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Patrick Terry on Burger Perfection and the Future of P. Terry's

Patrick Terry.
Patrick Terry.
Photo: Jasmin Sun / EATX

Because no Austin Burger Week could ever be complete without a stop by P. Terry's, we present to you an interview with the burger stand's creator and owner, Patrick Terry. Here, Terry sets the record straight on his inspiration for opening a burger stand, his opinion of cheaters, and why he's not an avocado-sprout guy. Also: two new Austin-area locations are on the way! But you can forget about a nationwide franchise.

I've read conflicting stories about why you decided to open P. Terry's. Some say that you decided to open it after being shocked by what you read in Fast Food Nation, while others say that your wife handed you the book only after you decided to start the business. What's the real story?
The accurate story is that I always wanted to open up a burger stand, and my friends tell me it goes back for about 20 years. And I can't remember all the conversations I've had about it, but I can tell you there were a lot of them. When I got serious about it, and felt we might've found a location, my wife said if you're going to open up a hamburger stand, then you need to read this book. She had just finished it. So Fast Food Nation quickly became our bible, and really the mantra that we operate under.

Why did you always want to open up a hamburger stand?
The answer's just crazy, ridiculous. I don't know. There's an innocence about it that I think appeals to me. That talks about hamburgers and French fries and milkshakes. There's something about it that probably takes me back to my youth. I'm originally from West Texas, and everybody grew up in a town that had a place they hung out at, that was their favorite food place.

For me, it was Mack Eplen's. Mack Eplen's was where you went and got a hamburger. Mack Eplen was the restaurant guru, he was the king of Abilene. He had a bunch of different restaurants, but he had a hamburger stand that was just second to none. That was a lot of my inspiration. I like the fact that I can have a relationship with my customer — as far as having a job or a career — I can talk to the customers, I can see the customers, but I can also have an environment for my employees that I think is more positive than not. So it's kind of the best of both worlds.

What kind of preparation goes into opening up a hamburger stand? How long did it take?
That'll scare you, because I'm the kind of guy that just jumps in. And so we just kind of jumped in. As we were building the Lamar and Barton Springs location — which was originally a Short Stop hamburger stand — it had been empty for five years, it was all overgrown with shrubs and plants. There were people actually living inside it — the condition of it was terrible. So as we were remodeling and cleaning it up and everything, we kind of worked on the recipe. And I had stopped eating fast food at the time, so I didn't know what was out there. I didn't know what our competition would be, I didn't know what they were serving. I knew what I wanted to serve, and as it turned out, it really didn't matter what anyone else was doing, I was just going to do what I wanted to do. By the way, all of this is with a lot of help from my wife, Kathy.

So we worked on it as we went, we got help from friends. We had really good friends insist that we have fresh-squeezed lemonade, insisted that we have a sandbox. I didn't want to do a chicken burger, but by wife did. Chicken breasts aren't designed to go on buns. They're curved, they don't fit, and they're thin on some areas and thick on others, so they cook weird. And they take a long time to cook, and I wanted to get the food out fast. We were talking to another friend who recommended ground chicken, which I had never heard of. Obviously a turkey burger is ground turkey, and he said, “Well you know, you can grind chicken like you do turkey.” And that's what we do, our chicken burgers are ground boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

So we learned from our friends, we decided to do a veggie burger, because we were starting in South Austin. We ended up with a Gardenburger because we couldn't find anything else. We never liked serving it, because it was a frozen product, which is everything we're against. And so the minute we became big enough to make our own, and sold enough to justify it and open up a commissary, we did. So we've grown as we've grown, in a lot of ways. So now, we make our own veggie burger.

We never stop learning. We learned a new way to prepare our potatoes before we cook them a month ago. And we've been doing this for damn near six years. So we never, ever stop. We're constantly trying to raise the bar. It's a real pain in the butt.

So what'd you learn about the potatoes?
See, we don't cheat. And I don't mean that in a bad way, or that everyone else who cheats is a bad thing. But most people cook their potatoes in peanut oil. When you fry in peanut oil, it's like putting butter on a potato. So you are masking any problems with the product. By cooking in the oil, you're kind of changing or enhancing the flavor of it. So we cook in canola oil, because it has no trans fats or hydrogenated oils. And we've been doing this since day one. But the problem is, that it makes it come out like whatever that potato is. So if it's a bad potato, it's a bad French fry. The canola oil does not enhance it in any way. We learned a new step; we cut our potatoes and then we soak them in a solution for hours. And then we cook them from there. We just learned a new step in that process.

How did you come up with the recipe for the original P. Terry's hamburger patty?
It's pure ground beef with seasoning, and we did it through trial and error before we opened. We were sitting in that little store, trying different things. It was ugly — it always is, whenever you're trying to get to a point where everyone's happy. The meat was never in question. The meat was always going to be an all-natural Black Angus. There's a difference between Angus and Black Angus. Black Angus is the top, and it's just a better breed, a higher quality.

