June 20, 2013 by LJK
It’s my pleasure to be able to offer a guest post from the very generous Michael Catron (“mik”) and Nicholas Shellhaas, authors of the LIncoln-based blog Foodpocalypse.
About Abe’s, Honest: A Review, Interview, and Polemic
Shellhaas and I have spent about a year trying to find a restaurant to review—something we connect with, something that defines Lincoln dining culture, a place we’d be happy to call our own. Something we could share with Liana without looking like sulky snobs. After experimenting with a number of places we decided represent the worst of what Lincoln has to offer, we settled on what might be the best: Honest Abe’s Burgers and Freedom. Sure, we could, as most critics, descend on the place anonymously (not difficult for unknowns) and write a general critique of the atmosphere, service, food, and price. But that’s not what foodpocalypse means to do. Yeah, we’re interested in food, but we also are interested in culture, in business, in context. We have questions. So after a couple of lunches to get the savor of the place, we sat down with Brad, “the operations guy” and general manager, on a Friday morning for an interview.
At first blush Honest Abe’s doesn’t stand out as anything special. Nestled into the Meadowlane Shopping Center at 70th and Vine in the same location where the delicious but doomed Papillion Grill perished, it looks like just another flash-in-the-pan strip mall restaurant. An ugly, awkward, Midwestern blow-by. Barely visible from the street and unappealing to folks in the mood for Valentino’s or take-out Chinese, Abe’s—like its namesake—is an unlikely candidate for success. But success, Abe’s has found—to a surprising degree. When Abe’s opened, says Brad, they expected to sell an average of 350 burgers a week. Now, they cook 600 burgers on an average Saturday; that’s a burger a minute all day long.
I ask Brad when he felt like he was onto something with Abe’s, the day he sat back and realized this business was working out. Brad thinks for a while. “Nobody’s ever asked me that,” he says. “A couple of weeks after we opened we had to close early because we ran out of stuff. It was ‘mind blowing.’” And it is. For a restaurant that spends nothing on advertising, apart from whatever it costs to maintain a URL, and does all of its customer outreach through Facebook and word of mouth, Abe’s is doing surprisingly well. Most new restaurants experience peak business at the three-month mark. Abe’s opened in July of 2012 and the business is just now starting to level off, but it’s not there yet, asserts Brad, who confesses that after almost a year of steadily increasing business it will be strange to see the first month that doesn’t outperform the one prior. Though judging by the crowd over the lunch hour or all day long on the weekend, Abe’s might not see an even balance sheet for a while yet.
And Abe’s is full. Shellhaas and I confess our Abe’s dining strategy: go at 2:30, when we might find a table. Brad grins. I ask him about plans to expand the Abe’s to accommodate the number of customers it has attracted and he gets a little cagey. Ground Up Restaurants (GUP), he says, is planning on opening a sit-down restaurant in in the downtown area. He’s reluctant to share any specific details, but part of the reason we’re only interviewing him this morning is because the rest of GUP management—Erik and Gabe—are working on the new place. Abe’s, though, is likely to stay as is unless one of the businesses on either side folds and they can occupy two bays. He likes the full restaurant and the location. I point out the relative inaccessibility, the lack of street-front signage or exposure. “People will travel for good food.” Brad grins; he’s right. “Besides,” he adds. “This restaurant has a community feel. People chat with their neighbors.” He’s right about this, too. Two days earlier, when Shellhaas and I popped in for lunch (we both got the Tiger Uppercut, but the way—I recommend it), we shared the long central table with five high school athletes finished with some morning sports camp. Nice kids. Honest Abe’s Burgers and Freedom reminds me of McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village in Manhattan, where the beer is cheap, good, and comes two mugs at a time. And the bar gets crowded. The bar staff will shout patrons into chairs beside strangers to make room. One of the best conversations I’ve ever had with people I didn’t know occurred at McSorley’s. Though Lincolnites tend to defend their personal space to a serious, sometimes ridiculous degree, they pack in at Abe’s just as if they were New Yorkers. Coincidently, Abraham Lincoln drank at McSorley’s. Both restaurants claim a connection to the sixteenth president.
And that connection creates a mixed impression. Yes, Lincoln is credited with ending slavery in the United States. Freedom = good. But he also expanded the powers of the executive branch well beyond what the Constitution provided for. I’ll leave the nuanced historical and political arguments for others. Nonetheless, the first time I walked into Abe’s and faced the black and white ironic homage to President Lincoln, hipsterism, and the Schutzstaffel, I didn’t know whether to laugh at an inside joke or run from neoconservative propaganda.
