Talking about Steamin' with owner Vasha Carter
1. Tell us about Steamin'.
Steamin' is about fresh, basic American food. I'd describe it as a contemporary diner. We have regional classics such as our Steam Burger from Connecticut and the Half Smoke and Mumbo Wings from Washington, DC. That's kind of our niche: food you can't find in your back yard but that's highly famous in its respective city. Even though some of our signature items are just burgers, dogs and wings, they're things that most Jacksonvillians won't have tried ever before unless they're from the areas where they're famous. We also have some of the best chili dogs. We have a Blue Bell ice cream dipping station where we do banana splits, shakes, malts, and floats. And we have Nathan's, which pays homage to New Yorkers from Coney Island and places like that.
2. When did Steamin' open?
We opened to the public on January 1, 2013. We did a soft opening and we've just started ramping things up now.
3. Is Steamin' mostly take out or sit-down service?
It's both. If you're in a rush or want to eat at home we offer take out. But we also have a full sit-down service. We are not a fast food restaurant. Our food is cooked to order, and that takes a little longer. Our average ticket time is about 15 minutes.
4. Do you serve alcohol?
Yes, we have over 50 craft beer selections. We focus on local beers, which is the best way to feature craft beers. That makes them the freshest and the best. We also want to support the local community. We have everything from Pingle Head in Orange Park to Engine 15, Old Battle Axe, Intuition, Dukes and every single local brand we can get. We also feature bottomless mimosas. And we have something that's pretty unique, which is our Beer-tinis and beer cocktails. We create mojitos, bloody Mary's, and fuzzy navels with craft beer.
5. Is Steamin' a franchise?
No, we created this concept on our own, here in Jacksonville. I want people to know that. We're bringing food ideas from elsewhere but Steamin' was born in Jacksonville. If we open 100 restaurants we'll be known as a Jacksonville restaurant chain.
6. How did you come up with the concept, originally?
It was created by my partner, Joseph Davis, and I. We came up with the Steam Burger when we were watching Food Network and saw this unique burger from Connecticut. We had been working on our vision for a restaurant in Jacksonville and when we saw the way burgers were being steamed in Connecticut we hopped on a plane to see what it was all about. We fell in love with the recipe, and the rich history of the burger solidified things for us. And once we had the idea of the burger we looked for other regional, niche items that had local popularity but might be new to most people in Jacksonville.
7. Was your goal to re-create the iconic items as they are found regionally or did you want to add your twist to them?
We didn't change one thing. That's why it took us 7 months to get the Half Smoke to Florida. The guy who creates the one that we know as being the best in DC, the one for Ben's Chili Bowl, he would not initially ship to us. But it was worth the negotiations and not choosing something different or similar and putting our twist on it because that's what makes it good, because it's that original item and no matter if you're 500 miles south, you're still getting that same taste, that same flavor. What's so exciting is that people from those areas that now live in Jacksonville have visited us and can't believe we have something that's just like Ben's Chili Bowl or Ted's. So we went back for coaching to the same manufacturers who have been making those items for many, many years so we could duplicate them to a tee and not disrespect the original.
8. Can you tell us more about the original Steam Burger?
This burger has a lot of history. They've been making the burger for 60 or 70 years in Connecticut, or central Connecticut to be more specific. You probably can't find the same cheeseburger outside of Meriton, Middleford and Hartford - that's how exclusive it is to certain parts of Connecticut. They have burger battles and all sorts of things just for this specific burger. The whole process of steaming the cheese goes back to the early 20's. We thought if we wanted to have an American themed restaurant, let's go all the way with American history.
9. Is the Steam Burger specific to one particular restaurant in Connecticut or is it a regional item?
Ted's Restaurant in central Connecticut was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Man vs Food, so we initially went there to that specific restaurant. But they were busy on the day we went so we never ended up trying their burger. The gentleman who makes the cabinets suggested we try K LaMay. Kevin LaMay worked under Ted for 17 years before branching out and opening his own spot. That's where we actually ate our first burger. Kevin has worked with us a lot. He's come down to train our staff on the traditional way to prepare the Steam Burger because it was very important to us that we don't lose sight of the tradition and that we stay true to that when we duplicate the burger down here in Florida.
