Burgers, Beers and Business

By Olga Kwak

The burgers in Hamilton are different. For one thing, they don’t need no vowels, like in the case of HAMBRGR on King William St. and Ottawa St. Vowels are just filler anyway. The real meat is in the strong ethics and values that Mike and Paula Cipollo bring to their two burger joints and one fish and chip shop (or FSH & CHP if you’re following the lead here.)

Photo courtesy of HAMBRGR

In 2015 Mike and Paula Cipollo saw an opportunity to build a business in a city they could see was growing, despite its gritty exterior. While their sights were initially set on a “grandiose” 200 seat restaurant, they took an opportunity on King William to open a small, efficient restaurant in a space they felt comfortable to grow in.

“We saw this little place that had just closed up and thought this would make a great burger place,” explains Mike, who is the Executive Chef for all three locations.

It came together in about four weeks. “We’ve been full since we’ve opened. The wait has only gotten longer.”

Which explains the need for expansion. The new location is warm and boasts the same fun and friendly atmosphere of the original location. A chalk mural of Ottawa St. greets you at the door. The garage door front window is waiting for those summer days so that HAMBRGR can spill its life out onto the streets, enticing more to come in for a burger and a pint.

The Ottawa St. space is the largest out of all three restaurants, with 45 seats, and plans for an additional 50-60 upstairs. King William has 35 seats. FSH & CHP next door to the King William HAMBRGR has 25 seats and an office in the basement. “We could finally stop doing paperwork in our cars,” Mike says with a laugh.

HAMBRGR is a welcome boost to the Ottawa St. neighbourhood, which is seeing its own revival akin to the James St. changes and Mike and Paula are excited about making an impact in Hamilton, which they feel has welcomed them into the business community.

The Cipollos have spent their careers in hospitality and it’s easy to understand why their business is growing – they know what works. Both are weary of growing too big, too quickly. Decisions can become mathematical formulas rather than firsthand observations.

“Corporate restaurants tend to play the short game. Big companies are average. There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of them in Hamilton. And that’s one of the reasons we came [here],” adds Mike. “This city thrives on independence, entrepreneurship, small business.”

Paula is the Director of Operations and oversees customer relations. After going back to school to become a teacher, she was drawn into corporate restaurant training, a role she enjoys. “Not everyone wants to stay as a server. Being part of [their development] helps me grow.”

Mike and Paula are eager to work with the city to provide as much of an economic impact as they can through their restaurants. They’ve seen how much potential there is from day one and know there’s much more they can do to help.

Mike recounts a story of the parking lot attendant who would frequently be gone by the end of the work day, around the time when Mike would drive in from Newmarket, their former home, to begin working on HAMBRGR’s launch. “I’d pull in and say, where’s the guy? Where do I pay?” He wasn’t there, so he would park for free. That quickly changed when the proprietor of the lot noticed that HAMBRGR was drawing in new customers to the neighbourhood. King William now has a full strip of businesses and residential units, and parking is at a premium.

The Cipollos are also proud to work with the multigenerational Jepson’s Fresh Meats butcher shop based in the Hamilton Farmer’s Market. Their business relationship is so fruitful that Ron and Raymond Jepson are able to remain competitive while many similar businesses are seeing a lack of growth.

From employee training to helping the city identify ways to improve the neighbourhoods they are in, HAMBRGR is more than a place where you can “come as you are and have a good burger and beer in a casual space,” as Paula describes it.

HAMRBGR’s motto is the old KISS acronym: Keep it simple, stupid. For them, simplicity includes good ingredients, excellent beer pairings, and a commitment to creating good spaces in the city they’ve chosen to build their business in.