Larkburger is challenging the notion that “fast casual” and the “culinary arts” are mutually exclusive.
Though you won’t find any combo meals at Larkburger, you will find a menu that’s entirely gluten free (made possible with substitutions like gluten-free buns or lettuce wraps), a selection of all-natural burgers, salads and a few tasty sides to please even the pickiest of eaters. But there’s much more to the menu than what meets the eye.
Conceived by the “Larkburger” menu item at the popular Larkspur restaurant, Larkburger opened its first location in Edwards, Colorado in 2006. Today, Larkburger operates 12 locations in Colorado, with their newest restaurant opening in Kansas City, Kansas later this year.
I meet Tony Friel, Director of Culinary Operations and Development, and Todd Coerver, newly-appointed CEO of Larkburger just before the lunch hour on a Thursday. It’s 11am, the restaurant has just opened, and I steadily watch as customers come in—first as a trickle, and then quickly as a steady stream until the dining room becomes a boisterous affair.
A Chef-Driven Concept with Chef-Driven Techniques
It can be frustrating to fit a square peg in a round hole, or, in Larkburger’s case, fit a triangle-shaped piece of Ahi tuna on a circular bun. “In many cases with Ahi burgers,” Friel tells me, “some bites are just bread because of the shape of the filet. We wanted to make sure every bite included the Tuna and all of the flavors we wanted to come across.”
To tackle the issue, Friel leaned on his culinary training by using a torchon.
Torchon is a French word, meaning “dish towel.” The process of a torchon is to use a cloth (commonly cheesecloth) to tightly wrap product. In Larkburger’s case, the tuna is wrapped in the cloth to form a cylinder—making round, easy-to-cut slices. Result? Customers get tuna in every bite. “We’re a restaurant company driven by thoughtful techniques,” says Friel.
To be a ‘restaurant company driven by thoughtful techniques’ is indeed a thoughtful concept in the fast casual industry, where opening cans or bags of frozen product is considered the norm. Here at Larkburger, employees are charged with making everything on the menu from scratch, from the crispy jalapeño slices that top the popular Chicken Burger, to the hand-cut truffle French fries. The care and attention to the high quality preparations found at Larkburger are dialed in to be consistent among all of its locations, “We’re not just serving food,” Coerver says, “We’re making food.”
As a quick aside, it should be noted that when it came to finding a picture-worthy burger for our own Tundra Restaurant Supply Tabletop catalog, we knew that Larkburger was the place to get it—no special presentation requests necessary.
Part of the hiring process at Larkburger is to find people who have a genuine love of cooking. Seems simple enough, but even new Larkburger employees were surprised by the amount of “hands-on” work required of them. Friel and Coerver both tell me that employees share how hard they work, but if the company’s twice-annual employee surveys are any indicator, they don’t want anything to change. “There’s a sense of pride when you make food from scratch every day,” Friel says. In addition, Larkburger leaders have taken time to develop specific training and development tasks to help employees do more of what they love. Work the counter and interested in learning the proper way to cook a burger to temperature? You can get cross trained on any tasks you’re interested in learning more of.
Let’s Talk Potatoes
“We’re exploring ways to source organic potatoes grown locally in Colorado.” Local and organic—I’m a fan! But it’s the humble potato, I’m surprised to hear, that generates most of the cooking headaches at Larkburger restaurants today.
“Our fries are the most difficult item to create on the menu,” Friel tells me, “It’s all due to the makeup of the potato itself.” Potatoes I learn, are harvested at various times of the year and then stored in a cool storage facility to extend the freshness of the crop for sales. Problem is, as Friel tells me, the fundamental makeup of the potato changes in cold temperatures, “Its cell structure changes, and at colder temperatures the starches convert to sugars.”
