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In the big picture, critical e-mail and personal complaints about burgers desiccated to the consistency of hockey pucks might not sound earthshaking. But if you're the Park Cities burgermeister, it's something. "It's distressing" is how Chantilis puts it.
Burger House, a Hillcrest Avenue favorite since 1951, is licensing its name and "secret" seasoning salt to the arena under a one-year deal, Chantilis says.
The idea was to push the burger beyond its cult status in the Park Cities, where it's the fast food of the upper classes. No less an arbiter of taste than Southern Living magazine found reason to mention Chantilis' stand in its current issue. "They have mouthwatering cheeseburgers, but it's the seasoned fries that make grown men dressed in business suits stand in long lines during their lunch breaks," the magazine coos in its insiders' kind of way. With its crowd of "run-of-the-mill" millionaires, as one local gossip columnist describes the scene, the Burger House is good for at least one celebrity sighting a month. It's all the more cozy and authentic because the Hillcrest stand has fed countless Southern Methodist University students and Park Cities teen-agers, and its appearance has changed little since its Elvis-era birth. It has a dining counter, an order window, graffiti going back at least a generation and a distinctive red-white-and-blue neon sign that would be at home on Route 66.
"Tom Hicks comes in here all the time. He's a friend of mine," says Chantilis, explaining how his burgers landed in Hicks' new arena, where his sign is keeping company with national chains such as Pizza Hut and popular locals like Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse.
That makes it even more painful for Chantilis that the burgers aren't right. "I have a good relationship with Mr. Hicks, so don't get me in trouble with this," he says. "I'm still working it out."
Chantilis says that under his one-year deal with the arena, he lent his seasoning salt and the Burger House name. "I thought it would be good exposure," says Chantilis. "Unfortunately, I don't have any control over the meat or the making of them."
And this is where it gets a little technical.
At his stands, Chantilis says the thin-patty burgers are cooked on a flat grill. At the arena, they're cooked on flame broilers. As any backyard chef knows, it's fairly easy to overcook ground beef over a flame. "They're trying for better training, but so far they haven't been up to the task," Chantilis says. Hence, "quite a few" e-mails about dry, tasteless burgers and longtime Burger House fans coming by saying things like, "They taste different."
"It's distressing because we go through a lot of trouble to get it right," Chantilis says. "We sell between 550,000 and 600,000 [burgers] a year."
So, while Burger House is getting much wider notice at the arena--which is hawking more name brands than a stock car--Chantilis isn't certain it's the type of exposure that is going to help him enter the promised land of Dallas restaurateurs: becoming a big franchise chain.
"I'm finishing up the franchising paperwork now," says Chantilis, who wants to spread Burger Houses across Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. "This isn't going to help."