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Building a better burger concept: Thomas Salamunovich

Building a better burger concept: Thomas Salamunovich

Coloradans are gobbling up Larkburger's better-quality, reasonably priced burgers.

Larkburger, a growing Colorado-based fast casual chain, has a fine-dining pedigree. Founder and chef Thomas Salamunovich launched the chain in 2006 after years working for the likes of Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck and Paul Bocuse; he ended up in Vail, CO, where he eventually opened his own upscale restaurant, Larkspur. There, a burger on the bar menu became a fan favorite. In 2006 Salamunovich spun the burger off into its own fast casual concept, featuring all-natural burgers, house-made sauces and dressings, hand-cut fries and naturally ripened tomatoes.

The ingredients and prep technique may borrow from fine dining, but the prices—$6 for a 1/3-pound Black Angus burger, $3 for truffle and parmesan fries, $8 for a tuna burger—are down to earth. Salamunovich still calls the shots at Larkspur, but he recently opened his seventh Larkburger, and he has plans for more. We asked about the transition to fast casual—and what’s up next.

RH: Why burgers?

Salamunovich: At Larkspur, we had a very casual bar menu, and wanted to produce a hamburger for it that was straightforward, because typically fine dining restaurants do all these prissy burgers. When we learned to griddle the bun, that was the touch that put it over the edge. It became known as best burger in town in local polls.

With Larkburger, I wanted a place that my family could go to eat routinely. And we actually do. You can eat quite healthy and diversely even though there are only a few items. I wanted something casual and fun to play with. This was before the whole burger thing went crazy.

RH: In six years you’ve opened seven units. Where do you go from here?

Salamunovich: We want to keep it near and dear, and grow systematically with a group of investors so can we capitalize on the hospitality of the concept. If we grew it with outside people who didn’t share our passion, we would lose that. We’re looking at other states, such as California or Texas, and there is still room for development within our state.

RH: Describe your typical location and your guest profile.

Salamunovich: Each one is about 1,800 square feet, with 45-55 seats, and open lunch through dinner. The check average is about $8.

It appeals to all demographics. We see women in fur coats by themselves, older people, every ethnic persuasion and tons families with children. I think they are drawn to our real food being made in house with real products.

We also offer choices for people with specific dietary needs. For instance, my spouse cannot have gluten. So we worked with a company to create a gluten-free bun.

RH: Do you make all the sauces? Even ketchup?

Salamunovich: We don’t make ketchup. I despise it. If I could, I would eliminate it from the planet. But we did a taste test and found one commercial brand to be the best.

RH: You are committed to the environment, using biodegradable containers and eco-friendly packaging. You’ve also brought in reclaimed timber from the San Francisco Bay Area. Why so far away?

Salamunovich: A dear friend of ours who is a Buddhist monk gets calls from people with trees that have fallen who don’t know what to do with the wood. It’s a beautiful warm color. The whole restaurant is wrapped in it.

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