St. John’s is a battlefield of beef and fries this month as fifteen local restaurants are competing in The Overcast’s “St. John’s Burger Battle” which launched on February 1.
“It’s February, it’s cold, it’s miserable and you need comfort food as much as restaurants need patrons during their slowest month of the year,” reads their website. Throughout this month, the restaurants will temporarily serve their own burger recipe. Burgers range from veggie, to moose, “wild experiments to classic takes; there are even combos like lamb-pork belly and beef with braised rib.” The Overcast challenges its readers to try at least one burger, or one a week or be a “burger warrior” and “slam them all back for epic Burger Battle bragging rights.”
If you do end up trying them all, The Overcast wants to hear from you in order to conduct an interview and provide you with “some cholesterol meds”.
I got in touch with Chad Pelley, editor at The Overcast to get some more information about the St. John’s Burger Battle. The battle came about in 2015 when Chef Roger Andrews, the owner of the recently closed Relish Burgers approached Chad and told him about an annual city-wide burger challenge in Halifax. According to Andrews, people really “ate it up” and suggested something similar in St. John’s. Chinched was the winner of the inaugural battle and the tradition has continued since. Chad said the battle occurs every February and for good reason.
“In consultation with the Restaurant Association of NL, Michelle LeBlanc (of Chinched) and Brian Piercey (of Celtic Hearth), I gathered that February is more or less the month local restaurant need the most help getting bums into seats.”
I found the “bums in seats” quote to be interesting because the exact words were uttered by Adam from Five Brothers Artisan Cheese almost verbatim when I talked to him about the St. John’s Mac & Cheese Showdown. I also noticed that many of the burger recipes are using Five Brothers’ cheese so I asked Chad if Five Brothers were involved in the battle.
“We partnered with Five Brothers on our Poutine Challenge a year or two ago. Five Brothers pitched the partnership. People love poutine, and it was some good exposure for Five Brothers, so why not?” he said. Five Brothers are not directly involved with this Burger Battle but Chad thinks that their presence in so many burgers “simply reflects how well local businesses are working together for the sake of our economy and food culture.”
For the previous two-month long food events that I have written about, Five Brothers cited a downturn in the economy and slow times of the year for business as reasons for the events. When the Poutine Challenge occurred in June, we were reeling from the 2016 budget and impending tax increases.
It also makes sense that when the Mac & Cheese Showdown took place in November, restaurants found that business was slow prior to the Christmas rush since people were more focused on shopping for gifts. I even had a friend cite that as the reason why she canceled on me when we had plans to try a Mac & Cheese dish one Friday night.
Working part-time in retail, I know that the period after Christmas is slow for a lot of businesses so I asked Chad about that since he mentioned that February was the slowest month for restaurants. I wondered how bad it really was.
“I’m not sure on the stats, as the figure on ‘a bad month’ differs restaurant to restaurant,” he said. “I just went looking for consensus on the slowest month. The state of the economy aside, restaurants always see a lull in the depth of winter, so, we’re luring people out with the promise of comfort food, a competition they can judge, and a shot at winning something. It’s all a bit of fun for a good cause: people experiencing all these amazing restaurants the rest of the country is raving about.”
His point about a bit of fun for a good cause stuck out to me. During the Poutine Challenge in June, one dollar from every poutine sold went to the Autism Society of Newfoundland. The same thing happened during the Mac & Cheese Showdown with proceeds going to the Community Food Sharing Association.
Naturally, I wondered if some of the proceeds made from the Burger Battle would support a local charity. I was disappointed to find out that this would not be the case this time around.
“Our focus here is on helping local restaurants stay out of the red this month in their books,” said Chad.
This is totally legit but I do think it is important to pay it forward because it seems like no matter how bad you have it, someone else has it worse. The quote about local businesses working together for the sake of the economy that I mentioned earlier stands out here. That said, I do not know about the charitable endeavors of the participating restaurants and I am just comparing the Burger Battle with the Poutine Challenge and Mac & Cheese Showdown.
One difference with the Burger Battle that I really did like was that The Overcast lists a detailed explanation of each of the burgers the fifteen participating restaurants are offering but better still, the prices of said burgers. That was one issue I had with the previous two events I wrote about, the prices of the dishes were not listed and you weren’t really sure how much your bill would be at the end of your meal. As with anything posted online that allows for anonymous comments, people were threatening to boycott the battle over the prices of some of these burgers.
“I think it’s unfair for local restaurants when people accuse them of ‘ripping us off,’ because people form opinions these days without knowing the facts — that’s an observation, not a judgment,” said Chad. He called the cost of doing business in downtown St. John’s “brutal” and higher than most cities.
“[Businesses’] rents are higher [in comparison to other cities]. They’re being taxed to death, there are weird regulations and red tape around securing local ingredients, and the cost of getting food to an island is high. So they have to charge us the consumer to compensate. We wrote a cover story on it once.”
He suggested if people want cheaper food, they need to lobby city council and other forms of government to make life financially easier on small businesses.
“Also, you can’t compare a McDonald’s Burger to a burger in this challenge — the burger in this challenge are made with real food, which is slightly more costly, and they have to pay a little higher for their chefs, etc,” said Chad.
He does acknowledge that some of the burgers may be costly to some people.
“I’m not saying a $22 burger is easy to swallow (no pun intended); I’m saying the restaurants aren’t to blame — they’re victims of the big ugly corporate world and governments like the rest of us.”
I feel like Chad and those Overcast Internet trolls both have points. I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for and if these restaurants are using local, quality ingredients while looking to make a profit for themselves, you will have to pay more.
Again, though, the struggling restaurants want something from us and this Burger Battle is a cool idea, but the fact that they aren’t paying it forward during this battle is a little disheartening. I will be able to form a better opinion on the prices once I try a few burgers and see the portion sizes and whatnot.
Another thing that is different about the Burger Battle as opposed to the Poutine Challenge and the Mac & Cheese Showdown is that there is something in it for people who participate.
“Take a pic of one of these burgers, post it on social media with the #BurgerBattle hashtag, and bam, you’re entered to win a $50 certificate at Piatto,” said the editor.
I think this is a really great way to say thanks to anyone who goes out and supports this event and the local restaurant scene.
Plus, The Overcast is utilizing social media in order to promote the St. John’s Burger Battle which is a really smart move. I did feel that the other two events could have utilized social media a bit better to drum up excitement. (During the Mac & Cheese Showdown, the month was nearly half over before all of the participating restaurants were profiled).
I look forward to trying a few burgers. While they may be a bit pricey, especially for an underemployed substitute teacher/bro bono amateur “journalist” like myself, I enjoy eating out and always cite supporting the local economy when doing so.
Hopefully, you too can get out there sometime this month and try a burger or two. I’ll be back in early March with the second part of this article where I review the burgers I tried. Here’s to hoping I don’t forget to vote this time.
For a list of the participating restaurants and to vote for your favorite burger, visit https://theovercast.ca/st-johns-burger-battle/. You can also read about the St. John’s Burger Battle in the latest issue of The Overcast.