Many chefs know that frying a potato with a lot of sugar results in a burnt potato, not a golden crispy exterior surrounding a steamed and creamy interior that we love in a French fry. That’s why the potatoes at Larkburger are given a chance to “climatize,” which essentially means storing the potatoes in a dark, temperate environment that allows those sugars to change back into starches. Larkburger restaurants also keep detailed logs of frying temperatures and cook times at each location, which they share with each other frequently and make adjustments as necessary.
For Larkburger, it isn’t necessarily about creating the perfect French fry each and every time. If you want identical French fries, you know where the freezer is. As a self-proclaimed French fry fanatic, part of the pleasure of eating fries from scratch means there’ll be some variability along the way; and that desire is just what the team at Larkburger is betting on, “The French fries aren’t just an accompaniment to the meal that you don’t think about,” Friel says, “We want the fries to be a star in their own right. We want people to think ‘Hey, let’s go there for fries today.’”
Larkburger benefits from its culinary roots, namely the Larkspur restaurant in Vail, Colorado where the fast casual concept was born. Larkburger’s menu doesn’t change often, though Friel and his team are consistently working towards improving ingredients and techniques on a regular basis. Take for example, Larkburger’s chili.
The chili at Larkburger has always been a popular favorite, but one that held a sore spot for Friel, “Our founder’s wife is gluten-intolerant, so making a gluten-free menu was always important to us from the beginning. The burgers can be made with gluten-free buns or wrapped in lettuce, and the crispy jalapeno slices are made with rice flour. But our chili used beer, and it bothered me that she couldn’t enjoy that item as well.”
That’s why about 2 years ago Friel set out to reinvent the popular menu item. Friel sourced every gluten-free beer on the market to recreate their popular chili, putting his tests against the original to an expert panel of chefs—but the existing chili kept winning time and time again. Finally, Friel decided to adjust his approach completely, “Instead of trying to replicate our current chili with a gluten-free option, I decided to just focus on making the best chili I could make.”
After countless months of experimentation with different tomatoes, beans and spices Friel’s gluten-free chili finally beat the reigning champion in the panel.
“But scalability?” I ask Friel, “Do you feel compelled to ‘dumb down’ recipes in order for it to be cost-effective across all of your restaurants?”
“We always strive for the best-case scenario,” Friel says. “Quality and ‘craveability’ are our guiding principles, and we worry about cost in the end.”
Truer words couldn’t be spoken once you find out that secret ingredient in the chili. Hint: it’s not beer.
Saving the Environment, Before It Was Cool
“I think we might have the industry’s smallest trash can in our dining room,” laughs Coerver.
I think they do too.
Most customers don’t notice this glaring difference until it’s time to dispose of their “trash,” and it’s certainly a quick way to differentiate Larkburger newbies who are surprised to empty most (and typically all) of the items on their tray into the largest container available labeled “COMPOST.”
Friel insists that the small steam pan used for trash will not even fill up in a day. That’s because almost every piece of material that comes with a Larkburger meal is compostable (with the exception of condiment packets for those who dislike ketchup from a pump. Packets, unfortunately, must go straight to the landfill); everything from the cups, to the takeout containers, flatware and more is 100% fully compostable product from Eco-Products. Larkburger has sourced compostable products since its inception in 2006, which as Friel tells me, was not easily done, “there were very few options.” For the modest chain, Larkburger likes to take a broad look on sustainability, continuously looking for opportunities, “It forces you to be innovative,” says Coerver. Larkburger’s sustainability efforts. Recycling is also available for bottles and cans.
In addition to sourcing compostable products, Larkburger outfits every commercial kitchen with Energy Star® restaurant equipment, LED lighting and even purchases wind power credits to offset their energy use. These brand values are what drives the culture of Larkburger today, with many individuals who seek employment with Larkburger doing so because of the brand’s commitment to sustainable practices.
Larkburger may be leaving home for the first time, but I’m confident that fans in Kansas City will enjoy the team’s thoughtful approach to technique and ingredients as we have in Colorado.
Larkburger is open daily for lunch and dinner. For more information about Larkburger and to find a location near you, visit http://www.larkburger.com.