Downtown burger scene set to sizzle

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Like almost everywhere in America, downtown Detroit has a lot of places to grab a hamburger. Gourmet house burgers at upscale spots, bar burgers and quick-and-easy options abound from Greektown to Corktown.

Timothy Tharp, left, and David Gregory bought the Checker Bar two years ago with the promise to keep the history of the bar alive.

But even with a seemingly saturated market, it appears the appetite for burger joints in Detroit has yet to be satiated. It’s clear that changes — and stiff competition — are coming to Detroit’s burger landscape.

Actor Mark Wahlberg announced in December he would open one of his Wahlburgers restaurants in Greektown. That was followed by buzz about New York’s Shake Shack opening next year in the First National Building. One local burger business is expanding to downtown, too. David Azar owns Basement Burger Bar in Farmington and Canton. This summer he’ll open a location at Brush and Gratiot.

“We love the city and we just want to be a part of its growth,” said Azar.

He realizes that he’s coming into a market that has some high-profile names arriving in the near future, but he says his local roots will help him succeed.

“We’re a Michigan company, so I know a lot of these big restaurants are coming in, but we’re a local business,” he said. “We definitely try to support local business, and that’s why we’re getting our meat from Eastern Market and the bakery we use is local. We’re also vegan-friendly and gluten-free friendly.”

In just downtown, Detroit has patties that have been served for decades at places such as Checker Bar, Elwood Bar and Nemo’s. Burger-lovers can dance between classics and newer operations, including Five Guys in Greektown and Bobcat Bonnie’s in Corktown. (The latter offers a gourmet burger, a beer and a side of fries or tots for $12 each Monday.)

Now, with the city’s gaining popularity and recovery, popular and up-and-coming chains are looking to break into the market.

LEFT: Laniqwa Coleman, left, and Mattie Smith work at Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Greektown.

Beefy downtown

Wahlburgers, which has locations nationwide, is known for a chef-driven menu (Mark’s brother Paul Wahlberg is an actual chef) and healthy options. Few details are known about the Greektown location except that it’s slated to open this summer.

In May, Shake Shack announced that Detroit would join its worldwide locations in 2017. Officials said they would offer their popular Angus beef burgers, flat-top hot dogs and more. They also plan to offer Michigan craft beer.

Will the local Basement Burger Bar thrive? Will the celebrity locale or the revered New York-based Shake Shack succeed in the Motor City?

University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor Mike Bernacchi predicts that the burgers of the best quality will win the hearts of hungry visitors, and “not everybody can win on this one.”

“There’s not enough population to consume all of the burgers, and good quality is going to drive out the poor quality,” said Bernacchi, adding that businesses that can resonate with young people also will have the best chance at staying above the fray.

“Millennials are very, very well-connected to each other,” he said, adding that any new restaurant should promote that it wants to be part of the downtown scene.

“Every foodstuff, whether it’s burgers, pizza, special local eatery, they all have to realize that at the end of the day they’re competing against each other, not just the food type,” Bernacchi said. “The success (will be from) making folks understand that they’re really a supporter of this wonderful rebirth of downtown Detroit.”

Michael Abrams owns 30 Five Guys Burgers and Fries, including the one in Greektown just a skip away from where Wahlburgers promises to open this summer. When asked what sets him apart from the forthcoming competition, he points to quality.

“I don’t know what they offer, I just know we offer the highest quality possible,” he said. “Cheese, bacon, meat, bread ... We serve the highest quality at a reasonable price.”

Abrams also adds that he pays his workers $10 an hour to start, not minimum wage.

“The crew and the quality of our product make Five Guys what they are,” he said. “It’s a different fast-casual environment. It’s not a fast-food environment.”

Abrams, who also owns Mr. Joe’s in Southfield and is opening a restaurant in the Scott at Brush Park residential building in the future, believes his Five Guys Greektown is also successful because of the location at Monroe and Beaubien.

“It’d be very difficult to find a better location,” he said. “Five Guys just fit in very well there. We took off on the first day.”

Detroit original

Five Guys opened in Greektown in 2010. That’s a mere blink compared to two of the longest-standing burger joints in downtown Detroit: Checker Bar in Cadillac Square and Elwood Bar. Both have have moved from their original locations, but the history is there.

Owned by the Munro family for 70 years, Checker Bar recently changed hands to Timothy Tharp and David Gregory, who also own and manage, respectively, the nearby Grand Trunk Pub. They purchased Checker Bar with the promise that they would keep it as is: a casual and gritty dive that serves hamburgers.

Tharp says the increase in businesses in downtown Detroit, particularly those that may compete with his, doesn’t make him nervous.

“Obviously burgers are the hot thing right now. And they were 70 years ago when the Checker Bar started out,” he said. Tharp said he is of the mindset that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” He disagrees with those who believe there aren’t enough customers to go around downtown.

“Detroit needs some new, flashy things that are glamorous and celebrity-driven,” he said.

“I think that’s good for the tourists that come to downtown Detroit and want to see that, but I think there’s a lot of people that want to have a very authentic, real Detroit experience that has history.”

Tharp is confident that he’ll be fine if he keeps making burgers and serving Stroh’s beer and doing what Checker Bar has always done.

“A lot of burger bars come and go, flashes in the pan. We already saw Bagger Dave’s do a $2 million build-out with a whole bunch of national fanfare and they didn’t survive,” he said.

A Bagger Dave’s on Randolph closed in December along with eight other locations in Indiana.

“If any of the new guys want to come in and talk, I’ll give them advice,” Tharp said. “We’re the Detroit original, and you can’t build that and you can’t buy it.”

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Twitter: @melodybaetens