Burger M:strs


M:strs M:brgr Brgr Bar takes the beef patty on bun to new heights.

The m:brgr dining room in Toronto is quiet at 3 p.m. on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Of course, this isn’t the usual scene. Stop in for lunch or dinner and the place is filled with burger aficionados sinking their teeth into gourmet creations such as Kobe beef with black truffle aioli and arugula or more traditional meat-lovers noshing AAA-beef burgers topped with lettuce, pickles and tomatoes. Take a closer look around the room and you’ll discover that, while patties rule, the menu offers more than just beef on a bun. A man at the bar devours a pulled-pork sandwich; a couple shares a seared Ahi tuna salad and truffle potato chip-crusted mac ‘n’ cheese; and a little boy and his grandfather are hooked on angus beef hotdogs.

M:brgr isn’t your typical burger joint. Its upscale build-your-own concept lets customers choose a burger (AAA, organic, Kobe, veggie or tuna), a bun (white, whole wheat or lettuce wrap), cheese (there are nine options) and toppings (such as grilled onions and sautéed porcini mushrooms). And, for those looking for something else, there’s a full menu of salads,  sandwiches and sides. Jeff Dichter, the company president, who says the vowel-free moniker has no special meaning, found inspiration for his flash burger bar on a trip to Las Vegas. “I spent a year researching the burger business, including tasting trips to places like Vegas and New York City withmy business partners,” he says.

Dichter met one of his business partners,Lenny Lighter, through theMontreal Children’s Hospital Foundation (MCHF). Dichter had been a longtime supporter of MCHF when he met Lighter, aMontreal restaurateur, in 2005. (Dichter devoted much of his time helping the foundation after his son, Zak, won his battle with cancer.) As a member of MCHF’s corporate committee, Dichter approached Lighter as a potential financial donor and the pair clicked immediately. They collaborated for the first time while organizing the “7” charity dinner — seven courses prepared by seven chefs — a $5,000-perplate event that raised $500,000 for the foundation.

The success of the event spurred Dichter to begin a new venture: a business that would support children’s charities as part of its mandate. At the time, he was running a manufacturing business with Steve Belitzky. Dichter and Belitzky sold their business, but remained partners. They enlisted the help of Lighter and the trio began to seek out the best in burgers and sides, with plans to open a restaurant. “I was considered a foodie by my friends and family, and I knew many restaurant owners and chefs,” Dichter says. “I travelled a lot and ate at fine restaurants. I wanted to take the burger concept to the next level.”

In January 2008, m:brgr’s first burger was served at its Drummond Street location in downtown Montreal.Within two weeks, the restaurant was averaging more than 300 customers  daily. The successful launch was good news for the children’s hospital as m:brgr committed a unspecified portion of its sales toMCHF fromthe outset—a gesture greatly appreciated by the foundation and the children it helps. “I’ve known Jeff for more than 10 years, and he always gives us 110 per cent,” says Valerie Frost, MCHF’s director of Stewardship and Donor relations. Frost recalls Dichter running out to get gourmet meals for volunteers during a 2004 radiothon. “Food is his passion and his livelihood. It’s a great way for him to give back and create awareness for us.We’re very lucky — m:brgr is a busy place.”

Business continued to boom and, in January 2011, m:brgr opened a second, much larger location in Toronto, near King StreetWest and Spadina Avenue, in the city’s entertainment district. And, while Dichter is focused on building the business in Toronto, he sees potential for the m:brgr concept in any major city and would consider franchising, too. “We’re open to growing the business. Franchising is a very different business model, but we would look at any opportunities that come up,” he says.

And, although Toronto has experienced anexplosion of burger restaurants in the past two years, as have many other growing cities, Dichter thinks it’s a good thing. “The more burger places there are, the more credible the concept becomes. Competition makes us more creative.” Such competition has served the brand well. In fact, at press time,m:brgr’s menu was ranked number 4 on burgerbusiness.com, a website devoted to gathering news, data and opinions on the North American burger restaurant market.

Dichter’s daughter, Shauna, has been a big part of the success story. She moved from Montreal, where she was managing the restaurant, to become general manager of the Toronto location. She thinks m:brgr’s urban, upscale, full-service burger bar experience is what sets it apart. “At m:brgr you can have a Kobe burger and a glass of champagne, or you can have a regular burger and a soda. You can bring your mom or your date or your girlfriends.We have something for everyone. This isn’t just grab-and-go, it’s a place where you can relax and have a good time.” M:brgr Toronto also distinguishes itself by donating a portion of sales to The Hospital for Sick Children.

What else differentiates a burger bar froma burger joint? The bar, for starters.M:brgr’s “serious cocktail program,” as Dichter calls it, includes concoctions such as its silk margarita, a blend of Cazadores tequila, Soho, guava purée, fresh lime juice, agave syrup and a ginger-sugar rim. In fact, the cocktails are made with fresh juices and purées.

Other surprises on the menu include the $100 burger: two Kobe patties piled with bacon, grilled pear, foie gras, brie, asparagus, truffle carpaccio and more, plus an assortment of sides. “The $100 burger has done what we thought it would do. It’s attracted a lot of press, including criticism,” says Dichter. “We’ve sold more than we ever thought we would. Some people take it too seriously.”
Menu aside, m:brgr doesn’t look like your usual burger joint. The spacious interior has a warm contemporary feel, with wood on the walls and tabletops. Floor-to-ceiling photo murals depict the local Toronto orMontreal cityscape.A friendly host greets patrons at the door and guides them to their table.

This quiet, rainy afternoon might be the perfect time to try a Big Zak — an m:brgr special named after Dichter’s son, with toppings similar to the McDonald’s Big Mac. It’s tough to choose, though, given all the options. Whatever the decision, one thing is for sure: it won’t be quiet in here for long.

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