I didn't learn the phrase "jerry-built" until I married [and later divorced] an Englishman. In America, we use the phrase "jerry-rigged" instead, but they mean the same thing: something that's poorly planned, hastily built or just generally thrown together. It's curious that JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers should choose to name itself after the expression, because its burgers are anything but jerry-built.
The name actually comes from co-owner and founder S. Jerry Glauser, a white-haired man with Marvin Zindler-blue glasses who owns both a Mercedes Benz dealership and a good sense of humor. The fact that the burgers at his signature restaurant -- the first location of which opened this past Saturday in West University -- are painstakingly put together instead of jerry-built, possesses a type of irony that seems to amuse him. He hopes it will amuse his customers, too.
"We are looking to attract a more intelligent consumer," he said of the new burger restaurant. "We're not trying to be McDonald's." What Glauser means by this is best explained with a list of what goes into a typical JerryBuilt meal:
- A 50-50 blend of Niman Ranch "bovinely-raised" beef brisket and chuck, ground twice a day
- Produce that's organic and/or produced locally, where possible
- Buns baked fresh daily by Three Brothers Bakery
- Organic condiments, including mustard, ketchup and mayo
- French fries and/or sweet potato fries that are cut and fried on site, every day
- Shakes made with Blue Bell ice cream and real strawberries
- Gingerbull cookies baked by Three Brothers
And the list goes on.
Instead of a chicken breast on its chicken sandwich, for example, co-owner Brooksy Smith explained how JerryBuilt has created a proprietary blend of chicken to make a ground chicken patty that's better than a basic breast by reassembling chicken parts, Six Million Dollar Man-style.
"First, we remove the skin," Smith said. That "good" fat is set aside, while the rest of the chicken is stripped of its tough intramuscular fat. Then, the breasts, thighs and drumsticks (but not wings) are all ground together -- and the skin added back in for just the right amount of binder -- to create a ground product that cooks evenly on the grill and doesn't suffer from an oblong shape that's difficult to fit into a sandwich.
Smith's favorite way to enjoy the final product is to order a chicken sandwich topped with bacon and a jalapeño cream cheese that was inspired by the popular My Brother's Bar in Denver. But he also concedes that JerryBuilt's Ernie sauce is a favorite, too: a blend of ketchup, Duke's mayonnaise and Wickles Pickles relish that's equally good on the chicken sandwich.
Products like Duke's and Wickles Pickles -- while not local -- show Glauser and Smith's commitment to supporting smaller businesses and shifting traditional paradigms which state that fast food must be brutally cheap and without redeeming value. Your burgers are built fast at JerryBuilt, but are uncompromisingly good. The meat is good, the buns are good, the produce is good -- and none of it costs too much more than a traditional fast-food meal, despite JerryBuilt's somewhat tony interior.
Glauser's dream is to one day have dozens of JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers spread across the city and perhaps even the nation, all of them supporting local bakers and food producers, and all of them -- like this initial store -- supporting local charities, too.
For all of this goodwill and the warm fuzzies created by the often abstract concept of "supporting local" or "buying organic" (remember: even in America, the definition of "organic" can be blurry) and the many euphemisms that go along with the slow food movement, JerryBuilt isn't perfect.
Only a few days old, it's still figuring out the right cooking methods for its crinkle-cut fries, which are currently cut, brined, steamed and then fried on-site, but still suffer from a soggy consistency. The two burger patties I've tasted -- while well-seasoned -- were both overcooked. And Smith (who has an extensive restaurant background of his own) admits that sourcing local produce has been much more difficult than anticipated because of the drought.
"I usually buy Texas sweet potatoes," he told me last Thursday, gesturing to a pile of fat, stocky-looking tubers near JerryBuilt's entrance, where produce is kept in Central Market-like wooden bins to greet guests. "But I've had to buy them from Louisiana this year."
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On the other hand, just the fact that JerryBuilt is trying -- and being honest about struggling to create a more enlightened fast food restaurant in the process -- is enough for me right now. I'm curious to see if and how the restaurant will adhere to its emphasis on quality ingredients in the future, especially as it has already planned its second location near the Waterway in The Woodlands.
After all, if Shake Shack can become a national phenomenon for going green, there's hope that one day a place like JerryBuilt can become the standard-bearer for fast food that's also slow.