Talking burgers with Korey Konopasek
1. Tell us about Epik Burger.
Epik Burger is a "better burger" restaurant in the class of places like M Shack, Five Guys and Smashburger. But I wanted to go for something different. Everyone else has gone for a simple approach and I wanted to do a huge variety of burgers that are different and interesting. I was looking for things people would want to try and things I'd never seen anyone else doing before. I also wanted to provide people with healthy options so they could eat a burger and feel good about it.
2. What sort of variety do you carry?
We have over 34 burgers on the menu. We also carry beef, ahi tuna, chicken and veggie burgers. The burgers we carry are pretty eclectic. We have Korean burgers, barbecue burgers with fried onions, vegan burgers, gluten free options, Hawaiian local burgers, and BLT burgers. We also use a lot of toppings you won't find many places - things like brie, pancetta instead of bacon, and cornichons instead of pickles.
3. What's the difference between a Fast Food Burger and a Restaurant Burger?
It's the size - a Restaurant Burger is bigger - and it's that a Restaurant Burger can be cooked to temperature because it is bigger. That's something that no quick service restaurant is going to offer - letting you get a medium, medium rare or medium well burger. The only reason we don't do that with the Fast Food Burger is because it's a smaller burger so we do them well done.
4. How long has Epik Burger been open?
We opened in mid-April (2013).
5. Is Epik Burger part of a chain?
No, although that is a common misconception. If you visit us it will be pretty obvious that we're a local restaurant. We have picnic tables and some locally sourced decor. We have aluminum siding on the facing of the front counter that would normally go on a roof. For the logo I wanted to created something that was more polished to present ourselves as a professional business.
6. What attracted you to your location?
I live in that area, for one. In this area there are no fast casual restaurants in existence. When you head to Beach and Kernan or Hodges there's a plethora of restaurants to choose from. The demographics are good here as well. There are a lot of neighborhoods nearby. Atlantic Boulevard is a very busy road - Kernan and Atlantic, down the street, is one of the busiest intersections in Jacksonville. So, it seemed like a busy area and the plaza we're in is right near the road, so it has decent visibility to it.
7. You describe your burgers as representing the culinary bases of many cultures. What do you mean by that?
We have burgers like an Italian burger that has tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and pancetta on it. We also have an Hawaiian Locals burger which has Spam, a fried egg and soy sauce on it. I don't think I've seen anyone put Spam on a burger before. We have a Korean Barbecue burger that comes with Korean barbecue marinade when it's grilled and has kimchi added afterwards. We have a Vietnamese Burger that's served on a baguette similar to a banh mi sandwich you'd get at a Vietnamese restaurant, but with a burger. My wife is Filipino so we have a Pinoy Burger that has an onion adobo on top of the burger.
8. Why did you offer grass fed beef as an option?
For me it offers a taste of beef the way it's supposed to taste. If you go back before large scale farming, to when cattle were just roaming around the farm, that's what beef would taste like. It's similar to having a terroir with wine - you have a particular flavor that imparts to the grape based on where it's grown. It's the same with the beef. It's got a slightly stronger, beefier flavor to it. I've also read that grass fed beef is healthier for you and I wanted to provide a higher quality, healthier beef option to people.
9. Why do you use brioche and baguettes for your bread rather than a standard burger bun?
When I wanted to do a hamburger place I wanted to do it my way. That's important, because when I get it right it will be transparent to the customers and hopefully they'll appreciate what I'm doing. I wanted to create what I thought was the perfect burger - hence the grass fed beef and the brioche bun. When you get a normal burger, so often you get half way through and the bread has been pushed down to being so thin it's barely in existence. For me, I don't enjoy that. The brioche has a good consistency and a little more flavor.
10. Do you make your own bread?
No, we purchase it from a local bakery.
11. What's the Epik Burger?
It's my take on the bacon cheeseburger. It has pancetta, which is an Italian bacon that is cured but not smoked. To that I add brie cheese, because I think brie cheese tastes good with bacon. Then there's lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cornichons and a balsamic mayonnaise. Cornichons are small French gerkin pickle. For the mayonnaise the balsamic vinegar adds a sweetness, which is delicous.
