HAMILTON, Ont. — When chef Mike Cipollo began scouting Hamilton for a location to open his first restaurant, he envisioned a large-scale operation.
Cipollo, who worked as Bier Markt’s corporate chef for about 12 years, planned to open a “refined casual” restaurant with about 200 seats in about 7,000 square feet.
However, as he toured the city, a small vacant restaurant on King William Street nabbed his attention.
“We thought it would be cool to do a burger and beer place,” Cipollo said.
“It was kind of a way to fill the time between the major project. It was something to do and keep us busy and have some fun with.”
Within a month, Cipollo signed a lease and created the concept for HAMBRGR, a 41-seat, 600-square-foot restaurant serving craft beer and unique renditions of the classic hamburger made with local ingredients. Its doors opened in October 2015.
“We opened to a full restaurant and have maintained that growth with the business and concept,” Cipollo said.
Soon after opening, the space next to HAMBRGR became available. Cipollo decided to acquire the space for a seafood restaurant.
“We decided, after watching an old episode of The Simpsons where Homer eats the blowfish, we should open a place and call it Tasty Fish,” Cipollo said.
While the original name didn’t last, the neighbouring space was transformed into FSH & CHP, which opened in June 2016.
“We did the yang to yin of HAMBRGR,” Cipollo said. “Fish and chips were another thing we really love as chefs, but can’t find that’s refined.”
The concern with opening a fish-focused restaurant was customers comparing their menu to a traditional fish and chips shop.
“That’s dangerous waters. Everyone’s going to compare you to somebody’s grandmother’s place back in England,” Cipollo said.
To avoid the comparison, FSH & CHP serves seasonal and sustainable seafood that draws influence from Newfoundland to New Orleans.
“We wanted our own Canadian style,” Cipollo said.
With two restaurants operating side-by-side, Cipollo looked to Hamilton’s east side for his third location. He opened the second HAMBRGR location on Ottawa Street at the end of February.
“We decided HAMBRGR was a concept we were in love with,” Cipollo said.
The new, 2,400-square-foot, two-storey location, seats 60 on the main floor and 75 guests on the second floor. A walk-in keg fridge allows HAMBRGR to serve a variety of craft beer from across North America.
“It’s brewers who don’t have as big of a presence, but make a big product,” Cipollo said.
“It’s every beer with its right glass, with its right coaster and every beer poured properly at the size it should be poured.”
Alongside craft beer, HAMBRGR is serving alcoholic milkshakes and root beer floats. In addition to its hamburgers, the menu is rounded out with bacon fat popcorn, handmade jalapeño poppers and Nashville chicken strippers.
To create the space and menu concept, Cipollo involved both front and back of house staff in the process.
“I wanted to do it outside of the corporate mentality,” he said. “I wanted to rely on the people that work for us.”
Cipollo create Local Restaurant Group as the parent company for his three restaurants.
A third HAMBRGR is now in development in St. Catharines, Ont.
“We’re in the design phase, working with the engineer and architect,” Cipollo said. “That will hopefully open this year.”
While Cipollo plans to continue to grow his brand, he doesn’t plan on offering his concepts as franchises.
“I don’t see myself getting to a point where I’m just sitting behind a desk,” he said.
“To me, that is the beginning of the end for a restaurant.”
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