Austin restaurants and bars have been in search of solutions to their COVID-sized problem. What is affordable and exciting enough to draw customers, but responsible enough to put the health of those customers first? The answer to that question is burgers, as three recent burger pop-ups that have sprouted in the city: Fat City, Bad Larry Burger Club, and Golden Castle. Each runs on a model that walks that tightrope, and walks it well.
When it comes to pandemic cuisine, burgers have risen to meet the occasion. They are consistent and deceptively simple, and they travel well. They also offer a taste of normal — something on the menus of restaurants and dive bars alike — at a time when the world is anything but. In the realm of pop-up restaurants, burgers also offer some much-needed flexibility. If a bar has a kitchen, they can be made with ease; if not, an outdoor grill will get the job done in a pinch. You can also plan ahead with burgers, knowing exactly how many patties you can sell before closing up shop for the day. When you’re out, you’re out.
Slider pop-up Fat City was created in direct response to the pandemic. Eric Silverstein, the founder of Southern-Asian the Peached Tortilla, dreamed up the burger pop-up as a way of supporting his struggling catering and events staff during the spring. “Whereas restaurants have definitely been hurt by the pandemic,” he says, “the live event and catering industries have just been crushed.”
Originally, his idea was to create a ghost kitchen and transform Peached’s empty catering kitchen on North Lamar into a new to-go venue. But when Silverstein was notified of an opportunity at neighboring dog park and bar Yard Bar by his PR company, he jumped at the chance to bring his menu of “fat stacks” to life as a pop-up.
Bad Larry Burger Club was also born equally of inspiration and necessity. By his own admission, founder Matthew Bolick (co-owner of downtown bar Little Brother and 2018 Eater Austin restaurant of the year Better Half, among other ventures) had a difficult time adjusting to life during a pandemic. “I was pretty bored early during COVID,” says Bolick, “and Little Brother was failing miserably.” Though he originated his backyard burger club in 2019, now was the perfect time to really expand to the public. In order to make tips for his staff, he decided to “sling some burgers off my porch, take the dollars, and give it to the crew, because they’re the best.”
Stephen Kaste, the owner-operator of East Sixth food truck Golden Tiger, took a different approach. The idea for White Castle–inspired burgers was already in the making, originally as a food truck. When the pandemic hit, he took it as an opportunity to modify his plans. “It just didn’t seem like the right time to be opening up a full brand-new trailer right in the middle of COVID,” he says.” Rather than invest tens of thousands of dollars in a new business line, he decided to open Golden Castle as a “passion project” that would exist alongside his current business.
The pop-up model suited Kaste. “I can offer the highest quality product in a window of time that makes sense for me,” he says. With each new pop-up, he can plan and prepare a specific amount of meals for each window of operation. He has a set amount of food to sell, and when that limit is reached, the pop-up is done. He notes that he tends to sell out within two hours at that point.
Bolick takes that approach a step further by relying on social media buzz and presales to give his pop-up an event atmosphere. “If you don’t follow Instagram, you don’t really necessarily get a burger,” Bolick notes. For example, a recent run at his food truck Bummer Burrito was teased on the Bad Larry Instagram account, with a limited window for preorders opening that weekend and absolutely no promises that every customer would be satisfied. “There will be burgers. There will not be burritos. Some of you will eat. Others will [be] mad,” the post read. “Be fast not last.”
While these pop-ups are products of necessity, their appeal to each owner — and to the community — goes beyond the comforts of fast food. The streamlined menus allow each to adjust to varying indoor kitchens and outdoor grills.
There’s no denying that the simplicity of burgers makes it easier to keep customers safe. Bolick appreciates the compliments he’s gotten on the food, but he views the existence of Bad Larry itself as more important. “Cheeseburgers are just another vessel for me to reach out to the community, or reach out to people that just want to have a nice time and be able to provide something unique for them in a week when shit is gnarly,” he says. In a world without live music for now, he adds, Bad Larry is meant to be a “punk-rock way of doing a cheeseburger.”
But the rising popularity of sliders also speaks to the ever-increasing number of transplants in Austin. “We found there’s a lot of people from the Midwest and the Northeast who miss those mini-burgers,” Kaste says, referring to his slider style. “People are coming out in big quantities to purchase them.” Silverstein echoes this opinion, noting that this particular style of burgers — burgers seared to lock in the juices — speaks to the growing number of unique burger joints in Austin. “There isn’t a lot of competition in the burger market,” Silverstein adds. “The type of burgers we were doing, the White Castle–inspired mini-sliders, those we felt were kind of unique and perhaps nostalgic.”
The pop-ups also create a bit of buzz at a time when many Austinites are desperate for socially distant excuses to leave their home. “Everyone’s done pop-ups in some form or fashion over the years,” Bolick says, “but during COVID, it became very clear that people were stoked. People really needed it, they needed something new to look forward to in their week.”
For bars with no kitchens or on-site food trucks, these pop-up events are a major draw. When Kaste ran his pop-up at retro-bar Low Down Lounge on East Sixth, he let the bar take the food orders, encouraging people to order drinks alongside their meal. At the end of the day, Kaste splits his tips with the venue. “We give half to the bar as a way to kind of help them out,” he says, “because it’s not easy for anyone right now.” Meanwhile, Silverstein says that the success of Fat City has had a pronounced impact on alcohol sales at Yard Bar. “It brought an influx of people, and it drove their booze sales,” Silverstein notes, adding that the presence of Fat City “tripled” the alcohol sold over their two-day engagement in August. “It was a nice shot in the arm for revenue.”
And while the future of all three venues — like so much of the Austin food scene — is a bit uncertain, each owner hopes to see their pandemic project survive to the end of 2020 and beyond. Kaste is using his pop-up model to prop up the team at Original Hoffbrau Steakhouse, operating a temporary pickup-only burger joint dubbed Hoffbrau & Co. while the former lays dormant for now. Meanwhile, Silverstein continues to explore delivery-only models and more outdoor ventures like Fat City, noting that “there is some life to it” beyond the pandemic.
And Bolick has plans for A Very Bad Larry Christmas at Little Brother, with patrons never knowing if burgers are on the menu. “They’ll be available sometimes,” he notes, “and it’s going to get really annoying because no one’s going to know when they’re available and that’s going to be really hilarious.” He also might have something brewing at LoLo, Austin’s first dedicated natural wine bar.
Whatever the future holds, these three pop-ups will continue to bring a little variety to the Austin food scene into the near future and prop up local businesses in the process. In a year like this, these are the kind of wins they don’t take for granted.
Update, December 10, 10:55 a.m.: This article, originally published on December 9, used an incorrect photo as the main image. It has since been replaced.