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Burger Friday: Hamburger bun savant is puzzled by the whole burger rage

Meet Danny "Klecko" McGleno. He’s the CEO of the Saint Agnes Baking Co. in St. Paul, and an expert on the subject of hamburger buns.

“It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the hamburger bun,” he said (that's McGleno, above, in a Star Tribune file photo). Spoken like a true baker, right?

He speaks from experience. The decades-old bakery supplies burger buns to hundreds of Twin Cities restaurants. Those who prefer to prepare burgers at home (find helpful chef tips here), you're in luck: while Saint Agnes doesn’t operate a retail outlet (its popular Saturday morning pop-ups are no more, alas), it does supply nearly a dozen natural foods co-ops with its superb hamburger buns, and other breads.

In a recent telephone conversation, here’s what McGleno had to say on . . .

His first job: "It was making a bread line for SuperAmerica. I told them I wanted to make artisan breads. What I learned was, you have to sell 50 dozen hamburger buns to sell one loaf of artisan bread. Your time is better served making pickup trucks, not Cadillacs."

His competition: "For the first 30 years of my career, all of my competitors were other local bakeries. Now? A lot of those bakeries have fallen off the map, and now my biggest competitor is the US Foods truck. Their catalog offers a choice of frozen breads from 50 bakeries. This is where I think it’s important for consumers to know what they’re eating. They should be asking, ‘Where do you get your bread?’ You always hear about farm-to-table, and ‘buy local,’ but people don’t always know where their bread comes from, and they would be better served if they did."

Buns baked in-house at restaurants: "I say this with respect: A lot of breads are baked by chefs, and not by bakers. Bakers have the science and the tradition behind bread-baking."

The business: "The margins aren’t big enough to get rich, so you have to look at this business as a marathon, and not as a sprint. We’ve had most of our accounts for a long time. Xcel Energy Center, Mystic Lake, they’ve been with us for more than a decade. And hundreds, hundreds of restaurants."

The bakery’s numbers: "We sell hamburger buns to about 300 accounts. Some of them don’t get a delivery every day, and some of them are seasonal. On an average Friday, we’ll send a couple hundred dozen buns to Burger Burger at the Mall of America. That’s just one account. We make thousands of dozens of hamburger buns every week. Probably 15,000 to 20,000 dozen."

Innovation: "We probably have at least 50 varieties of hamburger buns. I’m always doing new products. I was just in Chicago for the National Honey Board, and I came up with a honey mustard hamburger bun. I’m serving two cities, every day. You have to listen to what your community wants to eat. But at the same time, you have to also create things and lead people down a new path. We were among the first to do a trans fat-free hamburger bun."

The hamburger bun’s evolution: “We watch what people eat, and what they don’t eat, and we adapt. Twelve years ago, the ‘jumbo’ bun was probably 25 percent of our business. Now it’s 1 percent. For decades, the ‘regular’ bun, a 4-inch bun, has been the standard. I just got back from New York City, and everyone there is using a 3 ½-inch bun, the ‘small’ bun. That’s a reflection of rising protein prices, but it also shows that people don’t need to eat so much bread. It’s pretty easy to put on weight if you eat a lot of bread. I’ve been there, I know."

Bun sizes: "In this industry, there are five hamburger bun sizes: dollar, mini, small, regular and jumbo. It costs more to make dollar buns than it does to make mini buns, because we have to roll them by hand."

Different styles of buns: "For Republic, we make a black Russian onion-topped hamburger bun. Onions are really popular in burger buns. We don’t use dried onions, we use freshly diced ones, that makes a big difference. We developed a milk bun, and it changed the game. Our sales went up 13 percent in a year, primarily because of that product. All of these chefs are in love with brioche, but they’re paying a lot for a product with half the shelf life of a normal bun. I made a butter-based bun. I took out the egg whites, which dry the buns out. I brush the top with an egg yolk. The shelf life is 40 percent longer."

Seasonal variety: "Just like a pastry chef who makes pumpkin ice cream in the fall, we do the same thing, and make buns that reflect the season. Mustard dill buns are popular in the winter. Zesto pesto is a big seller right now."

Understanding his customers' demographics: “I had a phone call from a client – a very good client – in June. We do a lot of business with them. Customers were saying that the hamburger bun – and this is the same bun that I send to Thomas Boemer at Revival – they were saying that they didn’t like it. They were all senior citizens. Here’s what happens to people over 50: their jaw span diminishes, and they can’t get their mouth around a big bun. It’s not that the bun tasted bad. They just had a hard time chewing it. They weren’t talking about flavor, they were talking about mouth feel. Mouth feel is huge with hamburger buns. The very first thing you do with a burger is that you’ll smell the bun, and the second thing is that your mouth will touch the bun, before it touches the patty."

Where he burgers: "I gotta be honest, I don’t eat out a lot. I don’t actually understand the whole burger rage, because I can make a really good burger at home. When I go out, I want to go out for sushi, for something that I can’t make at home. That said, I like the burgers at Burger Jones. They have a huge variety, and the best condiments. And they use our milk bun. It’s the Twin Cities’ favorite bun."

