Burger Throwdown on Plymouth
Entrepreneurs ramp up their chutzpah
by Sally Mitani
With its bright mustard- and ketchup-colored burger-shaped logo and self-congratulatory name, Famous Hamburger projects a cheery, in-your-face chutzpah. It's no act: the tiny chain opened its fourth store in October in the Courtyard Shops at North Campus Plaza, just a few steps away from Wendy's.
As burgers go, this is slow food. "At Wendy's you can get a burger in a minute," says Famous manager Mike Haidar. "Here it takes eight, ten, twelve minutes to cook your burger." The family-run chain's other stores are in Dearborn, Allen Park, and Los Angeles--but it got its start in, of all places, Beirut.
Mike says his Lebanese-born grandfather, Hussein Hider (same name, different transliteration), grew up in this country eating White Castles. In the late 1960s he returned to Beirut to open the Middle East's first burger joint, which became Famous Hamburger.
Fleeing Lebanon's civil war, the family returned to the United States in the mid-1970s. Hussein Hider died a few years ago, but Famous continues under the leadership of Mike's uncle, Feisal "Phil" Hider.
It was Mike who wanted to open an Ann Arbor branch. "I went to school here fifteen years ago and have always loved Ann Arbor," he says. He majored in biology at the U-M and planned to go to med school, but his father's illness forced him to take over another family business: a bunch of Detroit-area service stations. Now he's finally back in town with Famous.
The nineteen burgers on the menu are distinguished mostly by their toppings--all but one begin with the same one-third-pound patty (the exception is a gargantuan one-pound burger, so big that if you eat all of it you get your photo on the wall and website). Though the burgers, which start at around $3.50, are by far the best-selling item, the menu also features wraps and some Middle Eastern favorites, like hummus and fattoush. All the meat is halal (prepared according to Islamic law), and the chicken burgers are made of fresh,
Famous Hamburger seats sixty inside, with table service. Hider and Haidar have also added a side porch with hookahs that will seat twenty-four. It will open as soon as the plastic shades and heaters arrive.
Famous Hamburger, 1739 Plymouth. (Courtyard Shops at North Campus Plaza). 369-3502. Sun.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-midnight, Fri. & Sat. 10 a.m.-3 a.m. www.famoushamburger.com
A block east on Plymouth, in Upland Green, Great Plains Burger Company opened within days of Famous. Not only that, says Great Plains owner-manager Mo Farha, "we signed our leases within five days of each other." While both knew they'd be up against Wendy's, neither of the independently owned businesses had any idea of the other's existence until it was too late to back out. Both are scrupulously polite about the unexpected rivalry, while insisting that their products are so unique that there's really no competition. While Famous has table service and a wide array of choices other than burgers, Great Plains is stripped down to the absolute pure minimum: burger, fries, and shake or Coke, ordered at the counter.
The one-third-pound burger, served on a Zingerman's bun, comes with options like sauteed mushrooms, grilled onions, and five kinds of cheese for $4.50. The vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry shakes are made fresh with antibiotic- and hormone-free dairy products. Behind the counter in the open kitchen is the biggest visual attraction: the hand-operated potato cutting machine. Right before your eyes, a worker turns big Russet Burbank spuds into skinny skin-on fries. They're slightly waxier and meatier than frozen processed product.
If you don't want a burger, Farha says there's a secret menu, which at the moment includes hot dogs and a grilled cheese sandwich. He'll be serving salmon burgers during Lent and is looking into turkey burgers.
Farha, forty-three, is also a U-M grad. In his student days he started LA's Club on State Street (where Rod's Diner is now), which also specialized in burgers and shakes. He owns Great Plains with several other investors and hopes to open other locations eventually.
Great Plains Burger Company, 1771 Plymouth (Upland Green). 769-6900. Daily 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. www.greatplainsburger.com
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[Originally published in December, 2009.]