COLLEGE PARK – They come piled high — big, juicy patties stacked with toppings that run the gamut from the unusual, like watercress or jalapeno aioli, to the classic, like lettuce and cheddar cheese. Each burger carries a certain cachet, the assurance that no, this is not fast food, but rather a culinary experience.
Gourmet hamburgers have exploded in upper Prince George’s County over the past year or so. Even celebrity chefs Bobby Flay and Timothy Dean have gotten in on the action, opening burger restaurants in College Park and Largo respectively. Business is booming — and so are waistlines.
“All kinds, black, white, Asian, everyone is coming in,” said Dean of his restaurant Timothy Dean Burger, which opened in March in the Boulevard at the Capital Centre shopping pavilion. “Especially children. That’s how I kind of built the concept — to appeal to kids.”
Elevation Burger, another recent entry to the area’s hamburger market, lacks the star power of Flay, a Food Network television host and Iron Chef, or Dean, a contestant on the Bravo network program “Top Chef” in 2010. But what it does boast is its prominently featured use of grass-fed beef and other organic ingredients. Cord Thomas, a managing partner at the Arlington, Va.-based chain, said that makes his brand stand out and keeps customers coming back for more.
“(Prince George’s County) is an up-and-coming area with a lot of educated people who are beginning to understand you are what you eat,” Thomas said. “The people seem to resonate with our brand quite well.”
Elevation Burger opened a location in Hyattsville a year ago — its 16th store nationally, according to brand manager James Stewart. In March, in Tysons Corner, Va., its 29th store opened.
“The growth has been exponential,” said Thomas. “We also plan to double this year from where we’re currently at.”
But Katherine Tallmadge, a nutritionist who is president of the District of Columbia Metro Area Dietetic Association, described the recent growth of the gourmet hamburger sector in Prince George’s County as “unfortunate.”
“As if we need more burger and fry joints — come on,” Tallmadge said, scoffing. “People need more healthy eating options, not more options … that challenge their health. We’re a nation where two out of three adults and one out of three children are overweight or obese.”
According to a County Health Rankings and Roadmaps study published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute earlier this month, 34 percent of adult residents of Prince George’s County are obese. That puts the county?s adult obesity rate well above the national average of 25 percent.
But Thomas asserted that his franchise is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
“There’s a lot of benefits associated with our products, and the benefits of organic that people have come to know and love,” Thomas said. He pointed to a number of healthy eating options Elevation Burger provides, including burgers that substitute lettuce leaves for a bun.
Bobby’s Burger Palace, the restaurant owned by Flay that opened a location in College Park last summer, offers a similar option, as well as turkey and chicken burgers. Timothy Dean Burger offers turkey burgers too, along with Portobello mushroom burgers and ahi tuna sandwiches. All three restaurants include salads on the menu.
Tallmadge said that while she was “heartened” by the healthy options on the menu, she still sees the restaurants as burger joints.
“It’s kind of hard to go into a burger restaurant and choose a salad,” said Tallmadge. “I find it difficult to choose a healthy option when I’m in one of these places myself.”
Dean said that while he does plan on providing calorie counts for each item on the menu “eventually,” he is not worried about his customers’ health.
“They need to put the fried chicken down and get a nice turkey burger,” Dean said. “People know how to eat healthy. It’s just a choice.”
The website Calorie Count lists a cheeseburger with a “large, single patty” as having 451 calories. While it grades such a meal a “B-,” a full porterhouse steak receives the same grade with 445 calories. A comparable amount of breaded and fried white-meat chicken earns a “C+” with 667 calories.
Frederick resident Rob McCabe, a University of Maryland alum who graduated last December, said that when he lived in College Park, he ate at Bobby’s Burger Palace about once a week after it opened. Although McCabe said he goes to the gym frequently and is very health-conscious, he admitted he had eyes only for the burgers at Bobby’s.
“I never did the … salads, but for the most part I tried all the burgers,” said McCabe. “I tried to rationalize it by getting the turkey burgers and telling myself it wasn’t red meat.”
But it is not just salads that are overshadowed on the menu by the painstakingly crafted, often exotic-tasting burgers and sandwiches Dean and others are slinging. Dean said pizza, another dining option at his Largo restaurant, has not been as popular as he had hoped.
“We’re still selling the pizzas, but we’ve had to cut down on (making) them,” Dean said.
Dean, who lives in Baltimore but said he plans to move to Prince George’s County within the next few weeks to be closer to his new franchise, said he is already looking to expand. His next location will likely open late this summer, he said, and it will be in the county as well — probably in Brandywine or Camp Springs.
While Dean said he would like to continue serving pizza, the real business of his franchise is burgers and sandwiches, between 700 and 1,000 he said he sells every day.
“I’m thinking moving forward, I might just do burgers at the other location,” Dean said. “They are loving the burgers.”