushrooms were absolutely fabulous. I'm guessing the sauteed them in butter and Worcestershire sauce. The bacon was flavorful and the red onions weren't overpowering. The bun was also perfect - not too chewy, but substantial enough that it stayed together with all the great juicy toppings.
Tammi came over to me to see how I liked my burger. I couldn't lie to her, "This is simply an outstanding burger."
She said, "Great! Glad you liked it. You'll have to come back and try another type of burger sometime. That's what I like to do, experiment with different toppings."
Tom & Eddie's is a winner. The burger was just excellent, one of the finest gourmet burgers I've ever had. I liked the fast casual "made-to-order" concept and the sort of laid back atmosphere in the place. I'm hoping they don't grow too big, too quickly. Five locations in about two years is just about enough for this place. But I can't say enough good things about Tom & Eddie's. For a great gourmet burger, it was about 50% cheaper than what you'd find for a burger at a fine dining restaurant. It was a great burger at a great value.