Burger Battle readers’ bracket winner: Tom’s Burgers & Grill

Posted 11:36am on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013

Located in an old Denny’s Diner at the intersection of Cooper Street and Interstate 30 in Arlington, Tom’s Burgers and Grill is a modest place that might not have the burger recognition of a Kincaid’s or a Fred’s.

But what it does have is a fiercely loyal group of customers who helped Tom’s to victory in the DFW.com Readers’ Bracket.

Along the way, Tom’s, a No. 8 seed in the Pickle Region, took out some of the biggest names in the local burger biz — Charley’s, Five Guys, Rodeo Goat (the judges’ champion), Fred’s and finally Jakes — to claim the title.

Victory didn’t come easy, says owner Tom Jones.

“I worked my butt off, to be honest with you,” says Jones, the former engineer who launched his burger joint in 2006. “I did anything and everything I could think of to get the word out.”

That included a social-media blitz and sending regular messages to his E-club, which has between 2,000 and 3,000 members. He also posted constant updates and pleas to continue voting on the Tom’s Facebook page (and paying for “boosted” posts). He also wasn’t shy about asking Facebook friends who had as many as 5,000 friends to spread the word on their pages.

The strategy worked — during one week of voting, Tom’s had more than 33,500 visits to its Facebook page. But Jones says he was also going to let his burgers do the talking. That’s why he encouraged customers to try the other guys’ burgers and decide who’s best.

“We had a lot of customers come in during the bracket matchups, starting with Charley’s [in Round 1],” Jones says. “They’d say, ‘We went to Charley’s yesterday and we came here to check out the burgers for the burger bracket.’ [So] early in my campaign, in one of my posts I put, ‘Go try them, and vote for the one you like the best.’ I just felt confident that we had a better burger.”

But Jones didn’t always feel so confident about his prospects. The first couple of years in business were rough, he admits now.

“We didn’t make money for about 20 months,” Jones says. “It was tooth-and-nail for a while. And [Jessica, his former wife] was eight and a half months pregnant with our second child when we opened the place. We’re not a Chili’s. We’re not somebody that everybody knows the name of.”

But beginning around 2009, the restaurant began to build momentum, and several key staff members — including general manager Joey Keith and kitchen manager Uriel Moncada — have been with the restaurant at least since then. Servers are polite and friendly and add to the old-school charm of the place, as much as the 45 rpm records on the wall do.

“We have an early 1950s/1960s-type diner feel,” Keith says. “We’re not running around with our hair slicked back or anything, but we serve old-fashioned-style food, good ol’ diner-style food.”

In a Burger Battle that has shown the increasing divide between traditional and more “chef-driven” burgers, Tom’s is one of those places that straddles that line — it has plenty of old-fashioned flame-broiled burgers that have been on the menu from Day One, but it has also experimented with some more adventurous toppings in the “Burgers of the Month” section, including such gambles as a pizza burger.

“That was actually inspired by being in y’all’s competition two years ago,” Jones says. “We always had a part of the menu that said ‘build your own burger,’ but a lot of people didn’t get that. So we started creating. It was a group process. One of my servers would have an idea, or a customer would have an idea for a burger. So we just started creating burgers that we thought would have good burger profiles.”

All that has kept people coming back, and has helped lead to new curiosity about Tom’s. But Jones gives props to his opponents in the Readers’ Bracket, all of whom he says put up tough fights.

“None of them were landslides,” Jones says. “It was like, ‘Can’t one of them be easy?’ But the competition’s stiff, and I can’t tell you how excited I am that we came out on top.”

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