10. Do you have any thoughts on why the original steam burger is so regional?
I'm not quite sure. There may be places around the country who do steam their burgers. There are places, like Firehouse Subs here in Jacksonville, who do steam their meats. But the way this burger is steamed is unique. It's kind of like the Lubi is unique to Jacksonville or the Half Smoke is to Washington, DC. You just can't find the same food outside of the home town.
…how is the Steam Burger made?
We use fresh, lean ground beef for the burger. We don't freeze our meat. We steam it in a custom cabinet that's been made for 60 or 70 years just for the Steam Burger. It's a cabinet with shelves and holes in the bottom. We get the box from Connecticut. We steam both the burger and the cheese.
11. Is there anything specific about the burger, beyond steaming, that makes it special?
The best part about the burger is the cheese. That's the most important part about the burger, it's not necessarily the meat. The cheese is a specific Wisconsin aged white cheddar. I'm not even sure of exactly where the cheese comes from. We have a supplier in Connecticut who gets it from a farm in Wisconsin but it's such an exclusive brand that it's kept very secret. There are people who even dumpster dive Kevin LaMay's restaurant to try to find out where he gets his cheese. Kevin puts his own label on the cheese to keep it a secret. We buy it from Kevin.
…what is it about the cheese?
It's really interesting. When the cheese is steamed it melts down to a smooth and rich consistency. It's almost like having a grilled cheese and a cheeseburger at the same time. It's a sharp Wisconsin cheese that's aged for a full year.
12. Can you tell us about the Fat Dog?
The original name is a DC Half Smoke. We call it a Fat Dog because it looks like a fat hot dog. It's a specialty hot dog from Washington, DC. It's half beef and half smoked sausage. It has the texture of sausage but tastes like a hot dog. It started out of Ben's Chili Bowl and has become a local phenomenon and is eaten by everyone, including presidents. Now, at every hot dog cart in DC you'll find hot dogs and half smokes. We had to have the original.
13. What's a Mumbo Wing?
A Mumbo Wing is even more an elusive food to find. You have to have been raised in some of the very urban areas of DC with late night spots we call carry-outs that sell any and every type of greasy food you can think of. The mumbo sauce can only be found in those type of areas - it's a sweet, tangy sauce with a little bit of bite to it - no spice at all, just a smooth texture. It's very hard to describe because when you look at it you think it could be a barbecue sauce but it's a little translucent and red in color. It has an amazing flavor. There were some debates in the DC papers in the early 70's where some people from Chicago claimed it originated there but nowadays if you meet someone from Chicago they've probably never heard of it, so I think there's still a little debate about where it originates from, but there's no debate about where it's been made popular, which is in DC. The funny thing is that you can be from Wisconsin and move to Washington, DC and work there for 20 years and know nothing about mumbo sauce but if you were born and raised in DC then you definitely know mumbo sauce. It's one of those things - it's kind of weird. I grew up eating that sauce. It's been in my back yard and my neighborhood. If you go out with your friends, those are the only places open after hours in the city to get food from - those places will always have mumbo sauce.
…is the wing always a full wing?
It is, because in DC when you get your mumbo sauce we don't have wingettes - they're all whole wings.
14. If someone was coming to Steamin' for the first time, what would you recommend?
I'd recommend starting with any of our 3 signature items: a Steam Burger, a Half Smoke or the Mumbo Wings. We have lots of other things on the menu but these 3 are things that most people won't have tried unless they come from where those items were made famous. Most people are trying the Steam Burger first because the steam concept is very interesting to them. A lot of people are discovering a different texture and taste to their burgers that they've never had before. I've had some seniors who are 70 years old and they're telling me they're having the best burger of their lives. Steaming the meat releases a lot of oils off the burger whereas when you grill a burger you seal the fat in, so you have pockets of fat in a grilled burger that people are used to in terms of a texture, whereas, with steaming it makes a more pliable, smoother burger that's a little closer to the texture of a meatball.
