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Dan's Hamburgers' John Junk Shares Dad's Burger Secrets

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Dan's Hamburgers general manager John Junk, son of founder Dan. He started working at his dad's burger shop at age 13.
Dan's Hamburgers general manager John Junk, son of founder Dan. He started working at his dad's burger shop at age 13.

[Photos: Andrea Grimes/EATX]

John Junk was thirteen years old when he first started bussing tables and washing dishes at his dad's restaurant, Dan's Hamburgers. Now, as a general manager more than thirty years later, he says he can still make a Dan's burger in his sleep. And that burger? Hasn't changed in decades, since the first Dan's location opened on South Congress in 1973. (That location became a Fran's, which shuttered earlier this month, to the dismay of many Austin old-timers.)

"We really haven't changed too much stuff since 1973," Junk told Eater Austin after a busy weekday lunch service at Dan's #4 on North Lamar. What's the Junk family secret? Pretty simple, says Junk: "Consistency and quality." Dan's doesn't advertise. They rely on word-of-mouth recommendations. And they're celebrating forty years in business this year.

What does it take to become one of Austin's most iconic hamburger joints? We sat down with Junk to break down the Dan's recipe, hiring philosophy and his dad's best advice—on both burgers and life.

Let's start with the basics: what is a Dan's hamburger?

It's kind of like, Papa John's says, "Better ingredients, better pizza?" We're better ingredients, better burger. We do top of the line ground Certified Angus beef. It costs us a little more, but you can tell our meat patty tastes better than any other hamburger patty in Austin. You can really tell burgers, by blind taste test, from our burger. It really does taste better.

We toast our buns a little bit differently than other people. We grill 'em on a grill, the old-fashioned way. We butter them; it's not really butter but a coconut oil. But it's a real buttery, nice, like the grilled cheeses? It makes them real crispy. It makes the buns real good.

We cut all of our lettuce in-house, all of our tomatoes in-house. All of our vegetables are cut daily. We get the vegetables seven days a week from local Segovia Produce, here in Austin. Everything's fresh. Our buns come in five days a week. The meat comes in; they grind it three days out of the week for us.

It's funny, the health department's never had any problem with our meat because they know how fast it comes in. It goes out so fast. We do a lot of business, but we always do the burgers individually. When that person comes up here [to order], nothing's pre-made. We make it as they order it. We call it out.

That's what we're putting down on the grill. And eight minutes later, it's ready. It's not really fast food, but we try and get people out quickly. We know a lot of people are in a hurry. But we don't herd them in like cattle.

When did you start working at Dan's?

My mom and dad started out in 1973. Both me and Katie [Congdon, John's sister] started working at an early age. We liked to. Our other brothers and sisters didn't really work in the business like me and Katie did, but I started working I think when I was thirteen.

Wiping tables? Taking orders?

I did everything. Wiping tables and washing dishes. I worked French fries. I used to cut the French fries a long time ago, when we used to cut them by hand. I've done just about everything from the ground up. Bussed tables, washed dishes. I worked as a cook through high school and junior high. I went to college and got an associate's degree in restaurant management, came back to work the next day for my dad. I graduated one day and the next day I was working, because I had a job that was really what I wanted to do. So I've been doing it for I guess thirty-something years. And I'm only 49. But I love what I do.

It's kind of like they say, if you find something you like, you'll never have to work a day in your life.

That's really remarkable, to know at 13 that this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.

I knew what I wanted to do. I told my dad, I said, "Dad, I want to work as a manager, work for you." And he goes, "Oh, no, no, no. You gotta get a degree in restaurant management. You gotta get a degree." And I said, "Dad, your other managers don't have degrees, why do I have to have a degree?" And he said, "Well, my other managers aren't my son. You're my son, you're getting a degree." And I did it, and I really didn't want to, but I thank him so much. A lot of the stuff I learned in school, I put to use all the time. When stuff comes in, I gotta know what it's costing us, what I can put it out at.

What changes have you seen at Dan's over the years?

We don't really change too much stuff here. We kind of add stuff to the menu, but we really haven't changed too much stuff since 1973. We use French's mustard. We use Heinz ketchup. We use Kraft cheeses. Good stuff. We don't use salad dressing, we use Kraft mayo. It's a heavy mayo, not a thin salad dressing. We like to use top-of-the-line stuff and produce each burger individually. We hand-make each burger. It does make a difference.

Have you kept an eye on the competition?

