BY LUCY BURNINGHAM
Photo by Matthew Ginn
Inside any Little Big Burger restaurant, linear murals in red, yellow and white splash across the walls as hip-hop music pounds with a bumping beat. The colors should look familiar; they’ve been co-opted by almost every fast-food chain for precisely the same reasons they’ve been chosen here. The hues make humans act rashly, impulsively and hungrily.
Go ahead, order. The menus at each of the four locations have just six items. The fries ($2.75) are spritzed with diluted truffle oil, and the burger ($3.25) comes with a beef patty that is thick but shrunken in diameter (the inspiration for the restaurant’s name). Top the burger with one of three Oregon-made cheeses, but don’t count on many more permutations. If you have a hankering for a salad or milkshake, for example, you’re in the wrong place.
Four to five employees work at any Little Big Burger at any given time. Minimal prep work for the limited menu means employees arrive just two hours before opening and leave one hour after closing.
Their efficiency has been carefully crafted. At the flagship Little Big Burger in Portland’s Pearl District, employees once formed burger patties by hand. But the extra time wasn’t worth the inconsistent patty sizes; now the burgers are preformed by SP Provisions, of Portland, the restaurant’s supplier of Cascade Natural Beef.
Every food item is served in a brown paper bag, which makes you feel like you should take your food to go. Should you? Owners Micah Camden and Katie Poppe hope so. Or at least they want you to eat quickly and leave.
That’s because Little Big Burger’s owners, business partners who are engaged to marry in August, unabashedly admit they’re selling fast food, a strangely shocking admission in Portland’s restaurant community.
In a town where organics, local-food sourcing, farm dinners, nose-to-tail butchering and chef/owners drive the popularity of many restaurants, those establishments frequently struggle to garner reliable profits. Not Little Big Burger.
Without a doubt, Camden, 33, and Poppe, 32, have inspired industry envy. “I feel like Charlie in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Camden says. “I’ve got the golden ticket. I’m just waving it around.”
While a glut of burger joints have popped up in Oregon in the past few years, only Little Big Burger was founded by Camden, a provocative personality who made a name for himself by opening four small-footprint restaurants in North Portland within just three years. While Poppe is the quieter, lesser-known partner, she’s proven invaluable for execution and follow-through.
Still, to most people, these are Camden’s joints.
“The kid really thought through everything in a tactical way and called Portland’s bluff,” says Kurt Huffman, owner of ChefStable Group, a Portland investment firm that develops and funds local restaurants. “It’s super smart in a way most Portland restaurateurs would have been ashamed to do.”
For example, the Little Big Burger model doesn’t go to the lengths of Foster Burger, a ChefStable restaurant, which serves hand-cut fries, as well as house-made pickles and brioche buns. “We have all these high and mighty elitist ideas about what Portlanders want, but at the end of the day, people just want a good burger that tastes like the burger they want,” Huffman says. “In the food industry, we tend to get caught up in our own ambitions instead of making food the way people want it to be made.”
It’s not that Camden and Poppe have entirely eschewed the Portland ethos. “What we do has Portland flair,” says Camden, who speaks in rapid-fire sentences that make him seem as brash as he is captivating. “You have to use great ingredients in this town.” For example, Little Big Burger serves locally made buns that do not contain corn syrup; fries made from Yukon Gold potatoes; and ketchup from Camden’s own recipe. Everything is served in compostable goods.