No one's gone deaf after 10 years, as Kuma's Corner is about to celebrate their decennial anniversary. They're still thrashing as hard as when they first opened their infamous burger join in Avondale; this isn't a transition phase. There's no need to cut their long hair because Kuma's is still serving up decadent burger specials with the volume cranked.
Founder Mike Cain established the restaurant's feel. Last year he moved to Arizona, but he is still involved. Now it's up to his brother Ron Cain, a certified public accountant with a finance background, to help steer Kuma's into the age of expansion. They're about to open their fourth restaurant (and first outside of Illinois) when Kuma's Indianapolis debuts later this month. And earlier this year, the long-rumored suburban Schaumburg location opened. Ron Cain and general manager Dave Bacso said there's other expansion plans on the horizon, but they're not talking about that just yet. Meanwhile, Kuma's will celebrate on Saturday with their 10-year anniversary party.
Ron Cain and Bacso talk below about Kuma's history and future, and no, they didn't give away their proprietary burger blend or offer to bring back waffle fries.
How's the Schaumburg location going?
Ron Cain: Fantastic. The overwhelming theme is people are really happy to have Kuma's in the suburbs. They come from Naperville, Antioch and all over the place. They're just grateful they don't have to go into the city. We're just getting positive feedback for the quality of the food, the decor...[Charlie] Benante [drummer] from Anthrax has been out like four times. He loves the big 10-by-5 video wall just playing metal concerts. He's a character.
Give us kind of the comic book origin story of Kuma's.
RC: Obviously my brother Mike was the one who started it back in '05. He had been in the restaurant industry his whole life. Different roles: chef, GM, blah blah blah, and he always wanted to own his own place. So he found this place in the city and fell in love with it and tried to make a run of it. For a year and a half he did fine dining, and he was struggling. And then he kind of looked at his product mix and saw that burgers were the best sellers and just shifted his focus to all burgers.
You guys were early on the burger thing and now everyone's doing it.
RC: We were in early on the pretzel bun. Actually, I know some guys — our competitors and they say you guys are the ones who introduced the pretzel bun to the burger industry. And craft beers: We were the first one in Chicago to have Lagunitas IPA on draft. We also didn't have any Budweiser, Coors, any of the hack beers/Miller products. We've always been local craft beer. And obviously we try to also be [supportive of] local charities, local vendors. You know, we're trying to build community, so to speak and that's always been [Mike's] vision. The other cool thing is we're shut down on every holiday. If you've worked in the restaurant industry, the boss, the owners would always be enjoying the holidays and the employees would be working. He swore if he ever opened a restaurant that he would be closed, which is awesome. So employees appreciate that for sure.
How important is finding the right people who work here?
RC: Obviously, they have to have a little bit of an edge to them: Intelligence, team player and ambitious, because this is a really tough place to work. You're busting your ass, it's tough conditions, it's hot.
Did you ever believe Kuma's would get this large?
RC: It's been crazy, obviously. It's amazing how strong the brand is. I've traveled all around the country with my daughter playing soccer for the past five years. Everywhere I go, everyone knows Kuma's. Opening out in Schaumburg — we did no marketing, no advertising, we never have. We've never spent a penny on marketing or advertising, and we get a lot of attention because we're a little bit anti-authority, and obviously great food, great beer. But to open up that place and to have it jam-packed every day without doing any marketing or advertising, just on the name alone? I give my brother all the credit for that. He's built a tremendous brand for sure.
Kuma's has those famous rules for customer conduct, including no baseball caps and that you weren't going to tune the TV to sports. Who came up with those rules?
RC: It's kind of adapted over time. I mean, it's kind of a conglomeration of different characters involved with that...my brother, he's always been anti-Cubs fans. So it's pretty funny.
Do you think sports, metal and burgers can co-exist?
RC: No. Not from our perspective. I mean, we have movies playing. Our rule is that somebody has to die to show that movie. But it's pretty cool, because when couples come in, guys aren't staring at the TV watching the game—they're actually making eye contact. No, they can't actually hear what they're saying, obviously.
Metalheads obviously are used to the volume and the music, but through the years there have been complaints from those unaccustomed to the sounds. How do you cope?
