Homegrown Houston Burger Chain Says Goodbye — At Least For Now
It’s hard to believe that’s it’s been nearly a decade since a yellow school bus began appearing in the parking lot of Houston coffee shops to serve The Principal — a classic burger with cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, onions, pickles, lettuce and garlic tomatoes. From that small but impressive beginning, Bernie’s Burger Bus and its chef and owner Justin Turner not only earned high acclaim for his quality burgers but also started growing his business, adding more custom-outfitted buses and eventually opening this first brick-and-mortar in Bellaire. Over the past few years, Turner added three more locations in Missouri City, the Heights and Katy, and it looked as if we would be expanding to more Houston neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis that shut down dining rooms across the nation appears to have been more than Turner’s company could bear. Bernie’s Burger Bus is unfortunately closing.
Turner had already temporarily closed all but one location during the stay-at-home order. So, anyone who wants a final taste of school-themed burgers such as The Substitute or Detention, or a one last thick and creamy milkshake, will have to head to the original location at 5407 Bellaire. Sunday, May 31 is the final day of service. The remaining hours are Thursday, May 28 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, May 29 and Saturday, May 30 from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 31 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Direct delivery and curbside pickup is also available via online ordering.
Turner cites not only the COVID-19 situation but also “razor-thin profit margins, food delivery fees and rising meat prices” as other factors in the closing, saying:
“It is with a heavy heart that I have to communicate this, but with accumulating debt, decreased sales, and the rising cost of doing business, we were starting to move into the danger zone. I was not going to be able to afford the remaining 10 of 114 staff I had left, and paying my team was more important to me than anything else.”
Regarding those delivery fees: Turner was one of the first owners in the Houston area to publicly speak out on how restaurants could not afford fees that range from 15% to 30% — especially with dining rooms shutdown.
Did Bernie’s Burger Bus ultimately expand too fast? That seems to be another factor, as Turner says the construction of the most recent location in Missouri City depleted working capital. “It was a big mistake to use working capital for our build-out,” says Turner. “If we’d taken out a loan and kept that money in the bank, we could have survived. Working capital can and does make the difference between who will survive times like this and who won’t—Bernie’s Burger Bus is proof of that.”
However, upon opening, the Missouri City location was immediately embraced by diners, who gathered in long lines for their new neighborhood burger joint. Until public news of COVID-19 started coming in from overseas early this year, no one could have predicted the financial hardships the coronavirus pandemic would have on the entire restaurant and bar industry.
For now, Turner says he’s going to spend some time with his family and “rest and recalibrate.”
And then, we shall see, but it seems likely that Turner will be back with either a new venture, or his burger concept in some new incarnation. Turner has recorded a video farewell message and posted it on the restaurant’s main Facebook page.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.