George Motz released his critically-acclaimed documentary film Hamburger America 10 years ago last month. The film spotlighted eight restaurants across the country that were linked by two key criteria: They had kept a burger on their menu for more than 40 years, and they hadn’t strayed from their opening-day values. The accompanying Hamburger America book, which includes 150 burger joints, is more or less the Bible for burger lovers.
When Motz orginially made the film, he says he “knew nothing” about hamburgers. He saw the project as “a way to get people talking about America.” Now, Motz is America’s foremost hamburger expert. He says he’s eaten 10,000 hamburgers over the last 14 years, mostly in the name of research.
But a lot has changed since Hamburger America’s debut. We asked Motz his thoughts on how the burger landscape has shifted, what he thinks of the haute-burger trend, and what’s next for the hamburger expert.
Do you think there was a golden era of hamburgers in America? Are we in it?
There was a golden age for hamburgers, and a lot of that had to do with White Castle. The history of the hamburger owes a lot to White Castle because, back in 1919, they were the ones to actually turn around and say: Well, if we clean up our act, we can sell more burgers to more people because they’ll know it’s a clean product.
For the first 20 years of its existence, the burger was considered a blue-collar, could-kill-you-at-any-moment food. White Castle was the first to get it together. They actually ground meat in the restaurant; they wiped the walls down every night; all the servers had clean uniforms with white paper caps on. It was kind of like The Apple Pan [in Los Angeles]. White Castle gave burgers a really great name, and because of that, everybody wanted to copy White Castle.
All of a sudden, all of these restaurants started popping up with the word “white” in the name—places like White Diamond, White Manna, and White Tower. And if you didn’t put the word “white” in the name of your restaurant, you weren’t going to be a success. The 1920s in America was the golden age of the hamburger.
If the 1920s was the golden age for hamburgers, what are we in now?
What we’re going into right now is a hamburger renaissance-slash-backlash. The Internet has given us access to so much information, and people started getting pissed off when they realized where their food was coming from. They started lashing out against the people who were selling crap.
Once they knew they had a choice, they opted for the better choice. Your generation is discovering that they’ll actually spend more money if they know it’s healthy, organic, or better for you—and I think that’s a really big deal.
I’ve looked at all these reports and it’s really incredible that the big hamburger guys—they know who they are—are in a lot of trouble. It becomes this whole investors thing, where McDonald’s will lose money if they move away from frozen patties, even though all of their customers are saying, “Hey guys, we’re not going there anymore. You’re serving garbage. Literally.” Then people start thinking about the fresh-ground beef burgers like Smashburger, Five Guys, Steak & Shake—all places that are making burgers the right way.
What we’re going into right now is a hamburger renaissance-slash-backlash.
It sounds like the ‘big hamburger guys’ will have to bend at some point.
They have to, if they want to survive. And they’re all starting to get that. I’ve talked to executives at a bunch of these companies, they’re all pretty conceited and scared. They’re all like, “What’s hummus? What’s real beef? What??” If people actually knew what went into a fast-food hamburger that’s not made of fresh-ground beef, they wouldn’t get anywhere near it.
The improved burger chain—places like Shake Shack and Smashburger—is one of the biggest trends of the past five years. Which ones are good and which ones suck?
Well, I don’t want to tell you which ones suck. But I do really enjoy Smashburger. I love what they’re doing because they’ve figured out, on a corporate level, how to make a fresh-ground burger and make a really good one across the country. [Fun fact: Smashburger founder Tom Ryan was a big-wig exec at McDonald's.] Steak n’ Shake has been making the same product for years—it’s a fresh-ground beef smashed burger. They started at the same time or before McDonald’s and Wendy’s and all those guys, but they never really expanded outside of the Midwest. One of the original smashed burger places was Steak n’ Shake. There’s the trendy ones like Elevation Burger and BurgerFi—they’re good, but they’re trendy. I’d say the top three are: Five Guys, Smashburger, and In-N-Out. Top four would include Steak n’ Shake.
What do you think of the haute-burger trend?
I think burger trends are great. They’re not sustainable, but they’re great, because they do place attention on the hamburger, which is very important. But at the same time, we always return to the burger that we love, which is the very simple, straightforward, beefy burger on a white squishy bun with American cheese. People will say, “Oh yeah, I’ll take cheddar on my burger,” and I’m like, “Bullshit.” What they really want is an American cheeseburger, and that’s it.
Some of those trends are annoying, though. You know, there was someone selling a hamburger for a few hundred bucks, and it was really no different than any other burger, and it was kind of ridiculous. Doing it just to get attention, I don’t think that’s correct.
