By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
It was love at first bite for me and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. And even though as a teen working at a Red Robin in Albuquerque I was stuffed inside a giant "Red" bird suit and force to hand out free onion-ring coupons at the movie theater across the street, I bear the chain no ill will. In fact, I've had many baskets of bottomless steak fries since then. So I was interested to hear that the company, which got its start in Washington but is now based in Greenwood Village, had plans for a smaller, almost fast-food-esque Red Robin, a model that would take on other fast-cazh burger groups like Five Guys Burgers & Fries and Denver-based Smashburger.
The prototype debuted last November in the Shops at Northfield Stapleton. There are some slight — but significant — differences between the original Red Robin and Red Robin's Burger Works, the new, compact version of the concept. The full-sized Red Robin stores are traditionally located in suburban areas, and since these restaurants are usually over 5,000 square feet, they're tough to stuff into some urban markets. The Burger Works model would let the company move into small but lucrative spaces like food courts, stadiums, airports, military bases...and Stapleton. "The Northfield location also gave us a great opportunity to see how our guests would respond to a smaller, non-traditional restaurant in a suburban lifestyle center," says Peter McKellar, associate manager of communications for the company. "Our subsequent restaurants are located in other areas that the smaller footprint of Burger Works allows us to reach, such as college campuses and central business districts like downtown Denver." That 16th Street Mall store opened on May 21, two months after a Burger Works debuted at Ohio State University; Metropolitan State University will soon get its own outpost, as will Boulder.
But do these smaller Red Robins offer the big fun of the original? At the full-size restaurants, the lobbies have video games; everything is painted in loud, primary colors; and the one where I worked even had carousel horses for decor. Red Robins are frolicsome jumbles of music, food and the signature Freckled Lemonade: sweet lemonade topped with chunky strawberry purée. They are restaurants that you can take your kids to — or just sit at solo, watching TV on one of the big plasma screens at the bar and drinking an Absolutely Absolut Freckled Lemonade. Could this fun, sometimes boozy circus be effectively compacted?
The Northfield store is located smack dab in the middle of a "suburban lifestyle center" — read: outdoor mall — which was busy at 6 p.m. on a recent Saturday. From the outside, Burger Works looked sizable, but inside there was just one room, with the dining area in front and the semi-open kitchen and ordering line at the back. And in the far right corner stood a glowing, steely, refrigerator-sized "Freestyle" Coca-Cola machine — capable of dispensing a hundred different flavors and combinations of Coke products, but no Freckled Lemonade.
Slide show: Red Robin's "fast-cazh" foray
Unlike at the mother store, there's no table service here. Instead, you order at the counter, working off digital menu screens along the side wall. This limited Burger Works lineup carefully plucks the most popular items from Red Robin, such as the Whiskey River BBQ burger, hand-breaded chicken tenders, veggie portabella burger and "Hand-Spun Real Ice Cream Shakes," as well as some new dishes designed for the new concept, including sweet-potato fries and shoestring French fries instead of steak fries. Also unlike at Red Robin, everything at Burger Works is à la carte, so I started with some shoestring fries, then added a Royal burger, a jalapeño'd-up 5 Alarm burger, and the Banzai burger with teriyaki sauce and grilled pineapple, subbing a Morningstar Farms veggie patty for the beef on the Banzai. The counter person did not ask me if I wanted my burgers cooked to "some pink" or "no pink" — the way that Red Robin identifies medium and well-done.
Burger Works has a beer-and-wine license, not the full hotel-restaurant liquor license of most Red Robins, and the lineup is an ultra-limited selection of bottled beers like Corona, Fat Tire and Stella Artois — there are hipsters in nearby Stapleton, after all — as well as one-serving bottles of Woodbridge Chardonnay. Instead of going for beer, I approached the scary, robotic Coke machine. It's effin' great to have a hundred different choices of beverage, but the machine gave me a chilly, suspicious feeling, like it wanted something from me...like my brainwaves. When an employee opened the machine to replace a soda cartridge — which looked like an enlarged ink cartridge for a printer — I peeked into the abyss of complicated chips and wires. It looked like something out of a 1980s movie that was used for human mind control.
