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Restaurants
New Key Peninsula restaurant fills niche

Travis Hightower, owner of The Gourmet Burger ShopTravis Hightower has prepared all sorts of food during his 10-year career as a head chef, but it’s the good old all-American hamburger that’s been earning praises lately from his patrons. Hightower, a Key Peninsula resident of seven years, opened The Gourmet Burger Shop off State Route 302 in March, and the business had instant clientele.

Just a week into the opening, he realized his plan of running the restaurant with the help of just one person wouldn’t work and he had to hire two more employees. The restaurant, located in a high-traffic area off the highway, fills a niche — the closest diners are about 4 to 9 miles in each direction. But, according to customers, it’s the food that has helped the new eatery build a customer base.

“We’ve had good response so far from repeat customers, including one customer who came back the same day, and many are coming three to four days a week,” Hightower said.

The secret is in the freshly made burgers with an interesting “angle”: The menu includes burgers such as a Braised Onion (with beer-braised onions and horseradish Havarti) and Mushroom Swiss (with braised mushrooms, Swiss cheese and truffled aioli) and sides like Hightower’s beet chips. Even the buns are different: They’re brioche style, custom made by the 3 Clouds Bakery across the street.

Hightower shopped a couple of area restaurants before setting his price at $8.50, which includes a side. “Gourmet implies something done as good as it can be done. It means high quality, it doesn’t mean expensive,” he said.

Because of the septic tank size and permitting, the “shop” is take-out style, with some limited seating available. But while he can’t grow in physical size, Hightower does have plans for growing his business. In the summer time, he hopes to offer outdoor barbecue, and in the future will be developing a catering side.

He’ll likely grow the same way he started — slowly. The reason the burger menu is limited, for example, is so he can keep overhead small as he’s building the business. Even so, he’s been offering specials and posting them on Facebook, and he plans to add salads during the summer and soups when the weather cools off.

“Being too busy would not be too good because we have a small grill,” he said.

Hightower started in the restaurant industry more than 20 years ago after going to culinary school at Bates College. He became the head chef at a private club when he was in his early 20s and since then has learned to prepare fine food as well as work in a fast-paced environment that frequently saw large crowds.

As much as he loved his job, the fast pace took a toll after a while and Hightower wanted a way to spend more time with his 5-year-old son. So last year, with his job gone, he decided to take the plunge; after more than eight months of permitting, he opened doors to his own venture.

He didn’t know whether he would open a deli or a burger place until the last minute, so he developed two menus to be ready either way. The burger shop won, in part, because he could keep lower inventory as he got rolling — to finance the business, Hightower used mostly his own savings and some funding from family.

“It was hard to walk away from a job… but it was my chance to do it,” he said. “I really didn’t want to get out to get another job.”

He said being his own boss has been the best part so far, even as he’s learning the various facets of owning a business, including taxes and accounting. He’s already been able to leave some of the cooking to others so he could take some time off with his son. And once he fine-tunes his system, he said he’ll be ready for the next step.

“I wanted to be on my own and more in control,” he said. “It’s been nice to see that people are appreciative (of the food).”

 
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