"We have a cult following here, and I'll have the same thing up there," Little Bitty Burger Barn owner Jay Hengtgen told me, discussing his decision to sell the popular burger joint and move back to his home state of Wisconsin.
The sale was finalized last Friday, November 1, and on Monday the new owner, Orlando Delcid, officially took over. Somehow the sale of the restaurant slipped under the radars of most people, but Hengtgen said it wasn't the result of a hasty decision or an offer he couldn't refuse.
"I had advertised that we had it for sale, and that's when he approached us," Hengtgen explains. "We're at 90 percent capacity right now, and no matter how many bells and whistles or how much advertising you buy, you can't put any more people in here. I told Ricardo (Luna), my partner, that if we were going to keep it, we would have to double in size. And I just didn't want to do it down here."
Fortunately for devotees of Hengtgen's jalapeño cheeseburger or "little bitty sliders," we're told the new owner isn't planning on changing anything.
"He's said he's gonna run it the way it is," Hengtgen says. "It's not broken, and he doesn't want to fix it."
As for Hengtgen and Luna, they're headed to Wisconsin as early as Thursday, November 7, to begin preparations on a restaurant they hope to open by mid-month. That's right. Hengtgen intends to have the new spot ready to go by November 15.
Hengtgen says that before signing a lease in the small town of Gile, he and Luna did a lot of research to find out where they should get their meat and buns and what the locals might be most interested in eating. This revamped version of Houston's Little Bitty Burger Barn will be called Burger's Bar & Grill: Food, Fun and Friends. Hengtgen admits the name is very midwestern.
"In Gile, there's the small-town atmosphere," Hengtgen says. "I miss that. But then again, at Little Bitty Burger Barn, everybody knew everybody. It was like Cheers."
He and Luna are hoping to re-create that feeling by bringing their signature dishes to a group of people who may not initially be accustomed to them -- namely, the snowmobile crowd who will be dropping by the restaurant to warm up with a burger. They'll also be adding some local Wisconsin touches to the menu.
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"We're going to do all of the burgers, and the chicken-fried steak we're going to do fresh like we do here," Hengtgen says. "They don't make any of that stuff up there like that. We'll do a Mexican night with carne guisada and overstuffed enchiladas. And I've got a mean-ass barbecue recipe for baby back ribs."
The Wisconsin element will come in the form of cheese, of course, or to be more specific, beer-battered fried cheese curds. In case you weren't sad enough about Hengtgen and Luna's departure, their new Wisconsin customers will get fried cheese, too.
Though the duo is excited to get moving on the new joint, Hengtgen said he will definitely miss Houston.
"Houston was good to us," he says. "We took care of Houston, and Houston took care of us. But the time was right. In my heart and soul it feels really good. I'm going to take my great food, and I'm heading north."