One of the summer's most anticipated restaurants isn't open yet, but that hasn't stopped the curious from stopping by for a peek.
"Do you know the password to get in?," a woman who had been turned away asked me as I walked up. I didn't have a password; thankfully, I didn't need one. Justin Turner stood at the door of Bernie's Burger Bus and welcomed me inside.
"Instead of customers walking up (to the bus), we’re walking up to them. Instead of getting a drink from a cooler, we’re serving it."
Turner says he's aware his fans are ready to try the new place.
"Before you came in, I served about 55 people today because I had cooks training and servers I wanted to work with. I told the hostess and my staff 'anyone walks in, we serve them free food,'" Turner says. "I’m surprised by the amount of walk-ins we had without even being open. When I post (that it's open), I think it’s going to be ridiculous."
Despite the anticipation, Turner is confident his kitchen staff will be ready for whatever crowds show up. "I just have a feeling we’re going to be crushed, which is awesome. I’ve got all hands on deck. I’ve scheduled the buses down to have my best cooks (at the restaurant)," Turner says. "Even 110 seats, which I think is the final count — 110 people is not that much. We’re used to cooking 100 burgers an hour. It’s not something that’s going to be challenging in the sense of getting it out of the kitchen."
While Turner feels like his cooks are ready, adding servers and front of house staff to the mix makes him nervous. He's scheduled a series of invite-only practice services over the next few days to get rhythm and timing down. "I’m treating it like a food truck as far as the servers go," Turner adds. "Instead of customers walking up (to the bus), we’re walking up to them. Instead of getting a drink from a cooler, we’re serving it."
Indoor truck experience
Local design firm Collaborative Projects has brought the truck experience indoors. First, all the cooking is done inside a school bus that's been loaded inside the building. Booths are shaped like bus benches, and custom-designed two-person tables resemble school desks.
"I'm A-plus-plus about Collaborative Projects," Turner tells CutureMap. "I couldn't be happier with the look. My only complaint is that I didn't get a big enough space. If I had another 1,000 square-feet, I'd be where I want to be."
The new menu also includes poutine topped with smoked brisket, gravy and cheese curds. A lobster version will pop-up on weekends.
Turner has made a number of new additions to the menu. Diners can now choose from lamb and chicken patties in addition to the regular beef. Both are ground in-house: the lamb is from New Zealand and the chicken is all-natural and organic. In one configuration, the chicken burger gets topped with Turner's special goat cheese guacamole.
"It goes hard," Turner says with a chuckle. "The creaminess and the tartness of the goat cheese adds the right amount of acidity to the avocado without adding a ton of lemon . . . I like doing that when I do Mexican nights – it’s the first thing to go."
The new menu also includes poutine topped with smoked brisket, gravy and cheese curds. A lobster version, along with the truck's celebrated lobster roll special, will pop-up on weekends while supplies last. Turner says he doesn't want to spend Sunday nights eating leftover lobster; expect supplies to be limited while he gages demand. Those looking for something lighter can try a chopped salad topped with what Turner promises is "the best honey mustard in town," along with house-made ranch and vinaigrette dressings.
For dessert (or just because), choose from a selection of boozy milkshakes Turner created in collaboration with Fluff Bake Bar pastry chef Rebecca Masson. Yes, this is a burger restaurant with a full bar and a selection of locally-brewed craft beer.
In the meantime, Turner has his real estate agent scouring Katy for location No. 2, which he plans to open sometime in 2015. This restaurant's massive, hidden prep area allows Turner to add two or three additional stores within the next two years. "The hardest thing is going to be determining how fast I can get this thing running the way I want it," Turner says.
"I’m not going to do too much or spread myself too thin. I’ve got to get a grasp on the prep and equipment."
When exactly will it open? Turner is aiming for one day next week. To find out, follow Bernie's Burger Bus on Instagram. The password is "roll call."