Saint Agnes: "We probably have somewhere in the range of 42 to 44 employees. Gary Sande is the primary owner [the bakery is named for Sande's grandmother, Agnes Rod]. I’m the CEO and I run the bakery, which means that I do everything from product development to marketing to collections. Most of our staff has been with us for a decade, or longer. That’s everything. That’s my biggest competitive advantage. You surround yourself with good people, and good things happen. We’re like Madonna: We’re always trying to redefine who we are, and come up with solutions that best benefit the community."

The next big thing: "It’s the new challah bun. It might sound boring, but if you’re a bread wonk like me, it’s great. I learned how to do it from David Fhima at Faces Mears Park. He’s a fantastic baker, I think he’s the best baker in the Twin Cities. It’s difficult to make challah into a bun, and of course a lot of breads get called things that they’re not. For example, in the supermarket, I’d say that nine-tenths of the ciabattas being sold are not ciabattas. Nowadays, all the rules are gone. But challah, it’s difficult to make in a tight structure. It’s a braided loaf because it’s such a loose dough. It’s rustic, and light, but it’s tough to get the buns to hold their shape; the dough loses its power, and it deflates. It’s all about texture. There’s nothing really sexy about this. Then again, hamburger buns aren’t meant to be sexy, they’re meant to be practical."

At Travail restaurant, thieves didn't take cutlery; they took the AC

On the subject of theft, most restaurateurs have to concern themselves with cutlery walking out of the building, or customers walking out on checks.

Both scenarios are peanuts compared to what happened earlier this month at Travail Kitchen & Amusements (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo) in Robbinsdale.

It started when co-owners Mike Brown and James Winberg came in on what appeared to be a normal Friday morning during the first week of August. As they started working, they noticed that something was amiss.

“James said, ‘It feels warm in here,’” said Brown. “And it was, it was 83 degrees.”

Brown said that the moment Winberg commented on the not-so-temperate temperature, a man in mechanics garb walked in the door and asked to speak to the person in charge.

His message? “He said, ‘I was servicing the rooftop next door, and I noticed that your AC has been stolen,’ said Brown. “Then he took out his phone, and he showed me a picture. And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’

Unfortunately, he wasn’t. The man took Brown and Winberg up on the restaurant’s roof. It was true.

“Someone had come in and really cleaned house,” said Brown.

The short version of the story is that a brazen thief or thieves – the perpetrator(s) remain at large – gained access to the two-year-old building’s roof and gutted the heavy-duty machinery, stripping out all the copper coils.

“You can see where they dragged it all across the roof, and dropped it off the side of the building, presumably into a truck,” said Brown. “Wham-bam, they had our AC.”

Brown noted that the neighbors’ rooftop air conditioning units were also hit.

“Our insurance adjuster told us that the same kind of deal had happened about 10 miles away,” he said. “These guys have a system. They’re scrappers.”

Because the four-star restaurant is a constant sellout, a full house of prepaid diners (the restaurant sells tickets, in advance, and its tasting menu format runs $91 to $135) was expected in a few hours, and the next night, too. With no air conditioning. In August.

Fortunately, weather conditions were picture-perfect pleasant, and the next two evenings went off without a hitch, thanks to a combination of plenty of open windows and a dozen strategically placed fans.

Working with their insurance company and a contractor, the Travail ownership team (that’s Brown and Winberg, along with fellow chefs Bob Gerken and Kale Thome) hoped to have the air conditioning restored by the time diners were scheduled to return, four nights later (the restaurant runs on a Wednesday through Saturday schedule), because the long-range forecast was not exactly conducive to gracious hospitality.

“They were talking Everglades-level humidity,” said Brown. “It’s the dog days of summer. We couldn’t have people paying these kinds of prices, sitting and sweating in 90 degrees.”

To no one’s surprise, restoring the service wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. Fortunately, the restaurant has a sense of ingenuity programmed into its DNA. After all, the ownership team pitched in to build the building, and the crew’s cooking ethos is nothing if not inventive.

Brown and Winberg got to work and pulled together a temporary solution. A truck-size, 25-ton generator and air conditioning unit, so big it pretty much took over the restaurant’s parking lot -- was called into duty (It was brought in by the event organizer who pitches in with Travail’s wildly popular annual summer party, held at a shoreline park on nearby Crystal Lake). Brown and Winberg got to work, equipping garage door-style windows with plywood, with cutouts for 20-inch intake and outtake air vents. It worked.

“The customers didn’t notice, temperature-wise,” said Brown. “What they did notice is that they couldn’t park in our parking lot, because that giant truck was there.”

Seven days and $30,000 later, the new rooftop units were up and running, with a slight difference. This time around, the replacements – which are working just fine, thank you -- are surrounded by protective bars.

“There’s lots of weirdness in this business,” said Brown. “But this really takes the cake. It’s pretty absurd. You worry about all kinds of stuff, but not about having to put cameras on the roof.”