15. What would you recommend to someone after they've tried your 3 signature items?
We don't have a huge menu because we wanted to have some really good things and keep it as simple as possible. We have a really delicious chopped salad. We have an amazing breakfast on the weekend where you can things like our Omwich. It lets you build your own omelette that we stuff in a fresh baked pita pocket. There's a lot of cool stuff on our menu. Our banana split is a caramelized banana split that's a must try because it's very hard to find a banana split with fresh pineapples, fresh strawberries and hot fudge made the way you remember it from your ice cream shop days in the 60's. It's so many things. Our turkey burger is seasoned a little bit more than others and steamed, so that's a different thing as well.
16. What's Bangin BBQ?
It's a slang version of barbecue sauce. My partner, J., created this sauce. It's very sweet and molasses thick, with honey and barbecue. It's very rich. But it has a little hint of spice throughout. It's our terminology for barbecue. We wanted a sauce that's our own so we added Bangin BBQ to our menu.
…do you sell you sauces separately?
No, we don't.
17. What's the most popular item on your menu?
It's a tie between the burgers and the Fat Dog. Our wings aren't as popular at lunch because our wings take a full 15 minutes to prepare. We warn our guests about that. Wings are normally a nighttime and weekend item. The reason our wings take so long is that we don't pre-fry them. We don't pre-cook anything here. We don't have a microwave either. We just don't believe in that. Our produce and our bread comes in fresh daily. When you cook a wing from beginning to end it takes 15 minutes to cook through. A lot of people are used to places that pre-fry their wings in the morning, then re-fry them in 3-4 minutes. We just don't believe in serving stuff like that to our families and our community so we have to let people know that our wings are amazing but they'll take 15 minutes to prepare.
18. Can you tell us about your breakfast?
Breakfast is just on the weekends at this point. We do homemade pancakes from batter that we make in the morning. We do everything from a strawberry lemon cream topping to peaches and cream on our pancakes. We have a vanilla cream french toast. We have classic American breakfasts with my Mom's recipe for home fries. We've had a lot of demand to put grits on the menu but we haven't added them yet. Then, our Omwich is really popular because it's our take on what people want for a breakfast sandwich. We get our pita from a local baker who is really amazing. We let our guests build their own omelettes then we stuff them in the pita pocket.
19. What do you like most on the menu?
Oh my goodness, I don't know. Probably the ice cream! We have 8 amazing flavors from Blue Bell that lets us create all kinds of crazy shakes. I love the dessert station. I love our fries with the Cajun seasoning. I'm a huge fan of the Steam Burger. I don't have one favorite. I know that sounds cliche but I really honestly think it depends on the day of the week.
20. Where do you like to eat in Jacksonville when you're not eating at Steamin'?
My favorite Italian restaurant of all time has to be Sorrento's. It's the best Italian in Jacksonville if you ask me. It's some of the best I've ever had, and I've eaten in so many places in my life. When I go for casual dining I like a place called Potter's House that has some amazing soul food. I'm still looking for the best Chinese food.
21. Who creates your recipes?
I'm not going to take all the credit, but I'm the culinary person behind our partnership. J. is the artist, and if you saw the interior of our building you would notice that there must be some sort of artistic mind that created this. We have a very, very beautiful building. The interior of our building has art, bright colors, and custom designs. We have a 470 gallon salt water aquarium. There's a lot of cool stuff here. We have a table designed for our food challenge, called the Fat Boy Challenge. It's a table that looks almost like a boxing arena with a Cryo-Jet machine that shoots down steam over the challenge table. It's a really cool building.
For the food, there's often input from multiple people. For example, the chili is my recipe with a lot of help from my family. I called them a lot for suggestions. J.'s uncle told me to make sure I'm using fresh cumin. Little twists like that. For the pancakes it's been a collaboration. For the French toast we called J.'s mother and she gave us a small tip to help make the batter hold. It's been like a family collaboration. The mumbo sauce we get from a family in Washington, DC. It's a collaboration of where the recipes came from.