From the faux-aged Gettysburg address hanging beside the soda fountain, to the absurdly jingoistic “freedom” fries, Abe’s feels like it’s making an argument. Even the menu board reads like a dare: The Greatest Burger Ever, The Aphrodite, the Tiger Uppercut. A sign on the wall reads “Welcome Friends” but implies, in what is written, the unprinted “all others will be shot.” I came in to the interview prepared to go after Brad for nationalistic whack-jobism, my inner literary and sociopolitical critic on edge. I started with a hopefully innocuous “What’s up with the decor?” It turns out nothing is up with the decor. The name, explains Brad, is the result of the GUP folks brainstorming. They settled on Honest Abe’s because it connects with Lincoln. The Burgers and Freedom came a bit later. “It’s funny,” says Brad. Some people have tried to talk politics at the restaurant, but that’s not what Abe’s does. Brad’s platform: “We just make honest food.” And besides, it’s pretty clear there’s nothing sinister behind the slogans and iconography. If you don’t want to order “Freedom Fries” you can order truffle-parmesan fries—it doesn’t get much more euro-socialist than that. Instead of fountain soda, you can order “Mexican Coke” in the bottle, a nod to our south of the border amigos. Some mornings, when Abe’s serves breakfast, poutine appears on the menu (Canadian socialism and arterial sclerosis at its tastiest). And, in case you prefer cartoony fascism, the restaurant’s logo features a Sideshow Bob–style cleaver beside an S.S. lightning bolt. Everything about Abe’s is an exercise in unintentional irony. The location, the look, the language. Well, everything except for the burgers.
The burgers are honest. Having sampled gourmet burgers all over the US I can safely say that Honest Abe’s compares to Flip Burger Boutique in Atlanta and The Lunchbox Laboratory in Seattle. Abe’s doesn’t just make a great burger, they might make—as the menu proclaims—the greatest burger ever. I’ve never ordered a burger at Abe’s that needed any doctoring. The bottles of ketchup on the tables are a comfort, but I’ve never seen anyone at Abe’s dose a burger. The toppings, the sauces, the seasoning, everything works. So how, in a city where most diners are content to pay two dollars to eat from the trough then take a nap, does Abe’s pull it off? “Everything’s fresh,” says Brad. “We don’t even have a freezer.” The lack of a freezer is a point of pride—as is the small prep area. Everything has to be fresh, made in relatively small batches, and served. I get the sense the daily special is actually something “special,” not whatever bits and pieces in the walk-in are starting to turn. The beef is ground fresh daily by Del Gould Meats and the buns come from Rotella’s Bakery. Burger toppings change as the seasons dictate. Brad tells us to expect some avocados in the coming month. There are a handful of menu staples but, as the website says, the “menu revolves like a pistol.” Daily specials and limited-time offerings come and go. “We started off with a larger menu.” Brad gestures at the blackboard behind the cash register. It covers the entire back wall. “That used to be full. We offered chicken fingers, salads….” But Abe’s has pared down the menu. Burgers and fries and nothing else. Brad explains the restaurant’s mission.
“We’re going to make the best burger and fries. That’s it.” Everything is streamlined to this mission. The menu isn’t large, and that lets the employees pay attention to the details. Talking to Brad, I get the sense this isn’t just the best burger in town, but perhaps the best restaurant as well. All the employees get involved in the creative process.
Brad explains how they make five or six prototypes when experimenting with a new burger, and all the employees have some input. There’s an investment in Abe’s, not just in a restaurant, but in an idea. Brad calls it “better fast food: fast with sit-down quality.” This mentality beats the pants off fast casual: sit-down prices with fast-food quality. Though cost is a potential obstacle for Abe’s. I ask about the price, $9.50 for a typical burger, freedom fries, and a fountain soda; $11.50 for the truffle fries and bottled Coke. “How are you going to compete with Cheddar’s (which has been doing an embarrassing volume of business since it opened) or Wendy’s, Runza, or Don & Millie’s?”
“People scoff at the price,” admits Brad but with a no small amount of confidence adds, “Trust us; we know what we’re doing. If you don’t like our burger, we’ll buy it back.” And judging by the line at the counter during peak hours, most of the skeptics come back. And they bring friends.
Lincoln doesn’t have much to offer in the way of cuisine. Even our city’s best restaurants barely earn participation awards when judged on a national scale. We’re not a food desert, certainly, nor are we food ignorant, but we don’t, as a rule, demand great food from our restaurants. This explains why places like Cheddar’s, Granite City, and Famous Dave’s do so well here. Lincolnites content ourselves with good enough and are reluctant, even ashamed, to ask for great. Fortunately, Abe’s Burgers and Freedom aspires to greatness for us, honest.