Chef Linton Hopkins has been a veteran of the fine dining scene since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1993, but he's most famous for the burger served at Holeman & Finch Public House, which celebrates its seventh birthday on Wednesday. The burger turned Holeman & Finch and Hopkins into national household names among foodies, and it's commonly found on best-of lists. Here, Hopkins shares how he came up with the burger, its meteoric rise to stardom, and his future plans.
Did you have a lot of professional hamburger experience that made you want to create a burger at Holeman & Finch?
No, not at all. CIA grad, professionally I cooked in high school at a little catering joint, in college I worked at Mellow Mushroom Pizza. I worked in New Orleans — Mr. B's, with the Brennan family, Windsor Court — DC Coast [in Washington, D.C.]. We didn't really do burgers at the CIA. I want to think maybe we did it in American dining kitchen. I bet now they talk about burgers more at CIA. But no, I just have always loved cheeseburgers, so it's more me as a person eating and cooking burgers for myself that is my experience.
What was the inspiration for the Holeman & Finch burger. How did the process go from start to the final product?
When we were opening our pub, it was like "Look, I love cheeseburgers; it's a pub. I want to drink a beer and eat a cheeseburger, but I don't want to have it on the menu because it takes over the whole menu. When people come in, people are just like "Oh, I'll order the cheeseburger," and we really want people to eat the whole-animal cookery and the farmed vegetables that we're cooking. We have a nice diverse menu. We felt at the time that, having a burger on there, half the people would just order a burger. Another reason we built Holeman & Finch was for it to be a place for our industry to go late at night. Because at the time, in 2008, there were not many of places for people in our industry to eat out late in Atlanta. And we wanted to have a late-night place, so my wife Gina kind of had the idea: Put the burger late at night so that it's off menu. That's sort of fun, and our industry friends will have it — chefs and servers and bartenders and the like. And maybe because a burger is such a fun thing, it will incentivize people to eat late at night, as opposed to just eating out at fast food.
If I'm going to create a burger — and I love cheeseburgers — I mean, I could grill you a cheeseburger without thinking about it. But I really wanted to learn the ratio of different types of meat, what that did to taste, different grinds, the steps of grinding, the steps of patting, how firm you pat it, all those wonderful little details. And I created this little burger matrix to come up with the H&F burger.
How did you come up with 24 burgers a night?
I'm a big believer in "good food runs out every night, and we make it fresh the next day." So fresh bread baked every day and served that day. We make the ketchup, we make the pickles, we grind the meat every day, which adds to that freshness of it — slice the onions every day. So we wanted to run out every night, so then we started thinking about how many we should serve. And I knew right off the bat it's a double cheeseburger because that's the way I eat a cheeseburger. Wherever I am, I always want a double cheeseburger — basically a half-pound cheeseburger, 8 ounces. So the griddle we have is a small griddle, and we could only cook 12 burgers at a time. And we felt 12 was too few and 36 was too many because we'd have a bunch leftover, and we didn't want to have leftovers. So 24 became that number.
You originally kept the burger off the menu so it wouldn't overshadow the rest of the menu, but do you think that added to its hype and actually caused it to overshadow the rest of the menu?
Yeah, in a weird way it became this phenomenon thing. I think it got more praise than possibly it would've if it had been a regular menu item. I mean, I'm proud of it. It's not a fully realized child, because I have children, but it's a great little cheeseburger. There are a lot of great cheeseburgers around the world. That's what's so fun. So I'm proud of that burger. But yes, having just 24 a night — people captured into that, sort of the limited fun of that. And we had this little "burger time" ritual we used to do, where we shouted with a megaphone and the crowd would scream.
But after a while, you get tired of it. It's sort of like with the Braves. The first year [the Tomahawk Chop] came out when we went from worst-to-first in ‘91, the Tomahawk Chop happened spontaneously because of the fans. And the moment when it became sort of programed, it's still sort of fun — I mean, I'm a Braves fan — but it lost that spontaneity. And yelling "burger time" at 10 o'clock at night on a megaphone, for me lost a little bit of spontaneity. We saw four generations of one family wait from 6 o'clock — and we're talking about a 3-year-old up to a 70-year-old — waiting around in my restaurant to eat a cheeseburger because they saw it on a television show. First, I just can't stand, from hospitality standpoint, people waiting for this burger. I thought, "I don't like waiting on lines. Why am I forcing people to wait on lines for anything?" And then from a business perspective, it really started clogging the restaurant up. And it started shutting down people ordering the other things because they were waiting for this burger at 10 o'clock. We'll sell about 75 to 100 burgers a night, but now the other menu items are moving again.
Did it surprise you how big the H&F burger became?
Absolutely, and I'm still surprised by the whole burger thing across the country. I'm amazed Eater does a Burger Week. And I get it. There's something really iconic around cheeseburgers and what that means to America. It's a guilty pleasure kind of thing, but I stand up in front of school kids all the time and say, "Do you think cheeseburgers are bad for you?" And they love raising their hands: "Yes, chef, cheeseburgers are bad for you." And I say, "What about pasture beef, and fresh-baked bread with no additives, and your grandmother's recipe for pickles? You're telling me that's bad for you? That's not bad for you." The product is not bad; it's how we build it. So it's important to say: Eating a burger is not about being a gluttonous American; it's just really a great sandwich.
Do you think Holeman & Finch has contributed to America's recent burger craze?
I think it's part of it. You know, I think it was a timing thing. This was the time — when the burger came out in ‘08 — the merging of media and social media and the Internet, Twitter, Instagram. Everyone becomes a participant in telling the story of the foods and the experiences they love. It really turned us into an egalitarian kind of society. And the burger is one of those things that people latched onto. Our burger in particular, because of its scarcity, just added an extra cool factor to it.
You have H&F Burger at Turner Field and coming soon to Ponce City Market. Do you want to franchise this thing, or keep it local?
I'm a one-step-at-a-time kind of person. We have a different POS system at every business I have because, maybe unwisely, I really don't look ahead to the next thing. I just get geeked up on the thing I'm currently in. Going to the Braves stadium was me, as a Braves fan, talking to John Schuerholz with the Braves and saying, "You know, I love coming to ballgames, I'll drink a Coca-Cola or a cold beer and eat peanuts, but I really don't want to eat the food here." And he's like, "Well how do we do that?" And I'm like, "Well, why don't we just bring the cheeseburger there? I'll just have a little stand; we'll have good cheeseburgers. I think it'd be fun." He said, "Can you guarantee it'll be the exact same burger?" I said, "I can guarantee that if you let me have control over the supply chain, that it is our beef, our mustard, our ketchup, our daily fresh-delivered bread." I loved that as something to really think about, rather than saying I really want to focus on developing burger chains in sports stadium market. And I also love this idea of challenging the notion that just because you serve more, you compromise. So to say, "OK, now instead of 24 a night, you're going to cook 2,000 burgers for a game." It's the exact same burger. And I loved that, how it sort of surprises people.
So I want that place to be absolutely unique in the world. I think the burger at Turner Field, while it's the same burger, the environment, how you have the burger, what you're doing is unique. So I'm more concerned with each space being unique than a copy.
This interview has been edited for brevity.