We always return to the burger that we love, which is the very simple, straightforward, beefy burger on a white squishy bun with American cheese.
What other burger trends do you hate?
Too many toppings are a major faux pas. One of the worst things is those toppings bars where you can load up whatever you want on top of your burger. Just look at The Counter—they have a good product, but they shouldn’t give people the option to do whatever they want to the burger, because they’re just going to screw it up. “Oh yeah I’ll put more peanut butter, whatever. Oh yeah, I’ll put bacon. I’ll put ham on top.” No! What are you doing?
I think it’s kind of over now, but the oversized burger was a disaster. And also the under-sized burger. You know, people trying to make these tiny little meatball sliders; people call them sliders, but they’re actually mini-burgers. I think the bun thing has been a bad trend, too. People always come back to the white, squishy bun. And there are very, very few other buns that actually work.
I think the future of the burger is very solid. Americans see the hamburger as theirs; it’s one of the only food inventions of the last 100 years in America that’s truly American, and I think people hold on to that.
What burger trends do you see on the horizon?
One thing I think is going to happen for sure is a thinning of the marketplace. It feels like we’ve reached critical mass with the amount of hamburger restaurants per capita. I have a feeling there will be a contraction at some point in the future because there’s just so many hamburger places out there right now. It’s not a bad thing at all, I just don’t want to see things go out of control and see the quality go down the toilet. The reason why we love hamburgers in the first place is they’re very simple things that are made with care. And the minute you make it too complicated and you don’t make it with care anymore, you’ve gotten away from the reason you got in the business in the first place.
Also, beef prices are on the rise, and that’s definitely going to affect the bottom line for a lot of these restaurants, especially ones making high-end burgers. I’m afraid that the price of beef may change the market, and it could also lead to the contraction of the market. Although, I think the future of the burger is very solid. Americans see the hamburger as theirs; it’s one of the only food inventions of the last 100 years in America that’s truly American, and I think that people hold on to that.
Beef prices are on the rise, and that’s going to affect the bottom line for a lot of these restaurants, especially ones making high-end burgers.
What’s the ultimate burger faux pas?
I think one of the biggest burger faux pas is to put ketchup on your burger, because ketchup is very sweet and it does not work with the beef like everybody thinks it does. It was introduced by some of the fast-food chains in the ‘50s to get kids interested in eating burgers. The original American hamburger only came with a few basic elements: mustard and pickles—and if you wanted onions, you got onions. Mustard and pickles were basically the only two condiments available on just about every burger in America.
Ketchup was not introduced until the ‘40s or ‘50s, and then an entire generation—my parents—grew up eating burgers with ketchup, and they passed it on to me, and I ate ketchup on my burger for many years. Then I had the original American hamburger, and I said no, ketchup doesn’t work at all. Mustard and vinegary pickles actually bring out beef-y flavor. Ketchup’s a huge mistake.
What is your absolute favorite NYC burger right now?
Well, I don’t play favorites. The minute I choose a favorite, I’m like, ‘Well, no, this is my favorite.’ Also, New York is a weird place for burgers because it changes so often, and also, the New York hamburger culture isn’t like anywhere else in America because there’s no real regional quality to the burger. There’s no real New York City burger. There are some pub burgers that can be considered NYC burgers, but they’re not really. NYC is a cross section of the world, and the hamburger culture reflects that.
What do you look for in a burger restaurant?
We’re looking for places that have stood the test of time, that have not strayed from their opening day values, and the spots that still use fresh-ground beef. Those few are the ones that deserve all the attention in the world. If you walk into a hamburger place and it feels like you’re in a complete time warp—a real, not a manufactured, time warp—then you’re in the right place. You walk into The Apple Pan in Los Angeles, still, to this day, it’s almost like you want to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Hey guys, the ’40s are over.” But they don’t care. They’ve been putting out the exact same product forever.
And most of my research comes from word of mouth and advice from strangers. The best hamburger advice I get is from the guy at the rental car place in the airport.
What’s next for you? Another movie, another book, maybe your own burger chain?
All of the above. We’re still working on the show, Burger Land. Also, I’m doing research for the next version of the book [Motz is adding 150 restaurants to the HA book], we’re going to upgrade the iTunes app, and definitely at some point—I’ve been approached by a few people—I’d love to open a restaurant. But the restaurant business is not something I’d just jump into. You have to have the right group to work with. If you were to quote me frankly, I’d say my answer to the question “Am I considering the restaurant business?” is: “Why not?”
Photo: Georgi Richardson
Check back next week for Motz’s “10 Best Burgers in Brooklyn” guide!