12. What's the Epikurean Burger? And why did you add foie gras to a burger?
A lot of burger restaurants choose foie gras for their higher end burger because foie gras is pretty decadent. It's typically a bit of a novelty - "look at the over-priced burger with foie gras on it!" For every burger I try to make it a dish. I wanted to do the same thing with the foie gras, so I put blackberry jam on it. A lot of times when you get foie gras at a restaurant it's served as an appetizer and it tends to have some component on it that's sweet and rich. That's why I added the blackberry jam. Then, truffle oil adds really nice flavor and makes it even richer. The blackberry jam is something new I added from when the burger was first on the menu. I think that since I've changed the recipe people have been really, really pleased with it because now it's something different. Nobody's putting blackberry jam on a burger that I've seen.
13. What's the Hawaiian Local Burger?
Every time you see a Hawaiian burger its always got teriyaki sauce and a pineapple ring. If you've ever gone to Hawaii you'll know that it's a horrible representation of what people eat in Hawaii. I wanted to do something that's different. When we go on vacation we tend to have our restaurant reservations thought out before we leave. We like to tackle a lot of places that are popular with the locals. When we went to Hawaii Spam was everywhere. It was served with rice for breakfast and it was served for lunch. You didn't ever get away from Spam, so I thought that had to be on the burger. Hawaii is very Asian, hence the soy sauce. The green onions was to add something green to it while giving it a nice taste and texture. The thing I saw the most in Hawaii was rice, Spam and fried eggs for breakfast, so I added the fried egg to the burger to finish it off. I have an employee who eats almost every time he works and he won't eat anything but the Hawaiian Local Burger. He said he doesn't like Spam, but he keeps ordering it and likes it on a burger.
14. For your Deep South Burger you advertise it as having bacon fat sautéed collard greens. Can you tell us what a Deep South Burger is and what's been the reaction to using bacon fat?
A Deep South Burger comes with sautéed collard greens, bacon and mustard seeds. The collard greens are sautéed in bacon fat to give them more flavor, but they're not drenched in bacon fat, it's there just to add flavor. I put it on the menu on purpose. If people don't eat pork it's important for them to know it's there. I was trying to do something more local and Southern and collard greens are pretty Southern. Collard greens are often cooked with pork in some way and I wanted to stay true to that. To me it sounds good to hear there's bacon fat in there because it means there's going to be more flavor - I know I'm not getting a bunch of steamed greens on a bun.
15. What's an Epik Tuna Sandwich?
It's a burger made with ground ahi tuna. I try to stay true to things being a burger. I don't add anything to the tuna at all, it's pure tuna. The Epik Tuna comes with a fried won ton, pickled vegetables and mango-jalapeño relish.
16. What's a Maguro Bocho Burger?
Maguro Bocho means "sushi knife" as far as I can tell from translating things. I tried to do a burger that would reflect the condiments that go along with sushi. It has wasabi mayonnaise, pickled ginger, soy sauce and sesame seeds. If you're eating sushi that's what would come with it - but now it's on a burger.
17. What's a Tex Mex Tuna Burger?
I was looking for more tuna ideas. Tuna has a mild flavor and to have it hold up and taste like something when a bun is involved was actually a bit of a challenge. The Tex Mex idea came when I tried it with guacamole, cilantro and tomato. It tasted good so I went with it. It doesn't make much sense, which is why I put a question mark near it on the menu. But it tastes good and that's what counts.
18. Can you tell us about your vegan, vegetarian and gluten free offerings?
We make our veggie burgers in-house. They're vegan and they're gluten free. When I wrote the menu I tried to do things that left options open for various customers because it's not easy for people to find a restaurant with a good amount of gluten free things and the people who have to eat gluten free don't have a lot of flexibility. They can't really go somewhere that kind of does it. They have to trust someone who knows enough about it and can be straightforward about what they're doing to avoid cross contamination. When it was possible to make an item gluten free I used that option, which makes it safer for the customer and easier for me. Same with vegan - if I was going to do a vegetarian burger, I decided I might as well make it vegan. The toppings can then differentiate the burgers. We have the Divine Vegetarian which isn't vegan at all because it comes with brie, caramelized onions, and balsamic mayonnaise. The toppings make it a richer tasting burger for a vegetarian. We have a Guac Vegan Burger that's served on a wheat bun instead of a brioche, so the bun is also vegan.
