For years, Micah Camden was known as a restaurant impresario with project ADD, delusions of grandeur, design savvy to spare, and a trigger finger on the pulse of food culture. Then Katie Poppe came along, a tall, sleek bundle of focus and math skills. Together, in 2010, they hatched Little Big Burger in the Pearl District, gambling on a fun and affordable meal in an upscale neighborhood. In short order, they made fast food cool and found gold in a quality quarter-pounder, truffle fries and cheap beer. Less than two weeks after opening, Camden whispered loudly to a friend: “Eleven days open and we’re already at $35,000.” For once, he wasn’t exaggerating. Now, with eight Oregon locations, the indie chain hauls in roughly $6 million in revenue a year, says Poppe.
As Eat Beat learned in an exclusive interview, one customer in particular has taken notice. On July 31, Chanticleer Holdings, Inc. announced it had purchased Little Big Burger for $6.1 million. The New Jersey-based company, which owns, part-owns, and/or operates multiple burgers brands, including BGR: The Burger Joint, which gained a foothold in Washington D.C. and other cities for aged, hormone-free beef. It also owns the scantily clad bar and grill chain, Hooters of America. “The restaurants are unique in their design and allow a level of interaction with chefs and the cooking process that we've never seen before in the burger industry,” said the company’s release. "This is a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on a regionally prominent brand with a proven scalable business model."
“It’s surreal,” said Camden. “I’m a bit dazed. I may need therapy.”
Poppe says she’d like to throw a party for all the people who helped get them here. “I wonder how much it cost to rent the Black Keys or Ludacris,” she mused, perhaps giving a sense of how much money they did make on this deal.
Poppe and Camden—recently divorced but happily in bed on a slew of projects—are also inking a deal with BGR to carry Camden’s Catsup, sold by the bottle at Little Big Burger. Poppe says the idea is to build “hype and brand” around the country with a product they hope to take national (it recently went online at Amazon). Camden talked about his catsup project for years, even amid rumors that he was merely “doctoring” pre-made catsup. “True of the early batches,” Camden admitted in a recent sit-down interview. But now, he proudly points to the recipe’s scratch ingredients inked up and down his arm: tomatoes, honey, onions, chile peppers, a whisk for stirring, and symbolically, Portland’s iconic White Stag sign.
So why sell LBB—their cash cow? Camden, 37, and Poppe, 35, have a full plate of projects, including downtown’s new Hop Dog, two Boxer Ramen locations, and Southeast Division Street’s lone Son of a Biscuit, the rare runt in their litter. But they’ve seen their real future, and it has a big hole in the middle: The duo’s fast-rising Blue Star Donuts, launched in late 2012, is poised to break big, nearly unmatched in its blend of inventive glazes, quality brioche dough, and addictive quality. Portland now has four shops, and recently, Blue Star touched down in Toyko, where sell-outs by early afternoon are the norm and customers have been given an ultimatum: no more than six doughnuts at a time. In mid-August, a branch will open in Los Angeles’ hot Abbot-Kinney neighborhood, where they’re banking on an audience hungry for something under $5. (That thinking has worked beautifully for another Portland export, ice cream experimenters Salt & Straw, now drawing lines in LA’s Larchmont Village.) Next up: Blue Star hopes to conquer Austin and Dallas within the year.
“Every town has a local burger, but no one has a better doughnut,” Poppe told me recently over coffee. “It’s the place to grow; we’re in a league of our own.” She’s all focus and intensity, plotting out their future. Camden, the 10th grade dropout, says he just wants to kick back and celebrate all this good fortune, literally and figuratively. “At some point,” he says with a gleeful grin, “I’m going to pull a yacht into Denver where there’s no water … just because I can.”