There’s nothing basic about Tru Burger

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Foothills Focus Executive Editor

Stuart Gee has literally spent his life in the restaurant business.

Growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, he split his days between school and his father’s Chinese restaurant. After college, he worked for Red Lobster, Macaroni Grill, Mimi’s and TGI Friday’s—all in management or executive positions.

When he bought Tru Burger, which at the time had stores in Peoria and Anthem, he went with his gut instinct.

“I did like the name. I liked the concept, but I thought it was a little undervalued,” Gee said.

“The past owner wasn’t really a restaurant person. Both stores were on negative sales trends, so I was able to get him at a good price. My whole world was in corporate at Macaroni Grill, Red Lobster, TGI Friday’s, things like that. I’ve been the turnaround guy.

“That’s why it appealed to me. They had a good product, but they started taking short cuts. I knew that there was a lot of low-hanging food to move the needle the right way.”

Since Gee bought Tru Burger in April 2017, the Anthem location has doubled in sales. He chalks it up to improved management and products.

“Since we’ve doubled our sales, there are a lot of loyal guests,” he said. “Internally, when we talk, we wonder how our ‘Tru Believers’ will feel about this rollout, that addition to the appetizers, these burgers. We stay way ahead of the curve.”

He doesn’t skimp on product, either, which helped bolster sales. Burgers start at $9.95.

“Our main burger that we use on all of our items is a half-pound black angus all-natural patty with no added hormones or antibiotics,” Gee said.

“If you’re going to have a burger, that’s about as healthy as you can get. We don’t do a basic cheeseburger. There are some people who say we’re a little expensive. We may be a little more expensive, but our food cost is about 5 points higher, simple because we invest in the food that’s going to give us the repeat business, the high scores and good value.”

And while the cost of beef has risen, Gee has kept his prices the same. Gee said his chefs will also cook burgers to a certain temperature—something a lot of other restaurants will not do. With black angus certified, there’s a lot less risk of illness, too.

“A very small number of cows make up that ground beef,” Gee said. “A thousand different animals are sometimes in other beef products. You never know where to look to find the problem.

“Fortunately, black angus has never had an issue. It’s safer for the consumer. You don’t get as much saturated fat, either. We’re proud to serve that burger. We do not and will not serve an inferior burger.”

Gee said the pandemic has been difficult and disappointing—especially when he had to switch to takeout only in March. He makes most of his money during the winter season, from January through the end of May. However, Anthem and the city of Phoenix helped keep the restaurant afloat.

“We did not hit the sales,” Gee said. “We did about 50% of what we would have done with takeout. We did that with a lot less people. We were able to make money through those times, which was very, very helpful. And with (Gov. Doug) Ducey allowing alcoholic beverages for takeout sales, it worked. There’s very low labor to serve drinks.”

For August, the Tru Burger staff revamped its drink menu, which features fresh-squeezed fruit.

“If you order lemon, lime or orange juice, all of it is freshly squeezed,” Gee said. “It takes more labor, but the drinks are significantly better than if you use canned frozen concentrate of anything.

“We want to promote a better price and product, so you’ll get the full benefit of the taste, the look and the sweetness of the fruit that’s in season. Mexico has a year-round growing season, so we have a lot of choices.”

Tru Burger’s trademark drink is the Pink Dragon ($9), which is a blend of fresh watermelon juice, vodka, basil and a few secrets Gee didn’t want to divulge.

The restaurant’s most recognizable drink is the smoked old fashioned made with bourbon liquor-soaked cherries.

“They’re out of this world,” Gee said with a laugh. “You get a nice buzz and have a nice snack. The smoked old fashioned is my medicine I take when I don’t feel well.”

Gee challenges his staff to create new dishes and drinks. After working with top chefs at national chains, Gee has a lot of the answers, he said—but not all of them.

“Getting our employees involved with the creative side gives them buy-in, job satisfaction,” Gee added. “They’re going to sell something they’ve created.

“We get quite good ideas from our guests, too. They wanted different options besides burgers, salads and sandwiches. A guest came in and said her husband loves Tru Burger and wants a burger every week, but she wasn’t a burger person.”

As a result, Gee added three grilled entrees—salmon with a compound lemon butter, fries and a side of fresh roasted vegetables ($16.95); marinated chicken ($14.95) or steak ($18.95) served the same with garlic herb butter.

“This is a great steak,” Gee said. “It’s also black angus. It’s aged with no hormones. It’s expensive for us—$19. It’s a plateful, but you’d pay $30 anywhere else.”