For burger lovers in The Heights, the waiting for one of the neighborhood’s most eagerly anticipated new restaurants is almost over. Bernie’s Burger Bus will open its location at 2200 Yale Street on July 31.
Almost two years in the making, the Heights location of the food truck-turned-restaurant applies the lessons learned at the Bellaire and Katy locations to make it the most fully-realized version of chef-owner Justin Turner’s concept. Of course, all of the classic Bernie’s burgers and fries are present and accounted for. The Study Hall, a pork belly-topped burger inspired by the McRib that's an off-menu favorite, has returned. Bernie’s recently-launched breakfast menu and an all-new lineup of chicken sandwiches will also be available from day one (Update 8/8: Bernie's no longer serves breakfast).
The Heights location sets itself apart from its siblings in a number of ways, starting with a full bar (dubbed “The Teacher’s Lounge”), which will feature boozy milkshakes, frozen cocktails, and bourbon cocktails developed by local bartender Linda Salinas (Anvil, Upstairs at Hungry’s, La Grange). Beer and wine will also be available.
“We have eight boozy shakes that we’re going to do. Stuff like The Dude, so we’re going to pay homage to the Big Lebowski with a White Russian milkshake with Kahlua and vodka in it. We’ve got an amazing strawberry rum that we’re going to add to our strawberry shake,” Turner tells CultureMap. “Everything we’re doing is super tasty . . . We’re doing a rotation of frozen cocktails. We’re starting off with a blackberry bramble and a froze kind of deal, but she’s come up with six or eight that we’re going to rotate.”
A daily happy hour from 3 pm to 7 pm will offer $5 frozen drinks, $1 off boozy shakes, $4 draft beers and $5 glass of wine. Even during the other hours of the day, Turner says the pricing will be a little less expensive than nearby options.
But alcohol isn’t the only feature that sets this Bernie’s apart. The new location is also the final resting place for Turner’s first bus — the lights up top still work — which now houses the restaurant’s kitchen. It's been freshened up with the bus's original logo and slightly widened to make moving around in the kitchen easier.
Other improvements at the Heights store include expanding the seating area in front of the bus to allow bigger crowds at Turner’s Bernie’s After Dark and Cool Kids Table pop-ups. The dining room itself seats about 100, and the covered, dog-friendly patio seats 20 more. Expect area burger lovers to claim those seats quickly.
Since Turner was in such an ebullient mood about his new restaurant, it seemed like a good opportunity to ask the Chopped champion five big picture questions about Bernie's present, his future plans, and where the restaurant stands with the recent influx of so many new burger joints.
CultureMap: Why did you decide to introduce fried chicken sandwiches?
Justin Turner: I felt like it was time to do something new, to challenge ourselves. I knew that a chicken sandwich in theory is easy, but for us there’s a lot of challenges . . . In theory, chicken at 350 degrees (for french fries) is very difficult where you get the inside perfectly cooked but the outside isn’t too dark. . .
I never wanted to create something that was just easy and thrown together. I wanted it to be something we were proud of . . .
It started with where we were going to get the chicken . . . I thought that was going to be easy, but it turned out to be the hardest part. To find something that’s consistent in size and for us to get on a regular basis if it takes off.
A lot of research went into the brine . . . We ended up using our leftover pickle juice. Now we get a multiple use of out of it, which is awesome.
CM: Do you think you’ll open a fourth location in Houston?
JT: I’m looking for a fourth. I look at sites all the time. The awesome thing about Houston and the people who live in this city is they want to see places like us succeed and come into their neighborhoods. We don’t even look as much as we’re offered (places). We get emails from developers, ‘this would be great for you. We would love to see you in our neighborhood.’
CM: What’s the timeline for the next location?
JT: Nothing this year, obviously, unless we walked into a space that was already built out.
We’re very selective on how we look for spaces. Real estate moves up and down in Houston. Price-wise, we’ve seen big peaks, and we’re waiting on a valley.
We’ve been looking in East Downtown, and the prices are really high right now. We’re hoping things level off, because, from a restaurant standpoint, the price increase from 2013 to now is pretty incredible. That scares us. We want to make sure it’s the right lease and the right terms.
CM: Do you still intend to open a location in Austin?
JT: Yes, because my son is there, and he’s important to me. I would hate to say it’s a short term goal, because it’s all about the right space. The one difficult thing about going to Austin is being in the right place first. If I were trying to grow it there like I did here, I’ll have to start over in terms of building a crowd.
I want to, for sure, more selfishly than anything else, because I want to be by my son more.
I love Houston. I will always live here. So, I just happen to have a life where I live in multiple places.
CM: A lot of new burger places have come to Houston since your first location opened in Bellaire. Have those new arrivals affected your business?
JT: No, I think we might have seen some dips during openings, but very minimal. During the election was the hardest time, from August to November, but we heard that from tons of people.
Since then, we’ve come back to where we were. Katy has been identical, within $100 per day. Bellaire a little more fluctuation percentage-wise.
I think Hubcap Grill, Lankford Grocery, Stanton’s, they’re successful because they are who they are. That’s why we can continue to be who we are.
When people are craving a Shake Shack burger, they go to Shake Shack. When they’re craving a Bernie’s burger, they come to Bernie’s. I think people are not so focused on just one restaurant, where they only go to one place. I think they have a top three, and my hope is I’m always in the top three.
For me, it’s not about better or worse. I’m not worried about Hopdoddy or Shake Shack. If we focus on what we do and (continue to) make everything from scratch, we’ll have people who love what we’re doing and our happy to say ‘this is a Houston brand that’s made here.’
As long as we stay true to who we are, I don’t think that’s going to change. We have to be innovative. We have to grow with what people want, but we have to stay in the framework of who we are. As long as it stays that way, I want to keep exploring and giving people new experiences. But we have to stick with the classics. If I took away the Principal or the Cheerleader or the Homeroom, people would be upset.
This interview was edited and condensed.