Eating “Dirty”: How a burger chain becomes an instant hit
“Clean eating” may be a hot new dietary fad, but sometimes eating dirty just hits the spot. That was the idea behind creating Dirtyburger, a burger joint known for its specialty dirty dust flavoring. Located in Kimco’s Manetto Hill Plaza in Plainview, NY, Dirtyburger was created to offer not only delicious burgers, but also award-winning steaks, veggie burgers, salmon burgers, and a host of options to meet every type of dietary restriction. The restaurant features a specialty beer and wine menu selected to best pair with the menu’s offerings.
Dirtyburger has a dedicated following, with some customers driving over 40 miles from Staten Island to fulfill their cravings. We spoke with Ian Russo, the “Dirty Chef” at Dirtyburger, on how he came up with a new twist on an American staple. Russo has trained with some of the top chefs in the world, including Andre Daguin, Michel Guerard, and Roy Yamaguchi, to perfect his skills and develop his own style of cuisine.
Give us an overview of Dirty Burger, and the inspiration behind the name “Dirty.”
Ian Russo: Dirtyburger is a “burgers and so much more” restaurant concept that I’ve been testing in several different venues for the last few years or so. It involves my signature spice, Dirty Dust. It’s a blend of spices inspired by my world travels, using ingredients from the four corners of the world to create a uniquely different flavor enhancer. This blend takes on a bit of a spicy profile, but tends to smooth out in the cooking process, especially with the use of honey.
“Dirty” is a way of living, and a way of life. It’s being engaged, open, honest, passionate, and loving. Being involved in things you believe in, but not on a surface level; rolling up your sleeves and getting “Dirty.” It’s our philosophy, and we strive to live it in everything we do.
Why did you choose Manetto Hill Plaza as your home?
Russo: We opened our first location at the Manetto Hill Plaza in Plainview, NY, in Fall 2013. Two of the five partners call Long Island their home. Both are active in the community, and are significant business owners here. They wanted to start a business close to home and share the great food and vibe that is Dirtyburger with friends and loved ones before taking it elsewhere. It’s still close enough to the city to get that Brooklyn state of mind, where I grew up. There’s no place like home, right?
How did the concept of Dirtyburger come about? What differentiates you from the other hamburger joints in the area?
Russo: I had been cooking in the high-end world for so long and had never really done bar food. It’s funny really, that it all started with a steak- the one that won New York magazine’s Best Steak in the City in 2005- The Dirty Drunken Ribeye. I had it on the menu at IAN, my Upper East Side eatery, and it was a pretty big hit, but required quite a bit of prep. One day, a customer came in and asked if he could get the same flavor profile on a burger. So I thought about it a bit, made a few modifications, and created the Dirtyburger®.
The Dirty flavor is so versatile, that after a bit more culinary engineering, I had a small but tasty casual menu. It only made sense to offer it up in a small, warm, friendly, and unpretentious environment. I contacted a designer friend of mine from Hawaii (he’s now one of my partners) and he helped me take the brand to the next level by designing the look and the environment for people to experience Dirty. The rest is history, and here we are.
I know you’re a classically trained chef who’s run kitchens in well-reviewed or Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City, Paris, Brussels, Honolulu, Beijing, Philadelphia, and Rhode Island. Other than burgers, what other menu items do you have?
Russo: Well, we’re offering modern American classics, so the real place my training shows up is in the preparation. All our food is scratch made, right down to the sauces. We even make our own ketchup. Our food is locally sourced when possible (another holdover from my high-end chef days), and hormone and antibiotic free. We do offer award-winning steaks in several cuts, hoisin-glazed ribs, salmon and tuna filets, a whole range of salads, better-than-average sides including a creamy Dirty mac and cheese, and craveable starters like the Dirty PIB (Pigs in a Blanket) or the south-of-the-border Queso de Frier.
But our main focus is burgers, hence our name. We have at least 10 different burgers on our menu at all times, including our turkey, veggie, lamb, bison, salmon, ahi, tofu, Portobello mushroom, and of course the original Dirtyburger. All are prepared to your liking, and some feature our house-made sauces and toppings that have an international flair.
Do you have specialized menu offerings for people with restrictive diets?
Russo: We’ll prepare our food as requested, from bunless for carb-free diets to having a dedicated fryer for gluten-free diets. I’d say 95 percent of our menu is or can be prepared gluten free. And we have popular vegetarian options including three signature burgers that are vegetarian as the norm, not in substituted form.
Where do you promote yourself? Do you incorporate social media?
Russo: In this age of Yelp, Twitter and Facebook, it’s almost impossible not to utilize social media to some degree. We have a website, a Facebook page, and are just getting started on Twitter (@LoveDirtyburger) and Instagram (#LoveDirtyburger). We also periodically run a special online coupon on services like Groupon or similar and distribute flyer menus. Other than that, we rely on press and most importantly word-of-mouth. Our satisfied customers are our best advertising, and we strive every day to ensure they continue to be that.
Do you hold any special events?
Russo: We have yet to have any Dirtyburger special events, but we do participate in contests and charitable organizations. We’re honored to have been asked to compete in this year’s Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival Burger Bash, so look out for us there in October, as well as the Long Island Buffalo Wing Festival in August (edit: Dirtyburger took home the trophy at the Long Island Wing Festival).
You have retail products. How have you integrated this retail element into your restaurant concept? Do many of your customers purchase Dirty Dust?
Russo: Yes they do! We were selling the Dust online and in small boutique locations, as well as the restaurant in a small display. We also kept a bottle of the Dust on each table, but had to stop that practice because they were getting stolen! We noticed that about 70 percent of our Dust sales were through the restaurant, so we are expanding that area and suspending online sales for now. We’ve also sold out of our first batch of Dirty Ts, and are currently working on new designs. Look for our Dirty Dust infused chocolate and our bottled signature sauces next.
This has been an installment of StoreFront, an interview series with leaders of successful retail businesses. For more interviews, visit the StoreFront page. To learn how you can be featured, email us. We’d love to hear from you.