David Makuen isn’t the first guy to come up with the idea of stuffing “extras” into a burger rather than onto a burger (my husband’s been doing that since he got his hands on this “Cooking Light” recipe for a ham and-Swiss-stuffed burger years ago), but Makuen’s certainly the first to start a successful burger business on the web, then take it to the streets of Pioneer Square.
On Monday, after 16 months in the freeze-it and ship-it business, he and his crew threw open the doors to the brick-and-mortar version of BuiltBurger, known for highlighting global ingredients while making good use of local product. “I’m a certified burgerholic,” admits the former marketing-exec for Eddie Bauer, now owner of a 24-seat burger-joint at 217 James Street, where, as BuiltBurger’s tag-line insists, “We make the patty the hero.” From the sound of things, his nascent burger-joint is already getting a hero’s welcome.
BuiltBurger in Pioneer Square: the calm before the heroics. You may remember it from its previous incarnation as the Mexican restaurant Guajillo’s.
When other 12-year-old boys were building model airplanes back in New Jersey, Makuen recalls, he was playing with the family Weber, figuring out how to build and grill a better burger. Later, as an adult marketing fashions for Ann Taylor in New York City, he watched with interest as the burger craze reached higher heights with haute concoctions like Daniel Boulud’s truffle-and-foie gras-stuffed burger, and he marveled as Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack drew lines around the block. Then, while working for Eddie Bauer here in Seattle, he couldn’t help but think about a fashion plate of another sort.
That’s BuiltBurger’s Pinnacle Bacon Bleu (left, incorporating bacon, caramelized onion and Danish Bleu), and a frequent special, the Sriracha Beef Burger (infused with ginger, basil, carrot, soy, garlic and Sriracha hot sauce). [photos courtesy Geoffrey Smith/LookatLau.com]
Convinced “there was an opportunity to create a premium burger brand, not another `me-too’ burger joint,” he put together a research and development team in 2008. But instead of starting a restaurant first and selling its products by mail-order thereafter — a la Chicago’s Lou Malnati’s — he’s done it the other way around.
Among his recruits was chef Robert Joice (late of Tom Douglas Restaurants), his culinary front-man. Together they came up with the idea of mashing-up ingredients inside the patty. “We started experimenting with all kinds of meats, sourced locally when ever possible: pork, turkey, Wagyu beef,” said Makuen, whose burgers come on custom-made buns from Belltown’s organic French bakery, Boulangerie Nantaise.
Working out of a USDA facility in Ballard since 2009, they handmade, froze and shipped 6-, 12- and 18-packs locally and nationally. They’ll continue to maintain the Ballard facility — where gift-pack sales are going strong — but the next step is to get enough love going for their Pioneer Square location to drive on-line sales. “The frozen burger business is doing well, growing rapidly,” Makuen said. “And in the next two or three years, we envision three to four units in the Seattle area, including the Eastside.”
“We love the urban vibe” in Pioneer Square, he insists, and he greatly appreciates the support he’s already seen during BuiltBurger’s soft opening: for house specialties like the Supreme Pastrami (a Reuben-esque rendition of a beef burger built with Market House pastrami), the Magnificent Chorizo (yesterday’s big-seller) and the the savory potato beignets that are selling like hotcakes.
Makuen’s proud to be in business among a coterie of “great sandwich places,” he said, citing Tat’s, Salumi and Delicatus, and like those popular spots, “We’re looking forward to serving bigger crowds in the future.” BuiltBurger is open Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m. till 6 p.m.