Scott Slater started his restaurant business in 2009 with a simple premise: He wanted to enjoy premium burgers and craft beer in the same venue, which was uncommon six years ago. The young entrepreneur launched Slater’s 50/50 in Anaheim Hills, California, with a custom-blended burger and a roster of regional craft beers. From its modest start, the company has expanded to seven locations in greater Orange and Los Angeles counties, and Slater has plans to take the brand nationwide. He’s been a true pioneer for the better burger restaurant concept and the upscale but approachable craft beer bar.
Slater has succeeded in part because his restaurants provide a custom dining experience by allowing guests to choose the meats, toppings, sauces and breads for their burgers and give each creation a personalized name. The unique menu, along with more than 100 draft beers in some locations, has made Slater’s 50/50 a destination. The company’s annual revenues average $36 million, and beverage alcohol comprises 30 percent of sales. Beer accounts for 95 percent of the drinks segment, or more than $10 million annually.
“These days, for post-recession restaurants, being genuine is really important,” Slater says. “Allowing guests to take ownership of their restaurant experience creates a personal connection.” He adds that craft beer was very small in 2009. “When we opened, we were one of only three craft beer bars in Orange County,” Slater notes. “I was nervous about being able to sell craft beer, but I invested in it and grew our draft selection, which set us apart. Now we own that segment.
Slater’s 50/50 gets its name from its custom burger blends. The concept’s signature patty is made with 50-percent ground beef and 50-percent ground bacon, and guests can also craft their own burgers and blends from a list of choices that includes grilled chicken, Portobello mushroom, turkey and carne asada. From there, consumers can add myriad toppings, from 12 different cheeses to onions, sauerkraut and roasted peppers. Adventurous eaters can select extras like anchovies, alligator sausage and pickled beets. In all, Slater’s 50/50 offers more than 40 toppings, as well as 18 sauces and a variety of breads, including brioche, sourdough and bacon pretzel.
In addition to the personalized menu, Slater’s 50/50 features a variety of signature specialty burgers ($10 to $12). The original 50/50 is topped with pepper jack cheese, a sunny-side-up egg, avocado mash and chipotle adobo mayo, served on a brioche bun. Other standouts include the B’B’B’ Bacon, made with bacon-enhanced American cheese, a sunny-side-up egg, bacon slices, and bacon island dressing and served on a bacon pretzel roll, and the Peanut Butter & Jellousy, featuring a Brandt beef patty, peanut butter, strawberry jelly and bacon on a honey wheat bun.
Slater’s 50/50 offers a specialty burger of the month as well. The concept recently boasted a Foie Gras Burger to celebrate the lifting of California’s foie gras ban, topping a Brandt beef patty with foie gras, onion marmalade, white cheddar, onion strings, mustard and arugula and serving it on a brioche bun. The chain also brought back its popular Pizza Burger, comprising ground beef and ground Italian sausage, roasted red pepper, garlic marinara sauce and fried mozzarella sticks on toasted garlic aioli brioche bread.
“The burger of the month is pretty outrageous,” Slater says, adding that the menu has remained consistent since the company’s founding. “Other than some small tweaks, we’ve maintained our cutting-edge image by keeping up with trends around the country. We’ve branded ourselves as burgers, bacon and beer.”
The Slater’s 50/50 menu also features appetizers, wings, salads, mac and cheese, and other types of sandwiches. The concept’s starters ($7 to $10) include beer cheese fries, shaved Brussels sprouts and the signature Slater’s Vampire Dip, a blend of melted cheese, roasted garlic and artichoke, served in a sourdough bowl with fried pita chips. Other entrées range from fried chicken and pancakes to turkey leg French dip and Pittsburgh pastrami sandwiches ($8 to $12).
The first Slater’s 50/50 opened in Anaheim Hills, California, in 2009 with just eight beer taps, offering Coors Light and seven different craft brews. Since then, the flagship location has expanded to 30 draft lines, and newer units in Pasadena and Rancho Cucamonga have more than 100. In all, the concept boasts 600 tap lines across seven locations, and last year it served 1,200 different brews companywide. “We’re the first restaurant in history to serve more than 1,000 beers in a year,” Slater says. “We’re very proud of that achievement. Craft beer is big, and we’re always first in line to try new offerings.”
Slater’s 50/50 has so much flexibility on its beer menu because there’s no corporate mandated brew list. Every restaurant has its own unique draft roster and focuses on local labels. The company’s beer expert and buyer, Mark Schultz, holds the title of beer monger and has Cicerone certification. In addition, all of the Slater’s 50/50 waitstaff, bar backs and bartenders go through the Cicerone program’s certified beer server course to learn about different styles and flavor profiles, as well as proper techniques for pouring, storing and selling. “Our staff understands what’s on tap,” Schultz says. “They can lead guests through our massive beer menu and recommend styles based on what people ask for.”
