The Cattle Call: Black Iron Burger
Black Iron Burger has become a mainstay in the Manhattan Burger scene over the last three years. This is in no doubt due to the change of vision Victor Ortega and his creative team brought to the brand when they landed on the American culinary landscape from their native Spain. Named the Number One Burger Joint by Zagat in 2017, Black Iron Burger is the whole package. Black Iron Burger is atmosphere; it’s experience; it’s quality before quantity; and, above all else, Black Iron Burger is simply one of the best Burgers around.
The Black Iron Burger Team:
Victor Ortega: Partner / General Manager
Jaime Guardiola: Executive Chef
Pedro Ruiz-Ocejo: Executive Sous Chef
Luis Carlos Perez: Executive Sous Chef
The Cattle Call
Why did you decide to open Black Iron Burger?
The original Black Iron Burger restaurant was founded in 2008 by another owner in the East Village, and in 2013, we decided to take ownership. We changed the original concept by revamping the menu and changing the type of meats the old owner used to an all natural and healthier option type of meat. Our mission was to create an amazing experience for the sophisticated and health conscious foodies of the city who want to enjoy classic American dishes without guilt. It was certainly a high risk for us to take, but to our surprise, the new menu and Burgers were such a success, that we opened up Black Iron Burger Midtown West in 2014, followed by Black Iron Burger Chelsea in 2015.
Did you encounter any specific challenges when you launched Black Iron Burger?
Absolutely. Opening a business in such a competitive environment is already challenging, but taking over an existing one and risking changing things around in hopes that it succeeds is even more challenging. You have to be extra careful and extremely strategic with every move you make so that you don’t lose prior existing loyal customers. When we took over the 5th Street location, none of us really knew what to expect, and for some of our partners, it was their first time working in the U.S. and cooking Burgers, so imagine how tough that was for them.
Not only were they stepping into a foreign country without speaking the language, but now they also had to learn a new style of cooking, culture, and how to work in a very, very fast pace environment. However, like all great teams, we managed to pull through and we learned as much as we could so we could confront every challenge coming our way.
We believe that in order to build a great team and business, employees must feel motivated and ready to come to work. And the first way to make this happen is by respect.
The menu at Black Iron Burger is simple yet varied, and there seems to be something for everyone. Walk us through the ideation process. Did you find it challenging?
Our focus when revamping the old menu was to introduce new concepts but still offer the same classic American Burgers and side dishes that our existing customer base was used to, but even better. At first, it was definitely challenging since all of us came from the fine dining culinary world, but nothing that some research and trial and error testing would not solve. So when we came up with the new menu, we had to do a lot of research to help us define who our target customers were and what they would appreciate. We work as a team, so it’s important that everyone is involved in this process. To start, we first hold brainstorming sessions, then try each recipe until we perfect it and have samplings to gain feedback. If all agree then it gets added to the regular menu.
The beef Burgers at Black Iron Burger are made from 100% All Natural beef. Why is the All Natural your Burger of preference? Did you try other blends or compositions before landing on the All Natural?
In our home county of Spain, we truly believe in eating quality foods vs. quantity. After much research, we saw that the original recipe the old Black Iron Burger owner created was not up to par with our standards of cooking, or for that matter, eating. So, after we tried and tried many other options, we felt that the All Natural was the way to go. It was the perfect type of quality meat we were used to back at home, and blended well with our way of cooking while still maintaining the classic feel of a standard American Burger.
Black Iron Burger currently has three permanent locations, and other pop-ups around the city throughout the year. Are there any more plans to expand? If so, will Black Iron Burger remain exclusively in New York City?
Yes. We are working on looking for different real estate venues in the city. We’d like to ideally open two more locations in Manhattan, and a few more in other boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens. We are also open to expand outside of New York City once we complete our planned projects to expand here in NYC, but we would start on the East coast most likely, maybe D.C., Boston, or Miami. Somewhere close enough to our home base so we can be able to come and go and manage better.
Many owners find it difficult enough managing a restaurant with just one location. What is it like running a restaurant with multiple locations and the potential for more?
It’s no walk in the park. To operate three restaurants is certainly a daily challenge, but we are fortunate to have a team of partners and staff that are able to help me pull this off. We run our restaurants family style and very team oriented. Many of our employees have been with us since the beginning. It is extremely rewarding to see that given that this is such a high turn-around industry when it comes to employee retention.
What about Black Iron Burger—the brand, the menu, the response from critics and fans—is your proudest?
We’re most proud of being rated No. 1 Best Burger Joint in this year’s Zagat Survey for all three locations. We came to this city hungry and ready to show New Yorkers and people all over the world our cooking techniques and passion for our work. We work extremely hard day in and day out, so to see that in only three years we’ve been able to achieve this and be named number one is extremely rewarding and humbling for us.
In 2016 you launched the Iberico Burger, a callback to your native Spain. How has your heritage influenced your approach to Burgers and the Burger business?
When we first took over the Black Iron Burger brand, we were a bit skeptical about showing people that these classic American Burger recipes were all created by a group of Spaniard chefs because we feared that people would be turned off by it, and we didn’t want to lose the solid reputation the original owner was able to build. But as we began to grow, and more people found out about our roots and the inspiration behind some of our recipes, we found that we were wrong. People from all over the world really embraced our culture and style of cooking, so naturally, we felt proud and decided why not bring a little bit of home and create a Burger that celebrates both American and Spanish cultures. The Iberico has been a hit among our regulars and new customers, so we are pretty happy with the outcome and it inspires us to add a little touch of home to other dishes.
What advice would you give to aspiring restaurant owners/chefs looking to get their start in the business?
- Be prepared and come ready with the experience to enter this competitive industry.
- Surround yourself with high caliber professionals who are masters at their craft.
- Target a niche market and introduce innovative foods that cater to your customers.
- Provide good service, high quality food, and appreciate each customer that walks into your establishment. They are the real bosses, not you, your partners, or managers.
- Treat others like you want to be treated, especially your team. We believe that in order to build a great team and business, employees must feel motivated and ready to come to work. And the first way to make this happen is by respect.
Fun Burger Questions
What is your favorite Burger from childhood?
Victor: Honestly, I didn’t grow up eating Burgers, so I didn’t really have one.
Jaime: My favorite was this homemade Burger from this local, restaurant Alacran in the small town of Chipiona. It was owned by this sweet lady name Pepi.
Pedro: My mom’s homemade Burger.
Luis: I didn’t grow up eating Burgers, only serranitos (a popular Andalusian sandwich from Seville).
What is the last Burger you ate?
Victor: The PJ Clarke Kobe Beef Burger and the Umami Truffle burger.
Jaime: The Black Iron Burger.
Pedro: The Black Iron Burger.
Luis: The Black Iron Little Italy Burger.
What Burger have you not had that you want to try?
Victor: The Burgers at Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant in Las Vegas.
Jaime: A grilled Kobe Burger with sauteed vegetables.
Pedro: A bone marrow Burger.
Luis: An In-N-Out Burger.
If you could share a Burger with anyone—alive or dead, real or fictional—who would it be?
Victor: Ferran Adria’ from El Bulli. He is one of the best chefs in the world and is from our native of Spain. He is responsible for introducing molecular gastronomy to the culinary world.
Jaime: My father.
Pedro: Friends and family.
Luis: The mayor of my town! Just kidding. Batman for sure!
Want More Black Iron Burger?
Don’t forget to follow Black Iron Burger on social and visit their three locations in the East Village, Chelsea, and Midtown!