I grabbed a sugar-free raspberry Powerade, found a seat and waited for my meal. The dining room was unreasonably noisy for being mostly empty, with just four other tables occupied. I could hear every word spoken and every scrape of the metal chair and table legs on the concrete floor. But then, the decor is meant to be stripped down and utilitarian — and to discourage lingering. But without an adult Freckled Lemonade, what's the incentive? And what's with that beverage machine, anyway?
When the manager arrived with my food order, I asked if the machine was connected to the Internet. After she confirmed that it was, I asked, "Do you ever worry that maybe Skynet is using it to control our minds — like in Terminator?" She looked at me blank-faced and admitted that she'd never seen the movie.
Despite its lack of a pink middle, the Royal burger was just as juicy and delicious as I remembered from my Albuquerque days: a one-third-pound, who-knows-what-grade of grilled beef patty covered with gobs of melted American cheese, an oily-crisp fried egg, cool slices of tomato and leaf lettuce, and served on a buttery, mayo-slathered toasted bun. Burger Works' 5 Alarm burger was another delicious trip down memory lane, with this patty topped by fresh jalapeños, melted pepper Jack cheese, smoky salsa, chipotle mayo and more lettuce and tomato, for a combo that was pleasantly warm but not crazed-insane hot. Even the veggie patty in the Banzai had a good, grilled taste — not easy with meatless burgers — and was juicy with pineapple, both salty and savory from the teriyaki sauce dripping over the edges of the bun.
Not only were the burgers at Burger Works just as good as the ones at Red Robin — Yum! — but I even liked the crispy, salt-and-peppered shoestring fries; the side of Thai chili ketchup was sweet and just spicy enough without overwhelming the spuds. I could easily have eaten more of them, but even though Red Robin's introduction of "bottomless" steak fries in 1994 really put the restaurant on the industry map, Burger Works does not offer bottomless anything. I later asked Jennifer Rivas, Red Robin's director of national marketing, about this. "We wanted to provide our guests with multiple different side options to complement their burgers, including our sweet-potato fries and onion straws, and the shoestring-style fries also give us a unique side option only available at our Burger Works locations," she said.
Since I like my beef with some "moo" left in it, I also asked Rivas why well-done-bleh is the only option at Burger Works. Her answer was pretty well-done-bleh, too: "Delivering on our promise of a fast, fresh and fiery burger is the highest priority for us, which required us to take into account the operational differences between our larger Red Robin restaurants and the small Burger Works prototypes," she said.
A larger Red Robin store uses a big convection oven with a conveyor belt to grill its burgers to order, giving customers the option of medium or well-done (rare is not even on the table in these E. coli-sensitive days). But the monstrously huge burger machine would take up too much space in a Burger Works; instead, the kitchen goes with an efficient, compact flat grill. And what grade of beef does Burger Works put on the grill? That question went to McKellar, who said he'd have to check; he later provided an answer that seemed copied off the website: "Our burgers are created using fresh, never frozen cuts of natural, American-grown beef free of preservatives and artificial ingredients."
I appreciate what Red Robin is trying to do with Burger Works, and the burgers definitely seem more gourmet than the options at Five Guys Burgers & Fries. Still, I couldn't help missing the easygoing feel and full-sized menu of the mothership. And the human contact, even if some of those humans are stuffed into chicken suits. Concerned that Skynet might really be pulling the strings at Burger Works, I asked Rivas if the home office ever worried that the Freestyle machine would become sentient and enslave humanity.
"We have all the confidence that Coca-Cola has prepared for any worse-case scenarios involving a Terminator-type machine revolution," she replied, "so we don't anticipate any problems of this nature."
Of course, that's exactly how someone controlled by machines would respond...
Slide show: Red Robin's "fast-cazh" foray