22. Can you tell us about the Fat Boy Challenge?
It's a bunch of food. It's 2 Steam Cheese Burgers. It's 2 of our Fat Dogs and 2 of our Doggie Dogs, which are foot long, all beef Nathan's dogs. You get 3 pounds of fries. Our fries are fresh, hand cut. You can get an Idaho potato or a sweet potato. Then you get your choice of a shake, malt or float, a banana split and then 4 whole wings. If you complete that challenge in 1 hour you get a $150 and your face on the Wall of Fame. If not, you pay us $42, and you get your name on the Wall of Shame. We've had 11 contenders so far in the 5 weeks we've been open and all 11 have failed. We've had some competitive food eaters come in and take the challenge. They've almost completed it but they ran out of time. It was very important to us to make the challenge doable so we carefully researched that. We've heard that it's perfectly doable but the average person won't be able to make it. It needs to be someone conditioned for food challenges.
23. Have any women taken the Fat Boy Challenge?
Not yet, but we'll see.
…what is the strategy needed to win?
I'm not sure there's a strategy. The people who've gotten closest have used every single minute of their time. The people who go really fast get full really fast. We've seen people try all kinds of approaches. I don't know if there's a specific strategy. It'll all depend on the person.
24. What attracted you to your location?
We love Mandarin. It's one of the oldest, largest communities in Jacksonville. We like it because of the traffic, the schools and the families. We had to be sold on our specific location because it was an old, decrepit building before we got our hands on it. It was a Pizza Hut in the 70's and the ceilings were 7 feet tall. It took some time before we decided to go with it, but the location sold us. One of the most popular car washes in the area is next door and the traffic from there is great. We're also at a big intersection by San Jose and Old St. Augustine Road. It was just a matter of trying to envision how we could change the building from what it was to what we wanted it to be. We ended up keeping the roof and demoing the entire building. The buildout took about 90 days. It was quite extensive. We literally took the roof and put it on stilts. We kept the foundation but got rid of everything else. We put in new walls, new plumbing, new electrical. We did that on purpose, for the community. It was important for us to show that we were invested in the community and that we were here to stay. We wanted to make this a comfortable environment that was a cool place to hang out for the teenagers as well as an interesting place for families to come where children will be mesmerized by the salt water fish. There's not a lot of places like that around here. A lot of people come in and think we're a franchise. I get that maybe 2 or 3 times a day.
25. Any big surprises getting Steamin' going?
A lot! Anything that could go wrong, probably has. Our elaborate design of the build-out has added cost. Our family backed us 100%. It's our concept but it's our family's business because they've backed us the whole way. This restaurant is dedicated to our family because of the hard work they've done to make it possible for us to open Steamin'.
26. Can you tell us about your background?
I've been in and out of the restaurant business for 17 years. I've been a manager for a restaurant. I've bar-tended for some really nice places in Washington, DC. I've done training and I've worked for a lot of successful concepts like ESPN Zone and Hard Rock Cafe. I've also worked in office jobs, but I've always had a knack for restaurant jobs because I've understood what it takes to be successful from the guest's perception. It's very important to look at what a guest would view as a great place to go and eat. That's what I brought to the table. I'm also a great home cook. I've never been to culinary arts school but people say I cook like a chef. I'd never say I'm a chef but I think that from working in some fine dining places and with some really great chefs I've learned some techniques. For Steamin', what's important is a really great palate, and that I can say I have.
27. Are you from the Northeast?
Yes, I'm originally from Washington, DC.
28. Were you familiar with things like the Steam Burger when you grew up?
No. We've been in Jacksonville for nearly 5 years and we first saw the idea on TV here.
29. What brought you to Jacksonville?
J's sister owned an apartment building in Springfield and she asked us to help her run the apartment. We came down and really began to like the area and the people here. My daughter was going to middle school, and growing up in DC can be difficult. All those things were factors and so we decided to stick with Jacksonville and move here.
30. What made you decide to own a restaurant?
I think that anyone who's passionate about the restaurant industry will ultimately have owning a restaurant as their goal. My partner, J., definitely wanted to go into his own business and he's very savvy from working with his family's business, but we had to work hard to figure out where we'd be successful with both our skills. He has great customer service skills and I bring a background in restaurants. So, we thought we'd do well with our own restaurant. Hopefully we will!
31. Did you ever think of opening a food truck instead of a restaurant?
Actually, that's what we're thinking of as our next step. We're just waiting for Jacksonville to develop the food truck culture a little further, like it is in bigger cities like Orlando. I don't think it's far off.