Few restaurants in the Minneapolis skyway are as consistently busy as the Burger Place, a straightforward restaurant that does a brisk business in burgers, fries and fountain drinks in the U.S. Bank Plaza just across from the Hennepin County Government Center. Lisa Oh, the owner, came to the United States from South Korea when she was 22 to attend college, ended up getting married and landed in the Twin Cities. For 23 years now, she’s owned the restaurant, which moved into its current location in 2012.
She sat for an interview at the end of the lunch rush last week to talk about burgers, cleanliness and speed.
Q. You grew up in South Korea. What did you eat growing up?
A. Of course Korean food. Kimchi and rice are like potatoes and steak here. So kimchi, rice, bulgogi. And a lot of other good things.
Q. How did you get into the restaurant business?
A. I came to Minneapolis in 1988 for a job working in the office furniture business. I was traveling a lot to trade shows. My children were young and it wasn’t good, so I was looking to change jobs. I went to Hennepin Tech, took a management course for retail florists. So I used to own a flower shop for three years. But with a flower shop, you’ve got to work seven days a week to make a profit — weddings, parties, flower arrangements for country clubs. I still didn’t have time for my children, so I was looking for something where I could be home when the children come home from school. This is what I found. A downtown business, you can only open for lunch, you can be home by 3.
Q. Why didn’t you start a Korean restaurant? Why a burger place?
A. In the skyway, I don’t think a Korean restaurant would have fit in. This was over 20 years ago. The place we purchased was a hoagie place, owned by another Korean. I started this business in 1993. When I first opened it, it was called L. Phillips Cafe. A lady customer who had become a good friend, she came in and asked if I could make her a hamburger. I was doing her a favor. I went to Cub Foods and bought the ground beef. I was just making it for her. I made the patties by hand and seasoned them the way I like, and she liked it, and she started bringing her friends from work, and word spread. A lot of people started asking for the burgers. I asked the beef company I used to deal with if they carry hamburger patties. They said, ‘Yeah sure,’ so we started buying from them. I seasoned them the way I would like, in the Korean style. So we season these beef patties every morning.
Q. What was on the menu when your friend asked you to make her a hamburger?
A. We used to sell sandwiches, some salads and hoagies. That business wasn’t doing well, so we had to change. My partner was my ex-husband, and he was a country club manager, so he had the idea of serving gourmet meals, making a salad. Of course, people aren’t going to pay for that. There was just a lot of money involved. And those salads, if you don’t sell them that day, you have to throw them away. Then this lady asked for a burger.
Q. Did you eat a lot of hamburgers then?
A. No, almost never. That wasn’t my kind of food. Now I do. I actually have to eat a hamburger at least once a week. Even more.
Q. Quality assurance.
A. There you go. I used to be less than 100 pounds, but now … I don’t want to say.
Q. You look good.
A. Thank you.
Q. How many burgers do you sell in a typical day?
A. On Friday in the winter, we sell 600. Typically 450 to 475 a day in the winter. Monday and Tuesday are our slowest days because people bring leftovers [for lunch]. In the summer, we sell more like 250 or 300 per day.
Q. How do you keep your place so clean?
A. Just have to work hard. I have good employees. When I go to a restaurant, I want to have decent food, at least, and then the place is clean. It doesn’t matter how good the food is, if the place is a dump, I won’t go back. That’s me. My kids tell me I’m a perfectionist. That’s part of it, maybe. It’s like a factory. This is a very simple restaurant. You’ve got to be doing the same routine — no tests here. Not complicated.
Q. How do you keep the line moving quickly?
A. It’s organized and there’s a rhythm. The majority of people have limited time for lunch. You don’t want to waste your time standing in line for 10-15 minutes. And I do have good employees. I have one guy going on 20 years, one guy going on 18 years.
Q. What is the secret to a successful skyway restaurant?
A. I do whatever I can to push through so it doesn’t have to take a long time. There are items I’d like to add to the menu, but I don’t because I don’t want to hold up the line. We used to sell soup, but that was just too much. If customers want soup or something else, there are lots of choices. We have burgers and hot sandwiches, good quality.
Q. What’s your biggest challenge?
A. The food trucks slow us down in the summer. And everybody’s looking for workers. It’s hard to find people. That’s a big challenge.