Like so many Juicy Lucy stories, Rich Holmes’ began with a layover.
He was flying from New York to Los Angeles five years ago, and he had just enough time in Minneapolis to leave the airport for a bite. He went where so many food tourists have gone before him, Matt’s Bar (3500 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., mattsbar.com).
“I said to my wife, ‘I’ve been hearing about Juicy Lucy the last 20 years. Let’s go to Matt’s,’ ” Holmes said. “We go to Matt’s. And it changed my life.”
Yes, the legendary cheese-stuffed and onion-topped burger (spelled Jucy Lucy at Matt’s) taught his taste buds about a Minneapolis-born molten heaven. It also hatched a business idea for the fast-talking, straight-shooting New Yorker.
A real estate investor, Holmes decided then and there that if he ever got into the restaurant business, “I’m going to sell Juicy Lucy burgers.”
That time has come.
In May, Holmes will open a Texas and Carolina-style barbecue restaurant with a pitmaster straight from the renowned Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.
He’s opening it on Staten Island, the borough of New York City best known for not having a bridge to Manhattan — a place Holmes refers to as “Staten Italy.”
And he’s calling it Juicy Lucy BBQ.
Right there on the menu, next to the smoked brisket and the ribs is Minneapolis’ homegrown bar burger, the Juicy Lucy.
Naturally, as word got out about his plans, Holmes encountered some backlash from hundreds of miles away. Columnists made fun. But, he understood what he was up against. “You guys are upset that I’m doing the Juicy Lucy, because you guys invented it,” he conceded. “The people in Minneapolis are like, ‘What’s this Yankee doing?’ First of all, I’m a Mets fan.”
Jonathan Hoge, a cook at Matt’s Bar, was surprised when he heard about Holmes’ concept.
“Barbecue?” he asked. But he wished the restaurant well.
“Good luck with it,” said Hoge, who has worked the grill at Matt’s for a year.
“I mean, we have the original. Everyone can recreate what we are making. It’s all about the simple ingredients. But it’s just not the same if it’s anywhere else but Minnesota.”
Q: Tell us about that layover trip to Matt’s Bar.
A: It was such a cozy place and a little hole-in-the-wall type of thing. There were a million people in there and the food was outrageous.
Q: Did you get to try any other Juicy Lucys while you were here?
A: I had a Matt’s. I wanted to go to the 5-12. [He meant the 5-8 Club; several locations; 5-8club.com.] I didn’t get a chance. But Matt’s is the original [the 5-8 Club also claims origination]. His French fries are probably the best French fries I ever had in my life. There’s nothing like that here.
Q: There’s no one else making Juicy Lucys in New York?
A: I’m sure there are, but I’ve never seen a place. I’m in Staten Italy. We’ve never had a Juicy Lucy in Staten Island.
Q: You don’t usually see a Juicy Lucy in a barbecue place. What’s your focus?
A: I’d like to say it’ll be 50-50. Once people eat those hamburgers, I think it’ll be a very tight race between the barbecue and the burger.
Q: How will your Juicy Lucy compare to the one from Matt’s Bar?
A: I’m straying from your traditional Juicy Lucy. When I went to Matt’s, there were no other options — it had to be American cheese. In New York City, you can’t tell people what to do. They get very upset and offended. So there’ll be six different cheese options. We had one idea of a tomato bruschetta type of Juicy Lucy, more like a pizza burger. We’re New York City. We’re Italian out here.
Q: What’s the burger made of?
A: It’s a rendered bacon-fat Juicy Lucy, a 70-30 beef to pork ratio with bits of crumbled bacon inside. We’re doing our own pork belly in our pit and we’re able to render down the bacon fat and cook it in that.
Q: Will there be onions?
A: Caramelized or fried. Or raw.
Q: How do you feel about the reaction here in Minnesota to your plans?
A: I hope to make you guys proud. No negative connotations on my end. If the New York Yankees move to Minnesota tomorrow, a lot of people would be very upset. This is your thing in the world you guys have out there. By no means do I offer disrespect. If it takes off in New York City, the sky’s the limit what it can do. But you guys own it. It’s yours. I’m just borrowing it for a while.
Q: Will you at least reference where it came from?
A: It won’t say Matt’s, but I hope on the menu it will say “Minneapolis-St. Paul’s own Juicy Lucy hamburgers.”
Q: If a Minnesotan wants to go to your restaurant, how do they get there?
A: There’s public transportation. We’re 1.5 miles off the Verrazzano Bridge. Anyone that comes from Minnesota and mentions the phrase “Stay Juicy Lucy” — they’re gonna get a free hamburger. Because we stole your hamburger. And they’ve gotta show ID. A Minnesota driver’s license. I can’t have people from Staten Island coming in here and saying, “I’m from Minnesota; I get a free burger.”
Q: What’s your address?
A: 809 Father Capodanno Blvd., Staten Island, NY. The website [will be] JuicyLucyBBQ.com. And I also got JuicyLucyBurger.com. I can’t believe nobody in Minnesota got that website!