Fat Cow Burgers and Salads is fast becoming a Baton Rouge institution just over three months after its grand opening, but its genesis came with a simple challenge undertaken by owner and chef Doug Hosford and his wife.
“It started with us asking, ‘Could we make a good burger?’” Hosford said.
Hosford, 34, has worked in the food industry for 19 years, mostly as a fine dining chef. That experience includes the proprietorship of a catering company, High Cotton, for the last seven years, as well as a position as a chef at a resort hotel in St. Simon’s Island, Ga.
His wife works as a food photographer and they have jointly done work for food magazines and cookbooks, but this was the Hosfords’ first venture involving the humble hamburger.
“Burgers are a lightning-rod issue,” Hosford said. “You always get compared to the best burger a person has ever had in their life.”
But as difficult as it can be to satisfy a burger enthusiast, Hosford’s business has taken off beyond even his own expectations. He said the restaurant saw the volume of customers in the first week that he expected to see after three months. As a result, Hosford is already considering expanding Fat Cow to at least one additional location in Baton Rouge.
The idea phase for what would become Fat Cow Burgers and Salads began in 2009, but Hosford didn’t decide on turning the brand into a restaurant until 2010. The success of a Fat Cow booth at a food show Natchez, Miss, Hosford’s hometown, exposed the name to the public for the first time.
Though advertising was minimal, Hosford did place the restaurant’s unconventional logo in 225 Magazine a few months before the grand opening. Otherwise, social media, word of mouth and a large sign outside the restaurant served as Fat Cow’s only advertising.
The space where Fat Cow is located previously belonged to Dino’s Pizza, which closed in late 2008. Due to rent and utility costs, Hosford only took 2500 square feet of an available 6000 for the restaurant and its outdoor dining area. Until Fat Cow occupied the space, it was vacant since Dino’s closed.
While conducting market research with co-owner Barrett Nobile, Hosford saw how fine dining restaurants had struggled during the economic downturn and saw a burger joint as a more viable venture.
Though he considered the North Gate area near campus as a location early in the process, the area’s parking woes turned him toward South Gate, specifically in a shopping center on Highland Road that also contains a newly-constructed Pizza Hut and the Drunken Fish.
As with most small businesses, Hosford worked intensely in the months leading up to Fat Cow’s first burger. He said he worked 70 straight days of double shifts leading up to the restaurant’s grand opening, which occurred on Aug. 11. Hosford and the staff actually built the tables and light fixtures that adorn the restaurant in the weeks leading up to its unveiling.
Hosford sees the area surrounding LSU’s campus as underserved by restaurants. Despite the large concentration of fast food restaurants, students suffer from a lack of options Hosford did not perceive in Starkville, where he attended Mississippi State University.
“We may look like a fast food restaurant, but we cook your burger,” Hosford said.
The Meat of the Matter
As for what makes Fat Cow different from almost all other burger restaurants, it has to be their treatment of the most important ingredient in any burger – the meat.
Meat is bought in cuts, seasoned and ground on site in Fat Cow’s kitchen. It is left to sit for 24 hours before employees, and often times Hosford himself, form the meat into patties for burgers.
Hosford insists the meat Fat Cow buys has not been frozen, as freezing the meat tends to make it tough and sticky even when unfrozen. Giving the meat time to sit after grinding it ensures that it is not “overworked” as Hosford calls it, allowing it to cook more evenly and consistently.
As for secret ingredients or mixes, the only proprietary blend Hosford won’t reveal is the actual amount of what meat cuts go into a patty.
“There’s no secrets here,” Hosford said. “There’s nothing to hide.”
Because of Hosford’s culinary experience, there are several exotic varieties of burger on the menu that are not likely to be found at other burger restaurants. His personal favorite is the Napa Burger, which includes the unconventional ingredients such as goat cheese and pear.
However, the “crowd pleasers”, according to Hosford, are the 120 Burger and the Smokestack Burger. Fat Cow also offers French fries that are blanched and then fried and topped with parmesan cheese and tossed in duck fat. They even offer a Muffaletta Burger, which is topped with ham and olive salad.
Fat Cow also boasts the Who Dat Burger Challenge: if a brave customer thinks they can eat the triple bacon cheeseburger in less than 20 minutes, they will be inducted into the Fat Cow Hall of Fame and receive a free Fat Cow t-shirt. The quickest finisher as of yet took five minutes and five seconds, a time Hosford marvels at.
“No one has come close to that yet,” Hosford said.
The restaurant embraces a modern look, and contains three 50-plus inch Samsung high definition televisions. Hosford said he does regret hurrying the placement of some things in the restaurant a few weeks before the grand opening, but he is satisfied with the layout overall.
The registers are operated with iPads, which make changing and keeping track of orders easier and cheaper.
The soundtrack of the restaurant is old style blues music supplied by commercial-free Muzak. Though it may seem at odds with the look of the restaurant, Hosford said he chose the music because it is offensive to very few people. He also played a similar soundtrack at the location of his catering company.
“Someone who is 20 likes it, but so does someone who is 80,” Hosford said. “I had a dishwasher ask me what radio station it was because he liked it so much.”
Walker Hosford, Doug’s 8-year-old son, wanders about the restaurant in an apron and fills the position of “head dishwasher” at his father’s restaurant.
What Do The People Think?
Hugh and Kitty McMillin heard about Fat Cow from their daughter’s family and were trying it for the first time Monday afternoon. Hugh is a fan of a traditional hamburger with no cheese or other ingredients, while Kitty enjoys a cheeseburger.
“Hat’s off to the chef,” Mr. McMillin said of his meal.
He also praised the bun, saying it complemented the meat well. Mrs. McMillin said she wants to bring her family to Fat Cow during the Thanksgiving week. The McMillin’s live within shouting distance of Fat Cow near the LSU lakes.
Ashley Kikendall, 26, has worked as a cashier at Fat Cow for three weeks. She has worked in the food industry for 10 years and still works as a waitress at Rotolo’s.
“It’s a fairly easy-going work environment,” Kikendall said.
Kikendall’s favorite burger is the Napa Burger with Portobello mushrooms, and she estimates that she eats at Fat Cow once a week.
Richard and Sheila Atwood, who are from Ferriday, La, brought Sheila’s sister Lou and her husband John to Fat Cow for the first time Monday. The Jordans live in Madison, Miss.
Though was only their second visit, the Atwoods consider Fat Cow “the place to go” for lunch in Baton Rouge.
“I’d love to have one in Jackson,” Mr. Jordan said.