Burgers are the ultimate comfort food for many people, including Mike Puma, who founded the Gotham Burger Social Club in 2013. The concept is simple where a group of burger lovers visit New York in search of the best burger. Almost a decade later, Puma ended his 28-year career on Wall Street to open his own burger shop after successfully building a cult following obsessed with his awesome burgers.
I'll be the first to admit I'm addicted to the next one because I'm a huge fan of these super juicy and crunchy burgers. The first time I had a chance to try one of Puma's famous Gotham Smash burgers (Oklahoma-style fried onion burger with American cheese and onions fried to perfection) was at the 2020 South Beach Wine and Food Festival, right before the pandemic started. Which basically set the standard for every burger I've had since.
Over the past year, Puma has had pop-up after pop-up, with lines enveloping entire blocks, and burger devourers saying it's sometimes worth the 3-hour wait. He reached a turning point where he became less interested in visiting the office where he had been a financial advisor every day for nearly three decades.
“I wasn't that happy. My money customers weren't as excited as the people I gave my burgers to.” “There was a huge difference between being happy because someone is eating my burger for less than $10 and making money from someone on Wall Street, you know, the reaction when I work with clients has never been the same when someone loves the food. The joy and the fact that People's faces are beaming. He's never been so close."
After seeing Puma announce on Instagram (where it has nearly 200,000 followers) that it's coming out of the corporate world and a running burger factory, I knew I had to scramble to get the details.
We chatted about how it all began, the decision to make Burger a full-time business, and what to expect at that first restaurant. Here's how it went:
Amber Love Bond: I've known you for so long I honestly forgot you still had a business job!
Mike Puma: Yes! In October, it was 10 years since I started the Gotham Burger Social Club while working as a financial advisor. There was no "impact" element at the time, I was just doing it for sheer fun and enjoyment. We never thought people would follow what we do. In 2013, terms like influencer didn't exist yet. We only post what we did. If you had told me then we were going to do this interview now? I would like to tell you that this will not happen.
ALB: How did GBSC get started?
MP: I wanted to find the best burger in New York, and one night I posted on Facebook and asked, Who's going on a burger tour? It was a fun way to get my friends together once a month and the response was immediate. Everyone wanted to do it. When we first met we were about 16 or 17 I think and I thought it would be great but in a few months there will probably be two people drinking beer and burgers who will never be produced. It has only grown, as has our social existence, opening up other opportunities.
For most of the early years it was just a group meeting once a month and writing a burger review. But as our audience and presence grew, so did opportunities, and one came from an animal rescue called Social Tees. They reached out and thought it would be fun if we did a burger event together, with the proceeds going to benefit the animals. And I thought it was great! Let's do it! I've always loved Oklahoma-style burgers, so this was an early version of the burger I make now, and it really was the start of who I am today. This led to more ways to cook for people – all fundraisers at the time.
ALB: So the momentum is building!
MP: Yes, and then the epidemic came. But right before that we did Pig 555, which was an aha moment because we had a crazy lineup in that room with all these super chefs. We did something right! Then, around June 2020, bars and restaurants started reaching out to pop-up partners to help them keep their doors open. Some of the locations were on the Lower East Side so I could leave the grill inside (since there is no indoor dining area) and take it outside if needed.
At first I was very limited in what I could do. I didn't have a truck or anything! I relied on UberXL to load my stuff up and get to the grill. Sometimes they saw the grill disassembled and scrapped and I had to find another grill but we made it work. We did three events a week and brought life (responsibly) to New York, which was definitely a dead city back then. We will create these little pockets of life and joy.
People waited 3 hours to get a burger and I was so afraid they would get upset but 99.9% said they would do it again and it was worth it. So we got to the point where we added another grill and more people behind it. We tried to create an atmosphere with music and some excitement.
AL: I love it! You really made these burger lovers happy!
M: Yes! It was nice but I have been practicing both professions for about 2.5 years. You finally realize what you really love to do. A popup requires a lot of work, a lot of coordination, and a lot of hard work. But if we were cooking at minus 25 or 100 on a hot grill, I wouldn't do it any differently. It was so much fun. So, the next step was where to go with this?
ALB: Time to go to the restaurant!
MP: I considered doing both (both jobs) but decided not to in the end. Fundraising and everything together very easily. Now I have a lot of questions about "Are you going to cook?" Would you run in front of the house would you cross the room and say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I'll clean the bathrooms too." You have to work hard to be successful and lead by example. I know it's important to be there and to be the face of the brand because people are used to it and will look for it. We're excited to see where this will lead us.
ALB: Do you live in the Lower East Side neighborhood where you made your temporary home?
MP: The first location would be on the Lower East Side because it makes sense. The neighborhood has been very nice to us and we have a complete crowd. It just feels good. The second location will also be in New York and then we hope to expand outside of New York. I'd rather grow up than grow up too fast.
ALB: Let's talk about the menu! Of course Gotham Smash will be there, but what else can we expect?
MP: We'll keep it very narrow at first. So Gotham Smash is in singles, doubles and trios. We'll also be introducing a grass-fed version of Gotham Smash – it works great and gives people who don't eat beef the chance to get the same experience. We're making my own ode to a bodega classic but in taco form: shredded cheese. It's called the Harlem Taco, and it's a shredded cheese taco with tapatio cream and pickled jalapenos. When I make them sometimes I like them more than a burger! They are amazing!
Then we have sides like fried pickles, french fries, homemade onion rings, baked meatballs, and stuffed meatballs. It will be a set menu for launch, as well as beer and wine – with a full drinks bar due by the end of the year. Hot Dogs, Burger of the Month, and more may appear on the list in the future. It's always fun to try out different flavors and styles.
ALB: As someone who has fled the world, I can't tell you how excited I am for this new adventure for you! There is something very special about having a second job that you find through a passion that brings you so much joy.
MP: I've never seen myself leaving Wall Street, but this experience means a lot to me. People think it's a quick thing, like, "Oh, pandemic, you've been cooking for two years." No, I have been building this brand for over 10 years. I was always excited to see where that might take me, especially as a brand built on social media. I really wanted to see where it would go naturally. I didn't want to swim against the tide at all, but I was glad I could keep up with the tide. And that's what happened here. I got caught, a pandemic hit, restaurants caught fire. It took a long time, especially last year. When people take their first bites, I feel exhilaration unlike anything I feel when I'm sitting behind a computer screen in the office. Although the decision was not easy, it was very easy to make.
For those wondering if Gotham Smash will be back at Burger Bash in Miami and New York, it's on my radar and I can't wait. The Gotham Burger Social Club plans to open its first physical location this spring in New York City.