Slater notes that putting such a heavy commitment on beer knowledge for his entire staff adds legitimacy to the concept. “We hire passionate beer people to overcome the stigma often associated with beer snobs,” he says. Quality is also paramount, and the restaurants clean their draft lines between every keg change. “We take extra steps to ensure that every beer we put out is as fresh as possible,” Schultz explains. “We never keep kegs warm—we always store them cold. Our guests are confident they’re getting a superior product.”
The company’s commitment to beer gives its restaurants access to special offerings that often can’t be found anywhere else. The venues get rare and limited-release brews, anniversary labels, barrel-aged offerings and collaboration projects. “Even if there’s only one keg leaving the brewery, we can get it,” Schultz says. “Beer is a huge part of the culture at Slater’s 50/50, and our options are almost limitless now. We offer some of the macros and aim to have something from every category.”
IPAs are moving fast these days at Slater’s 50/50, and Schultz says double and triple IPAs are also very popular, as are brews aged in Bourbon and red wine barrels. The flagship Anaheim restaurant offers such draft pours as AleSmith IPA, Bottle Logic Heliosphere and Green Flash Double stout, all made nearby. Mainstream brews like Bud Light, Coors Light, Guinness and Stella Artois are also served. The San Diego unit, which boasts 110 taps, stocks rarities like Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk stout, Bootlegger’s The Full Pint 6th Anniversary ale and Three Weavers Knotty double IPA, alongside brews by more well-known craft producers like Abita, Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada and Stone. Chainwide, beer generally ranges from $6 to $15 a draft pour.
“As we’ve grown, our focus on beer has grown,” Schultz says. “The beer world is at an interesting point now because there are so many offerings out there. Consumers are willing to experiment, and price is not much of an issue.” To encourage more sampling at its restaurants, Slater’s 50/50 is launching a beer club this summer that will allow guests to track what they drink and earn points toward prizes.
Just as Slater’s 50/50 aims to have a beer for every type of drinker, the restaurant also offers a varied cocktail list and a handful of wines for consumers who prefer those categories. The concept’s signature drinks ($9 to $10) include a Bacon Mary, made with bacon-infused Three Olives vodka, Bloody Mary mix and bacon salt and garnished with a slice of bacon, and the Bacon Old Fashioned, comprising bacon-infused Basil Hayden’s Bourbon, Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel–Aged bitters, maple syrup and orange zest. The base spirits in both cocktails undergo a fat-washing technique.
The chain, which changes its specialty cocktail menu annually, is focusing on Mule-style drinks for 2015. The drinks list features 10 Mule variations ($9), including a traditional Moscow Mule that’s made with Three Olives vodka, Fee Brothers Grapefruit bitters, Fever-Tree ginger beer and lime, as well as iterations that use Tequila, Bourbon, gin, rum, Irish whiskey and flavored vodkas. Slater’s 50/50 also offers nine wines ($7 to $9 a glass; $22 to $29 a 750-ml. bottle): Barefoot Bubbly, William Hill Chardonnay, Bridlewood Pinot Noir, Carnivor Cabernet Sauvignon, and Canyon Road Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The restaurants have a Middle American atmosphere, with an upscale sports bar vibe. But the physical look of each venue is intentionally different. “We take over shuttered restaurant spaces and turn them into a Slater’s 50/50,” Slater says. “We’ll find an eyesore and transform it into a gathering spot, so each location has its own look and feel. We want to continue that strategy so each restaurant feels more like a one-off than part of a chain.”
That said, Slater has big plans for his small concept. “When we first opened, I wasn’t thinking too much beyond the initial place,” he says. “I designed the menu and the logo and I was conscious of making everything replicable so that if it was successful we had branding, but I didn’t think of units. But we’re opening our eighth Slater’s 50/50 this year, and I want to get to 800. Nationwide is the goal.”
Slater says he’s looked at several states, but hasn’t yet decided where his first move out of California will be. He has plans to open restaurants in the Golden State both this year and next, and he anticipates branching out further in 2017. His combination of upscale burgers and beer in a refined sports bar atmosphere has the potential to succeed in many markets. “We’ve put all three of those items together—burgers, beer and sports bar—in a way that they don’t impede on each other,” Slater says. “Our guests truly design their own experience. Pioneer is a good word for us.”