19. Are you getting a lot of requests for gluten free options?
It's been really big. I've had people post things on apps and travel websites for me. When people visit Jacksonville or are passing through I've had them search us out and drive specifically to our place to stop and eat gluten free burgers. The onion rings are gluten free and have been incredibly popular. I've had adults who've not been able to eat onion rings for years or kids who've never eaten them. I did it so the option would be there because I thought that with a few adjustments I could accommodate a lot of choices. And I wanted to have a place where people could eat regularly and not just for a special treat. I wanted to be the healthy option, not the decadent, but unhealthy, treat.
20. How do you get a gluten free batter on your onion rings?
I use gluten free flour and gluten free beer.
21. How do you avoid cross contamination with gluten containing items?
I'm careful to advertise our limitations and most people understand them. We slice the gluten free buns ahead of time and put them in a bin with a tight lid. Then we use tongs to handle the buns and a separate toaster that's away from the rotary toaster. We don't put any buns on the grill so the bread isn't on the grill. For our fries we use all natural potatoes and sweet potatoes. For our onion rings we use gluten free flour. So there's nothing that goes into the fryer that contains gluten.
22. What's the most popular item on your menu?
I don't know if there's a single most popular thing. The Epik Burger and the Epik BBQ Burger are up there. I'd say the Hawaiian Local is up there too - we sell a lot of those. Any of the burgers with an egg are popular. I just added a new burger as a special this week - it has cheese, bacon, peppers, onions, french fries, and a fried egg. I call it the Breakfast Burger. Breakfast burgers are pretty popular nowadays - I just tried to add more to it. Putting on the french fries, peppers and onions is like adding hash browns to a burger.
23. What's your favorite burger?
I don't have a favorite beef burger - there are quite a few of them I like. I'd say my favorite chicken burger is the Tropical Chicken Burger. It has lettuce and red onion along with goat cheese and a mango-jalapeño relish, so it's kind of sweet with the strong taste of the goat cheese. That's the chicken burger I particularly enjoy.
24. Is there anything that's surprised you by its popularity?
Yes, pretty much all the Asian burgers. I wasn't too sure about them. I wasn't sure if I'd sell many Korean BBQ Burgers or many Hawaiian Local Burgers with Spam. But those have been really popular. It took us a little while to work through the preconceptions of what some people thought the Korean BBQ Burger should be. I had to tweak the recipe a little, but once it was worked out it's been very popular. A lot of our Asian customers do order the Asian burgers because they're interested to see how it comes out.
25. What's been their reaction?
It's been good. I've had to work through a few adjustments in some places. For the Korean BBQ Burger I had to add some sugar to make the sauce a little sweeter and so that it browned up on the grill a little more. But I've had people order it and then come back to order it again - and that's always a good sign.
26. Are there any hidden gems on the menu that you really like but don't get the attention they deserve?
The Vietnamese Burger is one of those for me. Some people start to order it and want to substitute the baguette for something else. I have that burger as chicken, vegetarian or beef which shows that I do like it. I think the Vietnamese banh mi subs are some of the best things that exist out there for sandwiches and I really wanted to make a burger out of it. If I'm taking the order and people want to substitute the baguette I try to steer them back again because it kind of makes the burger to me.
27. The Vietnamese Burger comes with Vietnamese Slaw - what is that?
It's pickled vegetables. I just tried to give people an idea in their head that they're going to have sliced up vegetables and it's going to be a little different on the burger. It consists of carrots, cucumber, and red onion. If I just mentioned those ingredients people might not realize the vegetables are pickled with a little sugar, salt, water and rice wine vinegar. It's got a special flavor and I wanted to let people know that.
28. Where did you learn to cook?
I went to the New England Culinary Institute up in Vermont. I got an Associate's Degree in Culinary Arts and a Bachelor's in Food and Beverage Management. I've been in food and beverage since I was 15; it's all I've ever done. After culinary school I worked in Las Vegas at two different casinos but doing about 15 different jobs. I got an awful lot of my experience there. I've always been around food and we like to eat out so I stay fresh with things.
29. What made you want to be a chef?
I was lucky that when I was growing up I always knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to own a restaurant. We we fortunate that with some careful planning, a lot of hard work, and a little luck we were able to get to the place where we could own our own restaurant.
30. What attracted to you to having your own place?
When you're working for a company everything is strategic and you have to think about your particular customers who are attracted to your particular company and you need to stay true to them and the product you're putting out. If you're doing your own restaurant you can take a chance and do what you like. When you do what you like and other people appreciate it that's going to be more fulfilling. Hopefully it will be successful for me as well.
