Burger diner brings New York vibe to Brussels

Summary

Two young brothers are introducing the American diner experience to Brussels with Manhattn’s, a new burger restaurant that mixes the best of both continents

Baptism by fire

Last month Brussels celebrated the opening of its newest burger joint, and the concept is as quaint as it is tasty. You place your order at one end of the counter. As you slide down the line to the designated pick-up zone, you watch your burger get grilled and topped by a team of short-order cooks. It emerges on a gleaming tray with a side of fries. You rush to table and consume.

Jerry and Phil Vandermeulen, two brothers from Sint-Truiden, dreamed of marrying the classic American diner experience with top-shelf ingredients, modern marketing and, of course, a bit of Belgian flair. Thus was born Manhattn’s.

It’s an appropriate name, as Jerry hatched the idea in the Big Apple, where he peddled street waffles for Wafels & Dinges, owned by a Flemish entrepreneur, for two years. “I wanted to bring the New York vibe to Belgium,” he says. “I want you to feel that kind of energy when you walk in the door.”

Jerry may have had the vision and – as a business-school graduate – the commercial knowhow, but he needed his brother’s culinary expertise to really get cooking. Phil is a chef with experience across Flanders. “It’s the ideal team,” Jerry says. “I manage the books; he manages the kitchen.”

And what a kitchen it is. Phil built the menu around three key ingredients. First, he sources quality British beef. Second, he makes his brioche buns with extra virgin olive oil from Italy. Third, the fries are quintessentially Belgian, hand-cut and cooked twice.

The presentation of his American-style burgers is only slightly modified from the tried and tested. Old-World influence, for example, can be detected in cheeseburgers that boast French Comté and Reblochon. And of course the fries are paired with mayonnaise.

Vegetarians take note, you have not been neglected. Phil’s menu includes a veggie burger and a range of salads.

Moment of truth

With concept in hand, the brothers Vandermeulen set about soliciting investors and applying for permits. The hardest part, according to Jerry, was finding the right location. The brothers scouted various Brussels neighbourhoods before discovering the disused temp office on Louizalaan that would become Manhattn’s.

There hasn’t been time to think; we’ve been packed from day one

- Manhattn’s co-founder Jerry Vandermeulen

“This neighbourhood is the closest thing to New York City in Brussels,” he says. “There are loads of offices and boutiques, but more than anything, there are all kinds of people working and living here.”

Once contracts were signed and permits approved, work surged ahead. The erstwhile office space was transformed into a stylised, branded fast-food paradise in just two months. Manhattn’s was ready for its moment of truth in mid-October.

In the event, Jerry and Phil were victims of their own success. Manhattn’s impressive marketing machine had turned on too many customers, and the first few days were characterised by long queues. Early reviews were savage, charging that the style of the concept wasn’t matched by the substance.

“It was crazy busy,” Vandermeulen says. “We thought we’d have time to find our feet but there hasn’t been time to think. We’ve been packed from day one.”

Jerry and Phil reacted quickly, adding an extra register, more pay terminals and additional staff. They found their rhythm within a few weeks and are the wiser for it. Jerry is philosophic about his trial by fire. “It was a lot of hard work,” he says. “We’re constantly moving, constantly adapting. But it’s satisfying to overcome challenges.”

These days, Manhattn’s is doing brisk (but manageable) business. For his part, Jerry seems ready to do it all over again. “If this goes well, why not?” he muses. “We could open another Manhattn’s somewhere else – in Ghent or Antwerp.”

Photo courtesy Manhattn’s

Two young brothers are introducing the American diner experience to Brussels with Manhattn’s, a new burger restaurant that mixes the best of both continents.

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