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5 Food Thoughts: How Utah’s Tonyburgers became the not-so-little burger that could

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The Ol’ Reliable burger, pictured at the Tonyburgers on 400 South in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — “The funny thing is, I don’t really like burgers,” Nicole Carver admitted, “but I really like our burgers.”

She and her husband, Chris Carver, have tried a lot of burgers at this point. Their restaurant chain, Tonyburgers, has become a northern Utah favorite over the past decade — thanks to its unique patties (which blend sirloin, chuck and brisket), its twice-cooked fries and hand-scooped milkshakes. 

But it didn’t come easy. They launched Tonyburgers during a nationwide financial crisis and nearly went under at multiple points. Delicious food and inexplicable good fortune have a way of fixing things, though.

During a recent afternoon at their Salt Lake City location, the Carvers sat down with the Deseret News to discuss their big successes and notable failures. We don’t know if every burger has a story, but Tonyburgers certainly does.

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Owners Nicole, left, and Chris Carver stand for a portrait at the Tonyburgers on 400 South in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

1. How little they knew about the food industry

“We had eaten at restaurants — that was our experience with restaurants,” Nicole Carver said with a chuckle. They had run a business designing and building luxury homes, but when the housing bubble burst in 2008, they needed a new plan. Chris Carver had experience as a computer programmer but didn’t want to return to that industry. (His father, Bruce Carver, was a successful video game developer who launched Access Software, which later sold to Microsoft.) Chris Carver thought burgers might work — a notion he admits was a bit crazy. But Nicole Carver was up for it, and off they went.

“We went to Houston and New York and California and all these different places trying to find the best burger we could,” Chris Carver said. According to Nicole Carver, they didn’t plan on reinventing the wheel — they just wanted to bring together different elements of the best burgers.

Launching a company is a great way to discover how little you actually know. And for Tonyburgers, the first steps were instructive. Chris Carver remembers spotting a Sysco delivery truck on the road and following it all the way to its South Jordan warehouse, just so he could find out how to purchase wholesale food.

2. Who inspired their burgers

As for the Tonyburgers name, that comes from Chris Carver’s brother Tony, who would cook burgers for him when they were little kids. As for the actual taste, though, that started with Pat LaFrieda Jr.

LaFrieda’s New Jersey-based meat company helped usher in a burger revolution in New York City when the company began mixing different cuts of meat into its burger patties. Their mixes eventually got world famous, thanks to Shake Shack.

“Sirloin, chuck, brisket, they were doing short rib and a bunch of different stuff,” Chris Carver recalled of LaFrieda’s company. “It’s pretty common back in New York now, everybody has their own blend. And we started that back here (in Utah).”

Each Tonyburger is a mix of sirloin, chuck and brisket, whereas most normal burgers typically just use basic ground sirloin. And you can taste the difference. (Tonyburgers was among the top finishers in the Deseret News’ recent burger taste-off.)

3. What makes the rest of their food so good

In addition to burgers, the Carvers also had specific plans for their fries and shakes. Cooking hand-cut fries twice — first by baking the insides, then frying them again in peanut oil once they’re ordered — was becoming increasingly popular. They also wanted to use hand-scooped ice cream for their milkshakes, instead of using soft serve. Doing all this takes considerably more work, money and storage space.

“We were told … by every food vendor or anyone we talked to that we were insane to do any of those things,” Nicole Carver said. “They really felt like we should do frozen fries and soft serve ice cream.”

Chris Carver’s dad, who passed away before Tonyburgers launched, had a favorite phrase: “It’s the hard that makes it great.” That stuck with Chris Carver.

“If you’re going to be the same as McDonald’s, then you don’t really have a shot,” Chris Carver said.

The Carvers also planned on having lots of speciality salads, but that’s gradually diminished over the years, “because when people walk into our place and they smell the burger and the bacon, it’s really hard to order a salad,” Nicole Carver added.

4. When they almost called it quits

The original Tonyburgers location, in Centerville, performed like gangbusters during its first year. Then they opened their Salt Lake location and things got messy. No one visited the Salt Lake spot. Meanwhile, In-N-Out Burger opened a restaurant in Centerville, practically next door to Tonyburgers. Chris Carver worked as a car salesman for six months while Nicole Carver ran the restaurants. They moved their Centerville restaurant to nearby Clinton, and Nicole Carver tried drumming up business for the Salt Lake spot any way she could.

“We felt like if they tried us, they would like us,” she said. “But none of that really worked. We couldn’t see any real difference.”

Then, two years later, for reasons they still don’t understand, the Salt Lake location started thriving. 

“It had to be word of mouth,” Chris Carver said. “That’s the only thing we can think of.”

As business picked up, they returned to Centerville, and opened additional Tonyburgers restaurants in Holladay and South Jordan.

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The Tony’s Southern burger, pictured at the Tonyburgers on 400 South in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. Tonyburgers was started a little over 10 years ago by owners Chris and Nicole Carver when they needed a job and decided to learn how to run a restaurant. The restaurant, named after Chris Carver’s brother, has grown to five locations throughout the Salt Lake area.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

5. Why they stopped worrying about prices

The mix of chuck, sirloin and brisket; the hand-cut, twice-cooked fries; the milkshakes made with real ice cream — it all makes a Tonyburgers meal slightly more expensive than what you’ll find elsewhere in Utah. Chris Carver said he spent years worrying about it. At one point, a customer from Seattle told Chris Carver a Tonyburgers meal would easily cost more than $20 in a city like Seattle. So he stopped worrying.

“There’s enough people that will pay for the quality that I don’t have to try to get the people that want an $8 meal — I’ve got to get the people that don’t want an $8 meal, if that makes sense.”