Any time there's a new hamburger place that opens, I go check 'em out. A lot of 'em will have good, I want to say Five Guys, have great French fries. But the meat patty isn't as good as ours. It's good. It's not bad. But I always go and check out the new people in town and I always find out, maybe they'll make it or maybe they won't, but I can tell if they've got a bad meat patty, they will not survive Austin. There's so many other places.

We have regular customers that come in here twice a week, three times a week, even two times a day. They'll eat breakfast and come in and eat lunch and then later eat dinner. They just don't cook, they're in this area. We rely on a lot of repeat customers and the way we get 'em in is to serve 'em a good burger. Treat 'em right. Give it to 'em at a good price. We don't try to gouge them for an overpriced burger. So we do pretty good.

We're able to survive the McDonald's down the street, the Whataburger, people thought that's gonna hurt business. But it really only brings more people to the area. It doesn't hurt us too much, because they might pull in our parking lot and say it's too crowded, I'll go somewhere else. But they did choose us first.

At the Manchaca store, we're fixing to remodel it. Put a drive-thru in. Make it modernized. Get it up to date, you know. But this restaurant was built in '79, 80. It's been through a couple of phases, color changes. But basically we just try and serve a really good burger and keep it at a decent price.

Is there a Dan's secret ingredient?

We season each burger with a seasoning salt, gives it a little bit more flavor. It's a seasoning salt that you rub on like, briskets. That's kind of our secret ingredient.

We don't season it until after we flip the burger. That's the way my dad, Dan, taught us to cook the burgers, and we still cook 'em the way Dan taught us to do it. Same way, every single time. You put the bun down first before the meat. Start cooking the bun. Then you put the weight on the but, then you put the meat down. While it's cooking, chop the meat up a little bit so the meat doesn't shrink up, make sure it cooks on the grill evenly. Then you go back to the bun, you flip the bottom bun over and put a weight on the top bun. You leave it there 30-45 seconds, and then you flip the bun over and by then the bottom bun is toasted enough. Take that over to the dressing board. Then you flip the burger. Salt the burger. Put the cheese on the burger. Put the top bun on the burger.

As soon as you flip the burger, you put the top bun on there because the flavor will escape. If you don't put the top on there, it's like keeping it in with foil or a lid on it, keeps the flavor in. I remember my dad coming by when I was cooking, this was 20 or 30 years ago: "John! Put those tops on those burgers soon as you flip 'em!" I'm like, "Dad, I'm trying." But he knew that if you didn't, the burgers would be dry. That's another secret way we try and make 'em taste better.

And that process takes eight minutes.

In eight minutes. That's the way we do it. We've got it down to an art form, almost. Because we've been doing it so many times. I literally can do it in my sleep.

And our managers train our cooks individually. Someone walking in the door, they probably won't cook for Dan's for a year. Guaranteed. Come in off the street, never cooked a day in their life? They won't get on the grill. We won't let 'em. If you've had cook experience, you'll probably get on the grill in six months. We don't let just anybody get on the grill. That's our trademark. You will mess something up if you don't know what you're doing. And then you've got to explain to the customer why that burger tasted bad.

You can have the best ingredients and the best everything, but if you don't know how to put it together, the burger's not any good. It could be soggy from not being toasted enough. It could be soggy from the lettuce not being drained out. Or the pickle juice. We leave the pickles in the juice so they don't dry out, but if you don't wring 'em out, they'll make the burger soggy.

It sounds like so much can go wrong on just one burger, at any step of the process.

Exactly. And the same thing with the onions. We chop our onions here. If you don't drain the juice there, your burger will taste too much like onions. We ensure that we train the people to take care of the burgers. Because that's mine and Katie's livelihood. We want to make sure that each burger's done right.

We literally have some managers and cooks that have been doing it for 18, 19 years. And they're good. My sister does pay 'em well.

Katie mentioned that you've had people working at Dan's for decades. How do you hang on to your employees like that? Especially when a lot of folks see "flipping burgers" as a last-ditch kind of job?

We have a lot of high school students, we'll put 'em all through high school, three or four years. And they get out of high school, they say, "I don't have a better job, let me stay here." Then they go to college, and we've made managers out of them. Because if they're good people and they want to stay with Dan's, we'll train 'em. We've got four or five of them that've come up through the ranks. And they make a good living.

