We recently reported on a small zombie fast food restaurant and a number of readers suggested that we run a story on Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, located in Des Moines, Iowa. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the restaurant, this isn’t a small operation. They are known for their gourmet burgers, just recently served their 250,000th patty, and have a selection of over 130 beers.
I recently got in touch with the restaurant’s creator and chef, George Formaro, who told me all about the restaurant, from its early concepts to its famous burgers and shakes:
Can you tell our readers your background as a chef in Des Moines and some of your other business ventures?
George Formaro: I started as a chef in the 80’s and left my job to open an artisan bakery. From there, we felt that we should have a sandwich shop, so we’d have a place to sell the bread. One by one, I had these different concepts and we opened them.
First, it was Centro, the Italian restaurant I always wanted to have and we’re going on our 10th anniversary. Basically, everything I open is because I feel like there is a need for it. People always say: “You felt there was a need for a zombie restaurant???” [Laughs]
That’s what I was going to ask… Why did you think a zombie restaurant would be successful in Des Moines?
George Formaro: Burgers are a fun concept and I love zombie movies. I have zombie collectibles and love horror movies in general. On paper, I felt that the concept would work. Originally, it was called Dr. Caligari’s Burger Lab and I realized that maybe 10 people in the world would know what that reference was. I have these cool zombie pieces from my favorite zombie movies, and I thought let’s try “Zombie Burger”.
It’s a catchy name and it appeals to a variety of horror fans. Even though you’ve had success with your past ventures, did you consider this a risky business move? Was it easy to convince people or companies to invest in this zombie-themed restaurant?
George Formaro: There were other people that were skeptical, but I knew as soon as we put this on paper that it was going to be a great idea. We had to do some convincing, though, and banks weren’t lining up to give us money… [laughs]
A positive article of one of my other restaurants in USA Today really helped. We started taking that article to banks, telling them that we know what we’re doing and we’re taking this very seriously. You could take an idea like this overboard and scare people away. If you’ve seen the restaurant, we made it so that there are some edgy graphic pieces, but we stay away from anything that is too gory.
With a theme like this, are most of your customers younger or do you see a good mix of all ages?
George Formaro: It really ranges from six years old to sixty. This is because I designed the burger around what I felt like the burgers from the 70’s tasted like, when I first started eating burgers. So this is a nod back to the classic roadside burger, with a white squishy bun, great patty, and American cheese. The original concept was a tasty hamburger and then we added all of the crazy things as extras. Even if you just get a regular cheeseburger, it was designed to be the best cheeseburger you’ve ever eaten. We also have quite a few vegetarian options.
With you being a chef and not just a businessman, how long did it take to perfect these menu items before you were ready to open the restaurant?
George Formaro: I was working on it for years. It took us a while to get money for the project, so I had time to practice and finish the menu. Once we got the financing, I really started to tweak things and we set up a test kitchen at one of our other locations to finalize the menu. You’d think a burger concept would be simple, but if you knew me, you’d know that I make every single thing as hard as humanly possible, because I want it to be the best thing you ever had.
We developed a special salt and special buns. The French fries process is completely different because we don’t just cut open a bag of frozen potatoes. We’re cutting fries and peeling 500 – 1000 lbs of potatoes at a time. Everything took a lot longer than I thought it would because our old process didn’t work.
It took a while to get everything going and we picked the name Zombie Burger before the recent zombie craze. After The Walking Dead came out, it worked out perfectly for us. It looks like we timed it to match, but some of my favorite zombie movies are older, and this has really been in the works for years.
I’ve checked out the food menu online, but I didn’t see much on the drink lab. Similar to the food choices are there any specialty cocktails that have a horror theme?
George Formaro: In wanting to create a place that something for everyone the Drink Lab has always been seen as a high execution bar in the middle of burger and shake restaurant. We have an extensive cocktail menu of themed martinis, and mixed drinks, a solid wine list, a ridiculously large beer list currently pushing 140 bottles, and 12 taps that rotate all the time so there is always something new.
In the year we’ve been open we have zeroed in on a few of the mixed drinks that people really love and so we already have some house favorites. The Blood-Tang is a Blood Orange martini with a blood honey rim. The Socket is a strawberry-blueberry mixed drink, including real strawberries, served with an edible eye ball garnish. As much as love our house standards we are constantly experimenting and developing new drinks.
We’re also doing all kinds of crazy things with the shakes, using cake batter and cereal. We’re working on a tooty fruity shake that we’re calling Captain Spaulding’s Tooty Fu**in Fruity, but we have to work out how that’s going to read on the menu [laughs]. We also have a nod to Zombieland with the Twinkie shake.
What is the best selling item on the menu and what is your personal favorite?
George Formaro: The Zombie Burger is certainly the most popular and I’d suggest the Double Zombie Burger for anyone visiting for the first time. For my favorite, it’s kind of like picking my favorite kid… There is the Trailer Trash Burger, the Ray Gun, and one called the Sarah’s Revenge… Those three are probably my favorite and The Walking Ched is a good burger, but it is so rich, that I usually suggest people share it.
Have you thought about expanding past this single spot and opening additional Zombie Burger locations?
George Formaro: If there is one concept I have that could be done and should be done in more than one location, it is Zombie Burger. This one is the most fun that we have and it translates to a very large demographic. I wouldn’t mind possibly opening other locations. It’s a serious concept, though. For instance, there are over 130 beers on the list. I think with the massive beer list, the serious bar, and the commitment to food, that this concept could go to other locations.
Is offering franchise opportunities something that you’re interested in?
George Formaro: Because the concept is so complicated, it may be difficult to figure out the details. You might think that this would be an easy thing to do, but because of the special buns we make, it’s not as easy as contracting a local bakery to make buns. We also have a special grind of meat and special machines, so I’d like to do it, but multiple locations would be my first priority.
With being the creator of Zombie Burger, I have to ask… What are some of your favorite zombie movies?
George Formaro: I’m not usually a remake guy, but I enjoy the some of the remakes as much as the originals. I think the original Night of the Living Dead is a little bit better, but I really like the Tom Savini-directed version too. I actually own Uncle Rege’s head and the poker that Barbara used to smash his head in. I thought those were cool pieces to own from one of my favorite movies.
I really enjoyed the original Dawn of the Dead, but thought the new one was outstanding too. I also love the original Day of the Dead and Return of the Living Dead. I’ve also been watching The Walking Dead, which is an outstanding zombie series, even if you aren’t the biggest zombie fan. It’s a really well done series and I like it a lot. I’m chomping at the bit to see the new season after the last season’s ending.
After learning more about Zombie Burger, I’m chomping at the bit to head over there and I’ll be sure to follow up on this feature when I visit. If you’re interested in visiting Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, check out their website at: http://zombieburgerdm.com/ or head over to 300 E. Grand Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa.