Quality ingredients and a limited menu define the LBB strategy.
// Photo by Matthew Ginn
When the first Little Big Burger opened in 2011, Micah Camden had already made a name for himself in Portland. Camden, a high school dropout from Salt Lake City, arrived in Portland in 2005 from Hawaii. He started working as a prep cook at P.F. Chang’s and eventually landed a job as chef at 750 ml, a now-defunct wine bar in the Pearl District.
Camden likes to talk about these types of triumphant events, such as when he explains how, at age 16, he told one of his high school teachers he was already trumping a teacher’s salary by running a yard-care business. It’s easy to imagine that, even back then, Camden spoke as though he had something to prove.
In Portland Camden stayed on as chef when 750 ml became a Cobras and Matadors restaurant (also defunct), where he met Dayna McErlean, who lives in the second level of a North Portland building she owns. McErlean says Camden implied he was the owner of the restaurant, so she mentioned how she hoped to develop the first-floor space of her building. Camden had ideas. “After 40 minutes in the space, he came up with the name and concept for Yakuza,” she remembers.
She provided all the capital for Yakuza, which opened in 2006, and Camden was part owner and chef. “He was the idea guy who put in a lot of sweat equity,” McErlean says. The sleek Japanese-inspired restaurant featured an award-winning burger.
During the next two years, Camden opened two more restaurants. McErlean loaned him the money to open Beast, a communal-table prix fixe restaurant next door to Yakuza, which Camden opened with chef Naomi Pomeroy (she bought Camden out entirely in November 2009 and has been the sole owner of the restaurant since). Then he and McErlean opened DOC, another small-footprint restaurant, this time with an Italian menu, located a block north of the other restaurants just off Killingsworth Street.
“There were plenty of times he worked without pay,” McErlean says. “He was committed to making the restaurants a success. But he wasn’t always up front, and at times it was difficult to be partners with him.”
When talking about his work history, Camden says he’s never worked for anyone else. “Except when you were learning to cook,” Poppe counters.
The restaurants received plenty of local and national press, with Camden as the face of the empire. “They were calling it Camden’s corner,” he says.
“We thought it was appropriate for him to be the face of the restaurants,” McErlean says. “But many people still don’t realize he hasn’t been involved in the restaurants for two years.”
In the summer of 2009, the height of the recession, Camden launched another restaurant in the compound: Fats, an English-style pub with a burger on the menu. He received $30,000 in startup funds from Portland investor Clint Elliott, the only investor Camden says he’s worked with during his restaurant career. Elliott eventually filed a lawsuit against Camden after the restaurant shuttered in the fall of 2010.
The lawsuit claimed that Camden neglected Fats and developed the Little Big Burger chain without Elliott, even after they’d been discussing opening a quick-service burger place together. Elliott says the case settled for $20,000 — $5,000 less than his attorney’s fees.
Camden describes the “Camden’s corner” period as a time of 90-hour workweeks devoid of the kind of profits he’d envisioned from restaurant ownership. “I was a cult of personality,” he says. “But the money wasn’t there.”
He says he got the idea for a “little big burger” during a street fair that celebrated Yakuza’s anniversary, for which he made free burger sliders.
In the summer of 2009, he approached Poppe at the bar at Yakuza; he was working, and she was a regular who lived in the neighborhood. They started dating and eventually decided to pool $80,000 to open the first Little Big Burger, sans investors. (The building’s landlord contributed $60,000 in tenant improvements.)
“I put all the savings I had left in the world into it, which was very nerve racking,” says Poppe, who has a bachelor of science in psychology from Portland State University, where she also pursued an MBA. Poppe was attending the Art Institute of Portland when she met Camden. “But it paid off because now I’m entirely debt free. We use the cash flow from one restaurant to build out the next.”