The trick in the business is to stay busy, keep people have, keep 'em coming in. And that's what my dad taught me and my sister to do. You've got to keep your employees happy. You've got to pay 'em a decent wage. I'm serious, we start out more than the other restaurants do. Because we want a better person. We don't want the minimum wage employee. We don't even start minimum wage. We start out, maybe $8.50 or $9 depending on experience. If you want to work in our company, there's so many examples of people who started out part-time, then go through college, and we'll work with kids' school and set a schedule. So they know they're gonna work two or three days at Dan's and go to school four days. I can't even think of how many kids I've gone to graduations, or different family functions.

One of my employees at Cameron Road, I named my daughter after her. My daughter's 27 years old. She used to write her name, Elizabeth, and she wrote it real fancy and I liked the way she wrote her name, Elizabeth. So I named my daughter Elizabeth.

It sounds like you're very people-focused as a business.

It's just a matter of treating people right. That's another thing my dad taught us to do. Treat people like you want to be treated. I've been doing this a long time, but it doesn't seem like it's hard work any more. It comes second nature to me.

What's your busiest of the four Dan's locations?

Out in Buda, that's our busiest store now, with all the apartments going in out there. That and the Manchaca store, they're neck-and-neck. It's just as busy, but it's fixing to get a facelift, so it's going to be closed down for about two to three months. That's going to be painful but once it opens up, I think it'll be way busier than Buda. It could do so much more but it gets bottlenecked. There's not enough space for the amount of business they do. Sometimes I go in there for breakfast and you can't even walk around. That's a good thing. That's a really good thing.

Why do you think Dan's has managed, not only to stay in business for forty years, but to expand and grow?

I just want to think quality. Consistency and quality. We're very, very consistent. You can come in one week and get a burger and the next week get the burger that's just as good. It's not hot and cold.

We take the time and care to prepare each burger. We're not just throwing stuff together. I said earlier, we try to keep the prices down. I've gone to Red Robin or these other "gourmet" burger places, and it's not a bad burger at all. But when you see the bill and you're like "Oh man, that's $20!" When I see these other new places opening I price them out. And I'm like okay; people are not going to want to spend $12 for a burger. You look at our prices, and our prices are in the ballpark. I want to say we're cheaper than McDonald's. For what you get, everything, the burger, fries, onion rings. We hand-bread them to order. We don't thaw them, they're not frozen.

I go back to quality. If you give them something good at a decent price, they'll come back. That's what's kept us in business, to be honest with you. We do have to go up in prices every three to five years. You can't go out of business for giving stuff away, but don't go up every year. You gotta be reasonable. And that's what's kept us in business. Serve an honest meal.

You must have some long-time customers who know the menu better than some of your staff.

That's true. We've had customers literally that their parents brought them up when they were little. They know the menu better than some of the employees.

Customers, I see the wife pregnant. Then I see them have a child, it goes to be a toddler, then they're in junior high. I've literally seen them grow up. There's some customers, they actually come [to North Lamar] but they live out in Buda. The guy comes through the drive-thru, his son comes through the drive-thru, and I'm like "Oh, you're driving now?!" And he says, "Yeah, I've been driving for a year." But you don't understand, I've known him since he was a tiny little kid! They're life-long customers.

We get a customer and try to keep 'em for life. You want them to come back. Because that's how you're going to stay in business, your repeat customers. A lot of the people who come in here, they're repeat customers. They're not first-timers.

How do you get the word out to those first-timers?

We do not advertise. People say, "You don't advertise how do you stay in business?" You never heard us on the radio. You never see us in the paper. You don't see us on TV. Most of our business is just like, "Hey, do you ever try a good burger? Go to Dan's." That's best. Word-of-mouth is probably the best kind of advertising you can get. So you get 'em in the door the first time and treat 'em right, and they'll come back. And they'll tell other people, too.

That's how we get a lot of our breakfast customers. I don't want to brag, but I think our breakfast is better than our burgers. [Laughs] On our breakfast, everything is made to order. We cook the eggs however you want your eggs, over easy, over medium, scrambled, soft, we do hundreds of different ways. I really think our breakfast is hands-down better than our burgers.

A lot of the stuff with the breakfast, I created, helping my dad. Me and my sister, I remember when we started breakfast tacos. Back in the '80s. We added them as numbers 13, 14, 15 to the menu. And I added the huevos rancheros in the '90s. That was my mom's ranchero recipe. That she used to make. It was good at home, so let's make it here. And here we are forty years later, we're still in business.

· Dan's Hamburgers [Official]
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