IT’S LUNCHTIME AND YOU’RE HUNGRY. “Hamburger,” your stomach growls at you.
OK, you’ll get a hamburger—a simple, inexpensive, easy to eat sandwich. You want something substantial; a hamburger made from quality ingredients and grilled to perfection, not like the ones served at North Oakland’s fast food joints. But where can you get one like that?
If you’re anything like Sal Bednarz, the owner of Actual Café, you’ve been in this situation before. “I love burgers, but most of the burgers around here are just not that interesting,” Bednarz said on a recent Wednesday morning. “The good burgers, of which there a few, are almost all fine dining white tablecloth $15 burgers.”
This, he said, has to change. Good burgers at a reasonable price should not be so difficult to find. Not only are they an American staple food, but their mere existence stems from the fact that they are inexpensive. Hamburgers are a product of the industrial revolution, invented to feed the growing masses of people who had little time to both cook and consume their food. And people today, Bednarz reasoned, are not that much different. “We, as a society here in Oakland today, like our food,” he said. “But we don’t always want to take a half a day and fifty bucks to go eat it.”
His solution? Victory Burger. Slated to open next fall, Victory Burger, Bednarz’s latest culinary endeavor, will be, as he said, “a casual experience where you can still get a really good burger.” It will be located around the corner from—or, depending on how you look at it, behind—Bednarz’s other business on San Pablo Avenue, Actual Café, and will be “more like a food truck without wheels,” he said, albeit one with plenty of outdoor seating.
The plans for Victory Burger started last fall, but Bednarz, who has lived in Oakland for the last 22 years, said that the idea has always been in the back of his mind. “This neighborhood is just lacking in food options,” he said. “I live four blocks away and just so many nights when I don’t feel like cooking, there’s no place to go.”
His food joint, he hopes, will not only expand the number of food options in the area, but also improve the neighborhood by “providing a new eating experience for the people in the neighborhood and adding another exciting storefront that’s going to kind of add to this intersection in a different way,” he said. Whereas the creation of Actual Café came from the desire to build a community around a space, he added, Victory Burger will be about building a community around food. But not just any food: simple, traditional food.
“We’re not going to do like a Barney’s menu with 18,000 varieties and things you can dump over your burger so you can drown the taste of the meat,” Bednarz said. Instead, his menu will be small and will stick to the basics. His cheeseburgers will be made using free-range, local, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef from Five Dot Ranch and vegan Acme buns. The burgers will be tailored specifically for each customer’s order. For instance, “When you order a burger medium rare,” he said, “you’re going to get a burger medium rare every time, which a lot of burger places can’t seem to do.”
You also won’t find fancy sauces or a long list of add-ins. On the menu, there will be the option of adding a few different cheeses, avocado and bacon, but nothing else. The focus at Victory Burgers, he said, will be not so much on how creative the burgers are, but on ensuring that each burger is prepared to order and made with the freshest and best ingredients possible.
In addition to hamburgers and cheeseburgers, the menu will have a chicken sandwich, a vegan vegetable burger, (which Bednarz said will “clearly taste like you’re eating vegetables. You’re not eating something that somebody dolled up to try and feel like a piece of meat in your mouth”), gluten-free South American stuffed sandwiches called arepas, plus fries, house-made pickle spears, a salad, sodas, and milkshakes.
But though the menu is simple, the act of constructing the restaurant is anything but. The building, or as Bednarz called it “shack,” used to be part of the bait and tackle shop that is now Actual Café and has been vacant for the last 20 years. The space is small—more than 75 percent of the store will be used for the kitchen, counter, and food preparation areas—and also not equipped to be a restaurant.
Making the space restaurant-ready is going to take a lot of time, energy, and money, Bednarz said, but the space is worth it because of its proximity to Actual Café. “I don’t think anyone else would find that space as appealing as I do,” he said. “Nobody else could make that business work in that space because I’m using some of the facilities [at Actual Café] to feed that business.”
Preparation of cold foods, he said, will be done at the café, as well as storage of dry foods. But the new space will also enable him to trade in the roughly nine refrigerators he has in the café for one large walk-in refrigerator which he will install at Victory Burger. “So, by virtue of the fact that we’re combining stuff, we’ll get really efficient on both sides and we’re lowering the risk of opening a new restaurant,” he said.
Because the space is so small, there will be limited seating inside the restaurant, but plenty of seating outside. Bednarz plans on transforming the front sidewalk area into a patio and, with approval from the city, is working on turning the two parking spots in front of the building into small urban parks, known as parklets.
But even though Bednarz has all the plans for the restaurant ready to go, he’s still missing one thing: money. “It’s a big project,” he said, one that will cost at least a quarter of a million dollars. He said that he knew that he “would have to raise the money somewhere, borrow it from banks, or get investors or something,” but in the end decided to fund the project through the crowd-funding, donation-based website, Kickstarter. Each project on Kickstarter has anywhere from one to two months to raise a certain amount of funds for their endeavor, but they can only receive the funds if they meet their goal amount within their specific time-frame. Victory Burger’s Kickstarter project started May 1st and will continue for 37 days, ending on June 8. Bednarz’s goal amount for the project is $25,000, the bulk of which go towards constructing both the façade and interior of the restaurant.
Although his Kickstarter project has only just started, Bednarz said that “it’s going well.”
“I’m putting my reputation on the line as somebody that’s done good things for the neighborhood and the message that I’m trying to spread here is that we’re going to do more good things for the neighborhood,” he said. “We’re going to make delicious food. We’re going to make a really interesting place that people enjoy. … We’re going to do a lot of positive things for a neighborhood that’s really starting to coalesce into something coherent.”
Published on OaklandNorth.net on May 24, 2012