Meet Justin Turner, the Chef Building a Houston Burger Empire

Justin Turner of Bernie's Burger Bus

“You gotta feed the masses to eat with the classes.” That’s a favorite saying of Justin Turner of Bernie’s Burger Bus and he considers it valuable culinary and financial advice given to him by his first restaurant mentor, chef Miles McMath (currently of Junior’s Home Cooking in Mississippi). It’s the reason Turner, with years of fine dining experience and outlaw kitchen stories, chose to start his culinary empire with a schoolbus-turned-burger-truck instead of an upscale restaurant.

Several fortuitous strokes of fate brought Turner to the Bayou City, where he’s grown Bernie’s Burger Bus into four restaurants and is planning more. From coming up in the business among swashbucklers and ex-cons on work release, to working as a private chef for star athletes, then winning a competition on Food Network’s “Chopped” with no formal training, Turner has lived a life worth telling.

“I decided my first concept was going to be something I could scale; something that would feed a lot of people,” says the jovial, tattoo-covered chef from the bustling dining room of his newly opened Bernie’s Burger Bus in Missouri City. The rapid expansion has made Turner — or rather “Bernie,” as he’s often mistakenly called — a household name among Houston area burger lovers.

The Principal burger is one of the original offerings at Bernie’s Burger Bus. Photo by Ellie Sharp

The Chicago native came to Houston by way of Memphis thanks to a series of unlikely connections. For nine years, he was the personal chef of NBA basketball star Shane Battier. Despite having no background in health-conscious, athlete-appropriate cooking, Turner impressed the Memphis Grizzly while working at a French-inspired concept called Cafe Society. Years later, when Battier was traded to the Rockets, Turner followed in search of culinary opportunities in the Houston market. That was when he had the burger bus idea.

“This was supposed to be a side project,” admits Turner, who started Bernie’s Burger Bus with the intention of operating during Battier’s away game road trips and downtime. Instead, the business took off seemingly overnight: a life-changing moment the chef-owner credits to Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook. Cook’s “Burger Friday” column and subsequent review of Bernie’s took the truck from selling around 100 burgers a weekend to selling out daily.

“I sold out that first day after the article, went back to Lizard’s Pub on 2nd Street, sold out there. Woke up the next day at 4:30 to grind meat and make ketchup and mustard.” Turner maintains that the attention generated by that first review “changed my life.” Since then, Bernie’s Burger Bus has landed on nearly every local “best of” burger list. Looking back, the brand’s expansion into brick and mortar stores now seems inevitable.

Bernie’s famous Honor Roll Fries are topped with smoked brisket, cheese and BBQ sauce. Photo by Carlos Brandon

During Turner’s interview at the Missouri City location, at that point open for less than a week, at 5 p.m. on a Monday the drive-through line wrapped around the building. By 6 p.m., the line at the register stretched to the front door. Saying that Missouri City residents quickly embraced the new burger joint is an understatement.

Turner is quick to credit others for his success but undoubtedly much of that is owed to his application of fine dining standards to one of the most common of American meals: burgers and fries. With freshly ground beef, housemade condiments and gourmet ingredients like burgundy mushrooms and slow-roasted garlic tomatoes, Bernie’s burgers are the stuff of steakhouse menus, not fast food windows. It’s the dichotomy of quality and setting that took a food truck to a multi-store chain in less than 10 years.

Detention Burger at Bernie's
The Detention Burger at Bernie’s Burger Bus. Photo courtesy of Bernie’s Burger Bus

Still, it hasn’t been all roses and back-patting for Turner since striking burger gold with Bernie’s. Last year, a Department of Labor investigation turned up nearly $63,000 in unpaid overtime wages to 50 employees across the company’s three brick and mortar locations — wages the company has since paid. The chef chalks up the mistake to his inexperience as a business owner. “I attribute much of my early success to being great in the kitchen, but I was not a businessman. Our company grew fast and I wasn’t prepared for it,” says Turner.

He adds that anyone looking to own or open a restaurant would do well to learn all the rules and regulations laid out by the Department of Labor, or better yet, “bring on a business consultant, partner or mentor who has background expertise in that area.”

The Hot Cheeto Mac & Cheese Burger is available for a limited time on Bernie’s Field Trip Menu. Photo by Carlos Brandon

Despite that financial mistake, business is booming for Bernie’s, and the accolades keep rolling in. Following the opening of the Missouri City location, CultureMap Houston named Bernie’s their favorite Houston burger at the 2019 Tastemaker Awards.

Houstonians gravitate to Turner’s quirky, schoolyard-themed burgers and sides. The latest example is the Instagram-able behemoth off his limited-time “Field Trip” menu: the Flaming Hot Cheeto Mac & Cheese Burger. Two “buns” made of Hot Cheeto-crusted fried mac & cheese bookend a tower of beef patties, fried onions, cheese and housemade fire sauce. It’s a monster of a sandwich that is as gut-bustingly delicious as it looks.

For now, Turner’s goals are still the same: growing the brand, opening more locations and expanding on his burger menu with more creativity and more inspiration. Of course, there is an “after” in mind, and it has nothing to do with burgers.

“This is my stepping stone to recreating what I used to do at Shane’s house,” he says, referring to his time as a private chef. Ultimately, Turner wants to open an intimate restaurant with less than 20 seats. It would be American food but with omakase-style service. Turner would serve each diner personally while walking them through the creative process that resulted in the dishes before them.

“20 seats max,” he says, “It is intimate. You’re walking into a house. You get to meet the people you’re dining with, and you don’t know what the f**k you’re going to have”.

It’s an ambitious concept, one more in line with his unique set of skills than flipping burgers. But Houston foodies shouldn’t get too excited just yet. It’s a plan the 40-year old chef hopes to retire on, after passing on Bernie’s Burger Bus to his young son.

Until then, diners have to content themselves with burgers and fries as the vehicles for Turner’s culinary inspiration.

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