When Jeff Maslanka and Ed Tretter opened 67 Burger in late 2006, they brought hand-formed, seven-ounce patties and Sam Adams milkshakes to Fort Greene and entered the pantheon of new burger joints that Our Man Sietsema observed were “sprouting in trendy neighborhoods like toadstools.” Three years later, with the burger craze showing no signs of dying down, Maslanka and Tretter have crossed the East River to the unlikely location of Lexington and 38th Street to open Black Shack, a second, self-described burger joint that also serves sandwiches, and, of course, milkshakes. Maslanka spoke with Fork in the Raod about his new baby, which, at just two weeks of age, is beginning to find its footing in the neighborhood.
So you’ve been open for two weeks. How’s it going so far?
We had a good lunch today. Every day gets a little busier. So far, it’s kind of been word of mouth; neighborhood people are discovering us. The city’s holding up the paperwork on our signage, so no one really knows we’re here.
How’d you end up in Midtown?
We were looking predominately in Brooklyn because we wanted to stay close to our home base. We looked at a number of spaces, and had a list of criteria. One of our friends spotted this place and said, ‘Hey, check this out,’ so we did, and it hit all our marks. Everything pointed this way.
What do you think of the neighborhood so far?
It’s an interesting neighborhood. On one side there’s Midtown offices, and on the other it’s residential. We’re situated in the middle of the two, kind of straddling it. We get a lot of office workers coming by and digging it because they need a break from the drudgery that is Midtown food. We also get neighbors coming through on their way home from work, grabbing a quick bite. We’re trying to meet everyone’s needs; I think we hit the mark.
Where’d the idea for Black Shack come from?
All of these chain fast food burger joints have a great business model; business-wise they’re structurally really sound. But the problem is their food still kind of lacks. Us being big burger fans, the concept was to bring back those kind of burgers, to bring back the taste to them with fresh ingredients; nothing’s frozen, everything’s made with love. But I’ve had the name for about 10 years now. 67 Burger is my partner’s concept, and I helped him make that happen. And then he turned around and said, ‘Let me help you.’
How does the Black Shack burger compare to 67 Burger’s?
We wanted to go in a different direction. It’s a smaller burger than at 67, a little bit faster to make. We went for a simpler menu; at 67 there are 14 different toppings. That’s great, and works in the neighborhood, but in a lunch crowd situation it’s kind of like you have to push them out fast and still have quality, so we scaled back the menu. We can just kind of lock and load and shoot them out. But we’re using the same blend we use at 67. We’d been trying everybody and their uncle in a blind tasting, but the guy that we use came out on top every time. Since it’s our core ingredient, we said, ‘Let’s not change it.’
Who’s your meat man?
We have a guy that grinds it for us out in Jersey; it’s 100 percent ground chuck. I’ll just say that we’ve got our people. Pat LaFrieda has a great product and can charge an arm and a leg for it because everyone knows about it. I’m smelling like roses right now, and want to keep it that way.
Since you admire the burger chain business model, is a Black Shack franchise in the cards?
We’d like to keep things small. We do have aspirations to open a couple, but we’re looking for three or four, not 200. It’s just me and my partner and crew, and we can only spread ourselves so thin before service starts to taper off.
Are you able to spend any time at 67 these days?
[At 67] they know what we expect with food and service. It’s a great team, so we can break away and do this. I’m physically at Black Shack every day.
What do you think about the burger craze?
You know, sometimes I think we rolled up on the tail end of this thing, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing up at all. My mentality is that it’s the same thing with barbecue: Barbecue is pretty damn good no matter which way you look at it. Everyone’s got their own taste and opinion. It’s the same with the burger. There are a million ways to do a burger.
Your menu’s surprisingly accommodating of vegetarians — there are mozzarella sandwiches and grilled tofu sandwiches.
You have to [be accommodating]. When I do my mozzarella and tofu, I make it a big sloppy sandwich; when you’re sitting next to someone eating a big burger, you don’t want a salad, you don’t want a lean tofu sandwich. You want to get into it.
How many burgers do you eat in a week?
I literally eat a burger every day and probably a couple on Sunday when we’re closed. That’s when I go to No. 7 and get the tofu sandwich. I also ride my bike from Fort Greene to Midtown — I have to keep these burgers off me. But it’s also my way of calming myself: I have to make sure that yep, this is the best damn burger I’ve ever tasted, and we’re going to be fine. Ed and I went to everybody over the summer — we did tastings at the Shake Shack, Burger Joint, everywhere, just to make sure we weren’t totally flooding the market or missing something. But this burger, we could put up against any of them.
320 Lexington Avenue (between 38th and 39th Streets)
Mon-Sat 11am – 10pm