Since the earliest days of our stay-home order, Eden Hill Provisions has run one of the most efficient burger operations in town. While most of us were still in emotional freefall, owners Maximillian and Jennifer Petty choreographed a ballet of online ordering, helpful signage, and socially distanced handoffs of hulking Big Max burgers and herby shoestring fries. Max Petty sourced “these beautiful white containers” to stamp with the restaurant’s logo.
Back when Eden Hill Provisions was still a dine-in restaurant, the kitchen might make 40 burgers during dinner service; on that first night of takeout back in March, 500 sailed out the door. Since then, the Queen Anne restaurant has added breakfast sandwiches and crispy hash brown patties, weekly dinner boxes, and its own delivery service. Still, the restaurant’s Instagram recently described its burger as “a workhorse pulling us through COVID.” Recently his team celebrated their 15,000th patty.
While this pandemic has dealt the restaurant industry many an unprecedented circumstance, the public’s love of burgers was hardly a surprise. Even before uncertainty and despair drove us toward comfort food, burgers were a reliable source of cash in an increasingly fragile industry. This most American, decently portable creation stars in the survival plans of many Seattle bars and restaurants—even ones that didn’t serve them in normal times.
A few weeks into the statewide shutdown, Henri Schock said he and his wife Soni “noticed a shift in what people were looking for” from Bottlehouse, their Madrona wine bar that just marked its 10th year. Its food menu normally involves seasonal toast and cheese or charcuterie or housemade rillette on handsome wooden boards. In March, their kitchen debuted a weekly burger popup. On Friday nights, chef Eric Frey and sous Charles Midencey make about 100 burgers. Orders open around 11 in the morning; by 5pm, every burger is spoken for. Henri Schock says Bottlehouse will continue making Friday night burgers through the summer, maybe even moving into a backyard barbecue format as Gov. Inslee's phased recovery plan allows.
Humankind’s insatiable desire for buns between patties might be the thing that pulls many a restaurant through this storm. Even ones that didn’t serve burgers before. Brendan McGill’s Hitchcock Deli has devised a temporary alter ego, Sacka-Burgers, selling unfussy tavern-style burgers: “No duck eggs or brioche anywhere near these.” On Capitol Hill, Lark’s popular burger stages a menu takeover every Thursday at chef John Sundstrom’s more casual Slab Sandwiches. Renee Erickson's Bateau assembles the components for its famed burger, along with careful prep instructions that lay bare just how much butter goes into making something so delicious. Linda’s Tavern may be boarded up, but her staff puts on a burger popup every Thursday and Friday night out front; same setup at her King's Hardware in Ballard. These chefs are in rarefied company: Noma, the groundbreaking restaurant in Copenhagen, reopens this week with $15 burgers rather than its usual slate of Faroese sea urchin and dried fruits stuffed with bee pollen.
Thanks to that burger, says Max Petty, he was able to bring back any staff who wanted to work at Eden Hill Provisions, and kept on hiring. Now his kitchen sells more food than it did during its days as a proper restaurant, though he's still figuring out the workable economics of this new landscape (less income from drink sales, an additional layer of packaging costs). Though I had called to talk about burgers, our conversation veered off into existential territory. He’s still unsure what the future holds for his original, higher-end restaurant, Eden Hill. There were moments—dark moments—he admits, where he questioned whether he wanted to keep doing this, if a financial crash or pandemic is going to come along every decade or so to upend everything and force him into survival mode. “I’m surprised that it was able to cave me this much,” he says of our current reality. “Because I don’t want to do anything else. This is my life’s work.”
Which is why he continues tweaking his burger recipe, and thinking up delivery methods that don't involve third-party apps. He recently bought an old Jeep, gave it a sharp new pink and black paint job, and installed milk shake machines in the back. A few weeks from now it will start making burger deliveries throughout the Queen Anne neighborhood. Max installed a sound system so customers can request a custom song for an extra $10. “Ideally it’ll be happy birthday or something,” he texted me Friday afternoon. “But if it’s the Thong Song, a job is a job.”