RC: We get that in Schaumburg, too. I was sitting out in the patio area yesterday, and some guy, he exited the patio gate and said, "I just had to get away from this loud bull!@$t." That's what he said. You know, we're not for everybody, obviously, but we do have a huge following. If you deliver a great product and great service, it goes a long way, for sure.
Did you ever think you were going to last 10 years?
RC: Sure. I mean the first two years were the roughest. Then it took off. Now it's all about trying to continue the momentum and not let it fade. And opening new restaurants, it's continuing to try to execute, to have the same quality product at every location. Our menus are identical at all our locations, except for our burger of the month. That's to encourage people to go to different locations.
Is there any fear that you're going to run out of bands to name burgers after?
Dave Bacso: You only reach the surface sometimes. There's so many good bands out there that you have to pay homage to.
Let's talk about The Ghost burger. The Catholic church didn't like that.
DB: There's not too many places where you can have that creative freedom.
RC: The Catholic church was in an uproar. We [tried to donate] money to the Catholic church [from the burger's proceeds]. You know, there are a lot more important things in the world to worry about than somebody putting a consecrated wafer on a burger, you know, to get your panties in a ruffle from something like that. It's just crazy.
Do you think you lost or gained customers over that?
RC: There's no such thing as bad press, that's for sure. We gained more awareness, that's for sure. It's on Time magazine, NBC and all the different shows. You got more of a national awareness.
Over the years you've had a lot of specials. Which are the most memorable?
RC: Certainly the "[Bleepin'] Blagojevich" (10-ounce patty, grilled cheese sandwiches for buns and baloney). The governor that was indicted. The mustard dollar sign on it, it certainly was on the more controversial, until the ghost burger. A lot of people love the ghost burger.
Any kitchen experiments that failed to make the cut?
DB: I can't even remember most of them, because I was too stoned at the time. It sounded good at the time, but then it went away.
Kuma's, in some eyes, has been eclipsed by other burger joints, including Au Cheval. Their burger doesn't seem very metal. What's your take?
RC: It's a totally different style of patty, for sure. I think it's good, I think it's a little bit overrated. But, they obviously do something well, and they have a great following, so more power to them.
DB: It's a good burger; it's not a Kuma's burger.
When did you realize you were going to be successful?
RC: I think "Check, Please!" is when things went really crazy for Mike....all of a sudden regulars couldn't get in. The show brought in all the attention. Then "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." We were named top five in Playboy in '09. But you know what, to all of our staff, our family's credit we continue to get accolades year after year. A lot of restaurants have their period and then they fizzle. We're still growing and trying to peak. It's keeping coming up with creative recipes and new burgers that people will enjoy. Opening more new locations to serve a wider audience...people said "are you selling out going out to Schaumburg?" All kinds of metalheads will come out there. You're in business to make money first, but you want to continue your culture. For us there are metalheads in every city. People are so excited that they don't have to drive into the city to get that experience.
DB: And in turn, more of our regulars can get in here. People shouldn't be as scared of wait times. That's a big misconception: "I don't want to go because I have to wait two hours." That's just not true these days. We can make it happen.
What would it take to get a customer kicked out of Kuma's?
RC: A Cubs shirt.
DB: Too many drinks at Wrigley.
Has that become kind of a circuit, people coming in from the suburbs and getting tanked at Wrigley and coming to Kuma's?
RC: It's not even suburban people, it could be city.
DB: Just don't get too wasted, that's all we ask.
Does that happen often?
RC: Not really. I think less because people are intimidated. They're scared of something, that they could get into trouble. It's pretty funny actually.
How unique and satisfying is running Kuma's?
RC: I've been talking to investors, private equity, blah, blah. They all come back and say that your concept is one that nobody can touch, nobody can't match. There are people who try to replicate it, but they can't do it, not successfully. Look at Kiss, with their burger concept out west....Umami and Shake Shack they're targeting 18 to early 20s. You go up to Schaumburg and you see all the people in their early 40s there. They have money and can afford a gourmet burger and can appreciate a gourmet burger. We have an eclectic crowd.
DB: People come in and love Metallica. You have people who love a band Weekend Nachos, a younger crowd, it's cool to see a melting pot.
So how do you want people to feel after they leave Kuma's?