Burgers Star at Charbar
Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: Photography by Anne
These are heady times for the once-humble hamburger, America’s iconic contribution to casual cuisine that is, today, trending as gourmet fare with upscale concepts taking hold across the country. Count Hilton Head Island’s Charbar Company as being in the thick of an expanding build-a-better-burger movement, blending premium meats with modern technology and musical nostalgia as part of an immersive homage to the joys of freshly-ground beef and toppings nestled in a bun.
“There’s been a lot of growth and innovation in the high-quality burger industry, and it’s now a billion dollar category of the market,” said Charbar CEO Nick Bergelt, an island native and 2007 business school graduate of the University of South Carolina who returned home after selling his interest in an organic Asian fusion restaurant on King Street in Charleston. “We saw a great opportunity here to do something fresh and different that’s a far cry from fast food and steps above the Five Guys of the world by creating a warm space where people don’t feel like they are eating in a fast food place,” Bergelt said. “We’re trying to combine the best of all worlds.”
No shortage of market and culinary research went into the well-planned arrival of the Charbar, which opened last September in a revamped indoor/outdoor space seating about 100 in Park Plaza shopping center, focusing first on impressing the crucial locals market. The strategy paid off quickly when Charbar’s burgers captured first place at a fall “Burgers & Brew Festival” with other local reader-driven awards from magazines and newspapers not far behind.
“There’s been some science involved in that; from the outset, we wanted to be efficient, keep the menu simple and try to do a few things very well while bringing in a top-echelon of ingredients,” said Bergelt, whose market research included sampling burgers fetching as much as $22 each in fine-dining establishments. “Believe me, they’re no better than ours,” he added with a smile, stressing palatable pricing (about $10) as pivotal to an upscale yet casual concept that could prove suitable for future franchising.
“Everything we do is from scratch; all of our sauces, our breads are baked daily, and every morning we fresh grind our proprietary blend of three different meats (filet included), so if someone wants a rare burger, they can order one without concern,” he said, crediting executive chef Charles Pejeau for updating the basic burger into something new and exciting. Daily chalkboard specials, including a Southern-styled pimento cheese burger and Cajun fries join menu staples such as the aptly named “Champ” that thrilled local devotees and a “Build-Your-Own” option that allows imaginations to run wild with a roster of cheeses, extra fixings and choice of pretzel, focaccia and sourdough rolls. Entrées, which include a chicken BLT and portabella mushroom sandwich, are served with side selections such onion rings, sweet potato tots and hand-cut or rosemary-truffle fries.
Simple placemat menus also feature a trio of salads plus starters ranging from creamy French onion dip to buttermilk chicken wings. Technology enters the Charbar mix with prototype computer tablets on every table that provide sneak peeks at what’s coming out of the kitchen plus games for kids, couples and solos while awaiting entrées. “Someday people will be able to order and pay on digital menus,” Bergelt said, “but right now we’re using them more as tools for better service and because they can do some cool stuff. They help create personal connections, and we want to provide stimuli for people from the moment they walk in the door.”
A contemporary flair continues at a central bar where Charbar mixologists serve up a selection of craft beers and artisan wines, many with area origins. Specialty cocktails (from $6) include a bacon bloody Mary and frozen screwdriver, and even root beer floats and double chocolate milkshakes can be ordered spiked with vanilla vodka. Happy hours run daily from 4 to 7 p.m.
“Music is that harmonious piece that blends it all together for us,” Bergelt said, explaining décor that features record album art and black vinyl discs fixed to interior wood-paneled walls. A varied soundtrack geared for ears of all ages plays in the background, and vintage radios from the 1930s are displayed in a cozy waiting nook. “Our whole concept revolves around music and American culture, and it helps create a welcoming environment for everyone.”
Local musicians perform outdoors nightly (6 to 9 p.m.) on a torch-lighted patio that features a satellite bar as the Charbar continues its effort to become a community focal point for both locals and visitors as it enters its first summer of operation. Likewise, locally grown foods are purchased from area purveyors as part of an ongoing effort to highlight the best of the Lowcountry.
“We want this to be a complete sensory experience that starts with the food but absorbs people on every level,” Bergelt noted, downplaying for now the potential to take the Charbar concept national via franchising one day. “We’ve been getting a lot of recognition thanks to our locals, and we’re seeing the business grow. But we’re still very new, and right now we’re just focusing on getting better every day.”
Charbar Co. is located at 33 Office Park Rd., Hilton Head Island and is open daily
11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. For more information, call (843) 785-CHAR or visit