Think the East Bay has its fair share of burger restaurants? Think again.
Starting early next month, West Berkeley will welcome the fifth location of Farm Burger, a grass-fed burger franchise from Atlanta, Georgia. Farm Burger will join Philz Coffee, Doughnut Dolly, and Whole Foods in the brand-new Gilman District development at 10th and Gilman.
Farm Burger started with a stroke of luck. Founders George Frangos and Jason Mann originally met when Frangos ran a reference check for one of Mann’s old employees. At the time, Mann was at the helm of the Athens, GA farm-to-table restaurant, Farm 255, and Frangos was managing restaurants in Atlanta, GA and Portsmouth, NH. After meeting, Mann hired Frangos to consult on his restaurant.
“He and I were just sitting around one day looking at the business model for his restaurant and we realized that what really sold were a lot of burgers,” said Frangos. “At one point I thought, ‘We should just open up a grass-fed burger place, raise all the cattle, and call it a day.’ The idea stuck with me.”
Soon afterwards, Frangos found a building for rent near his home in Decatur, a small city right outside of the Atlanta city line. “Inside [it looked like] it was a really easy turn around to make it a restaurant. So I called up Jason and said, ‘You know that burger idea? You want to do it? I’ve got a spot.’ He said yes and that was really it. We had no business plan at the time. We just had an idea.” Farm Burger’s first location opened in 2010. Two more locations in the Atlanta area and a single location in Asheville, NC followed.
From the beginning, Frangos and Mann were committed to sourcing only the highest quality product. To the pair, “grass-fed is a commitment to our beef supply. We are either grazing the cattle ourselves or we have a hand in the raising of the cow, [along] with a select group of farmers,” said Frangos. “We’re buying whole animals, we’re not just buying grass-fed ground beef product. So we see that whole process from grass to bun.”
The original location is housed in what was previously a revolving door of restaurant and retail concepts; luckily for Frangos and Mann, their grass-fed concept stuck. Farm Burger Decatur still conjures long lines and a devoted following (including this author and her Decatur-based family). At the time of its opening, Atlanta’s farm-to-table scene was in its infancy. Farm Burger stood out for its pastured product and decidedly laid-back atmosphere.
“I don’t know if we were really trying to play in terms of the burger craze or the farm-to-table craze,” said Frangos. “I always say that if it was 15 years ago, we probably would have met and done the same thing and nobody would have noticed. So it was very lucky timing for us.”
Some may find it curious that a well-regarded Southern burger franchise would choose to open a location in the Bay Area, but it turns out that the move wasn’t completely out of the blue. As it turns out, Frangos lived in San Francisco two decades ago and Berkeley is “Jason [Mann]’s old backyard,” said Frangos. Mann attended UC Berkeley and spent another four years in the area. When Mann recently relocated to San Diego with his family, the scene was set for a West Coast expansion. “A friend of his came to us with a location in West Berkeley and we really liked it,” said Frangos. Like their original location, “it all came together surprisingly quickly. It’s very rare that deals come together so seamlessly.”
The pair is adamant that their Berkeley location will have its own character. “We like to refer to ourselves as a neighborhood grass-fed burger joint. We think of each location as a unique restaurant,” said Frangos. “We try to run [each location] as independently as possible in terms of feeling, staff, and design. We really try to get them fitted to the community where they’ve opened.”
An important part of fitting into the community is finding the right ingredient sources. Over the last several months, Frangos and Mann have been hard at work sourcing their meat. When Frangos visited in May, they took part in an “epic burger meat tasting,” he said. “We got different ground beef supplies from around eight different farmers and ranchers and looked at the different grinds, set-ups, and flavor components.” For now, they have chosen BN Ranch and Stemple Creek Ranch for their burger beef. Llano Seco Rancho will supply pastured pork for toppings like cured lardo, bacon, and braised pork belly.
Sound decadent? Many of Farm Burger’s staple burgers are indeed adorned with an array of creative toppings. Offal cuts like beef tongue make appearances on the specials board. However, their basic “Number 1” is rightly celebrated for its restraint — only caramelized onions, cheddar, and a mayonnaise-based Farm Burger sauce sit atop the beef patty, allowing its grass-fed flavor to shine through. In addition to burgers, the menu will also feature seasonal soups and salads, as well as sides like expertly fried onion rings, addictive sweet potato fries, and boiled peanuts. Frangos and Mann also plan to make use of the robust micro- and nano-brewery scene in West Berkeley, showcasing hyper-local beers on the drinks menu.
Farm Burger is as committed to their Southern roots as they are to sustainable sourcing — think Fiveten Burger meets Brown Sugar Kitchen. “We’re excited to bring our Southern slant to California, so you’ll see collard greens on the menu and you’ll see okra and grits,” said Frangos. “We cook Southern Food not because it’s a trend or something kitschy — it is something that’s woven into our restaurants here and I think we do it well.”
Only time will tell if Farm Burger will stick in the East Bay’s burger-filled town. Chances are, Frangos and Mann will find success — luck is, after all, on their side.
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH. Read more of Kate Williams’ stories for Nosh.
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