So, how many burgers do you think you went through before you got to that perfect one?
Well, we worked with weights, the proper size of the patty to cover the bun; oh, we probably went through hundreds to get to that point. We ended up with a three-ounce patty.

What do you think makes a burger great?
It has to start with the meat. You can talk about fancy buns or fancy lettuce, ... but honestly if the meat's not of quality, then there's not a lot you can do, really and truly. You're just covering it up. So it all starts with that. Everything else to me is basic.

Simplicity and quality seem to be the overall themes at P. Terry's. What do you have to say about places that add all sorts of toppings like pork belly, pineapples, sprouts, etc. to their burger?
My attitude is that people can do what they want. It doesn't bother me in the least. That's not my business. It's whatever you want. The pizza business did the same thing for a long time — you could order everything in the world on a pizza, and then at some point it just kind of goes back to being pizza. So I do think that some things are kind of faddish, but I don't know if that's a bad thing. Just not my thing. I mean, I love a hamburger with barbecue sauce — I just don't serve one.

Aside from your own, do you have favorite burger? In the city? The state? The nation?
Chip's in Dallas. It was a burger I ate for years when I was in Dallas, and they do a good job. It's a bigger burger — it's thicker, like a half pound, and you can get different stuff on it.

What stuff do you get on it?
I haven't been there in a while, but I think they have one with barbecue sauce. Barbecue sauce is kind of my thing — if I'm going to try something different, I'll try that. I'm not an avocado-sprout guy. I'm pretty basic.

Would you ever think about expanding the current menu?
No, and I'll tell you why — we get asked this all the time. The fryers cook nothing but potatoes, so the minute you cook an onion ring in there, you're changing the oil. You're putting something else in it. So when you go to cook a French fry, you're changing the taste of the French fry because you've just cooked onion rings in it.

I get vertigo when I read a big menu. I think trying to be all things to all people is a big mistake. We're doing some breakfast items now, but it's a breakfast burger — it's an egg burger. I'm not introducing tortillas, we're not soft tacos. The only thing we've added since this menu started is the cookie.

But what about tater tots? Those are made of potato too!
You're right, I think it is time — but the only tator tot I know of is a frozen tator tot. By the way, I love tator tots — but we don't have freezers, we do everything ourselves. I don't even know how to make a tator tot from scratch!

All right, so I've read that on average, you eat at least one meal a day at P. Terry's. Since 2006! That's more than 9,000 meals! Shouldn't you be sick of eating hamburgers?
It's probably not that many, but it's probably closer to that number than you think. I think I eat a hamburger about five days a week. Yeah, I really do. I eat a hamburger and fries everyday. I used to split a cookie everyday with my wife, but now I've just been eating one by myself. I gotta cut back. But I'm a creature of habit, I guess.

I hear you're planning to open two more locations in Austin in addition to the current three you have now. Where will they be?
The first one opening in May will be at the corner of South Congress and Ben White. Then in July we'll be opening one in Lakeway, right across from Lake Travis High School.

Why did you choose those areas?
Well this is a tough town. You don't just take what you can get, because there are a lot of bad locations out there. But when we come across a location that we like, we get excited. South Austin has been really good to us, so we have a lot of customers south. So we feel like we can make it more convenient by being in that location. And it's by St. Edward's — we have a lot of St. Ed's students who come. And then there's a hospital across the street, St. David's, and we get a lot of those customers. So we're kind of going to our customer base.

For the Lake Travis High School location, we decided to go there because we got a lot of emails. We get a lot of e-mails from an area. Please come to Lakeway, please come to another city. When the number really starts to get noticeable, we start to look around that area. So we've had a lot of demand from that area. If you take the time to send an email, then there are probably a lot more people who'd like to see something there that doesn't have the time to send one.

Do you think you'll be expanding to other cities in Texas?
We'd like to. I never know, nothing's ever for sure, but we'd like to do a few more locations here in Austin, but then we'll look at some other cities. I don't know where we'll go, honestly. But once we feel like we've got Austin nailed down, in terms of covering the areas we're interested in covering, I can see us going somewhere else.

So where else do you need to go in Austin?
We need to go north. We need to go toward 183 and Braker, or out toward Round Rock. We have way too many customers who drive all the way from Round Rock to eat here.

So how many Austin locations are you ultimately aiming for?
Somewhere around eight to ten. In the realm of possibility, I guess.

Is a national franchise in the cards for P. Terry's?
I'm too old. No, we're not going to do that. We're not interested in becoming the next McDonald's. We're not going to franchise; we're going to be company owned, my wife and me. You're immediately limiting yourself — so now it's about how many years you can be alive to do this. So no, I don't think it'll be anything near that.

Once you feel like you've got Austin locked down, do you think you'll start expanding to Dallas or Houston?
I don't know, honestly. Dallas and Houston are wonderful places. We have customers who visit Austin and tell us to go there. But my concentration right now is opening store number four, then five.

Do you think you'd take P. Terry's back home to Abilene?
No. I don't think this concept works everywhere. I love P. Terry's, I love Abilene, but I'm not sure the two meet. Maybe, but I'm not sure.

—Jasmin Sun
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