Burger 21’s Tex-Mex Haystack
The new suburban spot called Burger 21 is full of surprises that lift it above the new "better burger" places — treats like po'boy shrimp burgers, bananas foster shakes and toasted marshmallow sauce for the sweet potato fries.
Even more amazing is Mark Johnston's answer to the question, how many Burger 21s would you like to open in, say, five years? "1,000."
That's right, one thousand. A remarkable goal in this economy for any business, let alone a Florida restaurant.
From left: Executive chef Chris Ponte, Front Burner Brands CEO Mark Johnston and wife Arlene Johnston [Photo: Lara Cern/St. Petersburg Times]
In starting GrillSmith, the Johnstons made their first collaboration with an independent chef, and now they have one as a full partner in their expansion into burgers and, yes, pizza.?
He is Chris Ponte, a local hero of Tampa Bay culinarians and a graduate of the Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Ponte worked at Taillevent and Payard, and then opened Café Ponte in Clearwater, a Golden Spoon regular. Ponte is the one who made the molten marshmallow dip for the crispy seasoned fries as carefully as he makes truffled mushroom bisque at his
Johnston's new Front Burner Brands also includes Peels, Ponte pizzerias still in development.
Such partnerships are becoming more common as both diners and restaurateurs adjust to a new reality of changing tastes, hours and formats that demand foodie-quality, at lower prices, in both stand-alone restaurants and chains.
"We see it in all our restaurants, ours and his. People we saw at least four times a year, now we see once or two," Johnston concedes. "I think the new sweet spot is between $7 and $12."
Diners want quality at that price point, even in a burger. Johnston, his wife, Arlene, and Ponte went through at least 20 tasting sessions to find the right mix and grind for the basic burger. Then there's chicken, turkey, tuna and black bean burgers — hand-pressed fresh and gently formed into regulation burgers and slider four-packs, then trimmed with onion jam, bacon and cheeses on a shiny brioche bun.?
All this is chef-inspired food without the chef price and carefully plotted to be repeated at least 400 to 500 times, ideally 1,000.