How do you go from a couple of service industry buddies starting a restaurant together to a budding burger empire? A novel concept, solid community roots, and good ingredients, and of course a helping of kismet.
Ryan Viator, who was a server at Boitson’s in Uptown Kingston for five years, met his friend and later business partner Sean Weeks through his wife, when both of them worked at Miss Lucy’s Kitchen in Saugerties. Both service industry veterans, the Viator and Weeks had toyed around with the idea of opening a full-service sit-down restaurant for ages before actually starting to look at the end of 2015. “We just couldn’t find the right location for it. We tried a couple of spots but it never seemed to work out for us,” Viator says. Through their community they heard about a small spot for rent on Rhinebeck’s alley-like Garden Street. “We knew it was too small for what we wanted to do originally, so we sat and thought about what we could do in this space,” Viator says. A family brainstorm led to the idea of a fast, casual burger joint with wholesome ingredients.
“At the time, I was living in Rhinebeck, and anytime you wanted to grab dinner, you had to do a sit-down thing. There was nothing quick and easy,” Viator says. “Having kids that play sports, trying to get them home and grab something quick after practice or a game was difficult. Rhinebeck doesn’t allow quick-serve, national fast food chains, so we kind of designed a quick-serve option that the town didn’t really have.”
The two handy partners did almost the entire build-out themselves on a shoestring budget and opened to the public April 2016. The public fanfare was almost immediate. “We hit the right space at the right time, and offered the town something it didn't have, ” Viator says. The partners were there boots on the ground every day serving up their trademark beef and lamb burgers, chicken sandwiches, fries, and milkshakes.
Just over a year later, Viator and Weeks took another leap, opening at a second location on Route 212 outside of Village of Saugerties. “We took a gamble on that one,” Viator admits. “It was probably a little earlier than we should’ve expanded. We didn’t see all of the benefits that we had in Rhinebeck—the main thing being foot traffic—and it didn’t take off right away.” For the first year, the Rhinebeck location carried its partner across the river. But not all was lost, as Saugerties provided a valuable business lesson.
It was there that the partners discovered the ineffable power of the lunch combo. “We knew there was a blue-collar working community there,” Viator says. “We were seeing these guys slowly trickle in. But our price points are a little bit higher. They have to be. They’d come in and you’d see them just looking at numbers. So we said, ‘What can we do to create something that will catch on?’ We built the lunch combo to fit that community, and that really is what saved that location.” For $9.95 or $10.95 depending on the type of burger, you can get a burger, fries, and a drink. The combo led to a consistent lunch crowd in Saugerties, so they brought the special to Rhienbeck.
The Idea Catches On
The duo didn’t rest on their laurels for long. In late 2019, a local realtor let them know that Dominick Vanacore was looking to close Dream Weaver Cafe and lease his prime storefront on the corner of Wall and North Front streets in Kingston.
“It’s such a great location,” Viator says. “We thought to ourselves, ‘What do we have to do to make this work, because the potential here is vast.’ I worked Uptown for five years—you can see when a town is changing, and obviously the New York City factor is big there. We just knew now was the time to get in if we could.” So even though they hadn’t been actively looking to expand, their budding empire grew again and in July they opened (post COVID-induced delay).
A big draw? It’s possible to fill up for under $12—an increasingly rare feat. Like the other two locations, the Stockade District outpost of Buns Burgers serves up a quarter-pound classic beef burger (single or double, $6.75 and $9.75 respectively), a lamb burger ($9/$12), a veggie stacker with portobello an avocado-bean spread and other fixings ($6.75) and two types of birdgers (chicken sandwiches). Fries and salad round out the simple menu, with milkshakes, Real Cane sodas, beer, and wine on the drinks list.
Buns is doing its best to source ingredients from within a 200-mile radius. The beef is from New York State family-run Kilcoyne Farms, the chicken comes from Murray’s in Pennsylvania, the dairy is from Boice Bros. and Adirondack Creamery. And in the summer months produce like tomatoes and lettuce come from area farms.
While a local chain was never the idea from the start, Weeks and Viator are not entirety opposed to the idea of continuing to grow, though they want to do so sustainable and keep the intimate, personable upstate charm. “I rarely go through a whole day without someone saying, ‘I wish you would open one of these in my town.’ People contact us to ask if we’re interested in franchising,” Viator says. “We want to pump the brakes a bit. We like that it’s a local Hudson Valley thing. It would be very easy to try and do a franchise model, but we would lose the thing that makes it what it is—a small-town, hometown business.” They like to say they are “always looking, never ready.”
In the meantime, they are focusing on building out their business infrastructure, management team, and incentives program (they have over 20 employees). “We’ve had really great retention so far,” Viator says. “We have a lot of people that have been with us since the beginning. We’ve always told them we want them to grow with us and develop with us. Our thinking is: Let’s be in it and do it all together. Let’s make it a family business.”
32 N. Front Street Kingston, NY 12401