31. What made you decide on a burger restaurant?
Financially, I had to start small. The possibility of me opening a steak house wasn't there, I don't have that sort of money. I wanted to start something that wasn't a trend that might disappear in a few years. Americans have been eating hamburgers for a long time and they'll keep doing so for a long time. I felt like it was a pretty safe type of restaurant and was something I could do on a smaller scale. All of that plus I like hamburgers, and that helps too.
32. How did you get your recipes?
I sat at home and wrote a menu. I added things and tried to cross things out. Then I tested each burger and tweaked it. We had to open up in a pretty big hurry so some items had to be tweaked some more after we opened. I'm really happy with the menu at this point. I'll probably add 3 or 4 more burgers. I'm trying not to go to more than 40 but I have a hard time stopping myself.
33. Will you continually rotate your burgers or are you trying to get to a set menu?
I already did one menu revision. I've pulled 2 burgers off the menu that I wasn't happy with. One tuna burger just didn't have enough flavor for me. I also had a Chicken Caesar Salad burger that I thought would be really popular, but it wasn't. As far as adding new things, that's just me because I enjoy trying new things and coming up with new ideas. As I think of more things I'll probably try them as specials and if they do well I'll add them to the menu.
34. Have there been any big surprises opening Epik Burger?
Construction! Over budget and over time. There are things that caused a lot of challenges for opening and had an impact on how I had to open. Money I'd planned for some things had to get diverted to construction. There are a lot of things in construction that I learned, let's just say that. At this point we have been able to catch up but it made opening up harder than it should have been. If we open another restaurant some day there are definitely some things in that area that I'd do differently.
35. Once open were there any big challenges?
Like a lot of new restaurants I think the first few weeks were the biggest challenge. We had an all new staff that needed to be trained and brought up to speed on the menu. While that training was going on we were still tweaking some operational items that are part of any start up. Other than that, I've been in the restaurant industry long enough to know that there are challenges that will always be there and aren't really a surprise. They're just things you learn to deal with.
36. Are you from Jacksonville originally?
Yes, I grew up in Jacksonville.
37. Where do you like to eat when you're not at Epik Burger?
We try to go to different places. I particularly like to eat at restaurants where there's a chef owner. You can tell when there's a chef owner because there's always a menu item or two they put on there because it's what they like to eat and they don't really care if anyone likes it or not. That's how I felt about the Hawaiian Local Burger. I really wanted to have it on the menu because I thought it was cool and I didn't care if anyone else appreciated it. Those are the kinds of restaurants I like to eat at - I can always spot them.
38. Did you ever consider a food truck?
I did think about it and I looked into it. You don't pay rent and there's a lot of overhead that's different. But you still need a home base for a food truck. And I've never operated a food truck and don't know a ton about them. I have a friend who owns a food truck in Denver. He parks all over town. In a lot of cities you just feed the parking meter and start serving. But Jacksonville is a little more structured. I wanted to do something that I was confident wasn't a trend. That scared me off somewhat with the idea of a food truck. That and my lack of experience with food trucks. I can see a truck being an option some day if I was trying to grow to handle special events and things like that. For my first place I wasn't comfortable with them and there were too many unknowns for me.
39. What's next for Epik Burger? Will you be adding breakfast?
Not now. I've added milkshakes. My next step is to add beer and wine. The next step after that will be to find a way to open on Sundays. That's my progression at this point.
40. Is there a timeframe to add beer and wine?
I've finished my paperwork. Now I need to get a zoning exemption, which sounds like it should go through pretty easily. The liquor license itself is also straightforward. I don't think it will take too long.
41. Will you have any particular focus on the types of beer or wine you'll serve?
I've already written out a pairing menu to provide a specific beer and wine that goes with everything on the menu. It's something I'm excited about because it gives customers an idea to try that they may not have tried before, which is what I like to do. When I was creating the wine pairings I found that champagne was pairing with quite a few of the burgers. I thought that was really interesting. How often would you go out and order a burger with a glass of champagne? Probably not very often, or ever.
42. Will you offer champagne paired with burgers?
Yes, I'd like to.
43. What sorts of beers will you feature?
Many places feature beers that just go well with a burger. I tried to match the beer to the toppings on the burger. For the Korean BBQ Burger, which is a little spicier, I paired that with a pilsener beer. The Epikurean Burger is being paired with a Lambic beer or champagne. Both go well with the foie gras. I have a lot more ideas like those and am excited for when we'll be able to start adding beer and wine to the menu.