The Cult Burger of Summer
When I walked up to the steamy little tent parked in front of Sea Salt Eatery last weekend, I wasn’t sure which line was for Sea Salt, and which line was for the burgers. That’s saying something.
The tent was being manned by two guys who do not own a restaurant, aren’t really looking at a food truck, and yet clearly move with that industry sense of urgency. At a focused and brisk pace, they worked two Blackstone flattops: one to toast the buns, and the other to smash meat. Judging by the line, and the chatter in the local burger Facebook groups, Private Sector Provisions has become one of the hottest smashburgers in town.
“If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?” That’s Brett Splinter, basically about everything. He and Josh Clark are lifelong pals, been friends since they were kids, so spending a sweaty Saturday manning a hot griddle is actually recreational for them. In the job world, Splinter is the Director of Hospitality for Lift Bridge Brewing, and Clark works in hotels. The duo launched a podcast called Private Sector Media, and then by accident, Private Sector Provisions.
It started when their friend Charles Awad (also a beer guy and podcaster with Libations for Everyone), was trying to help out Falling Knife Brewery, whose food truck had bailed. “I told Twitter about it, looking to see if another truck could come, and Splinter and I started joking back and forth, like ‘how about you bring your Blackstone and sling some burgers’ and he said, ‘ok I will’,” Awad told me. “And then he said: yeah I’m gonna go get a bunch of ground beef and I’ll see you there in two hours. So I realized he wasn’t bluffing. He rolled up and smashed something like 80 burgers and didn’t charge a dime, he just asked people to donate to a charity. I think it was just after RBG passed so they picked one of her favorite causes and told people that if they wanted to pay, they should donate.”
It started a thing. They began popping up and slinging burgers for free. In March they popped up at Brunson’s Pub and asked people to donate to the nearby Cookie Cart, a few weeks ago they were at BlackStack Brewing to help promote friends at Twin City Tees. Splinter has deep brewery ties, spending years with Surly before co-founding Barrel Theory Brewing in St. Paul, so he has no problem finding brewery patios to post up on.
Why are they doing this? “For fun! Are you kidding me? I get to stand around and flip burgers with my pals, drink beer, and feed people? Yes!” That joy that radiates out from under that 10×10 tent, it catches you. Maybe because this ISN’T their jobs. That day at Sea Salt they had been invited by Toppling Goliath Brewery to partner up on a beer release, so they were charging $8 for single burgers, and $10 for doubles. “But we’re not really making money, we’re just covering costs on this one.”
The burgers are Oklahoma-style, which seems to be catching on locally. It basically means that a ball of ground meat is set on the hot flattop, sprinkled with shaved white onions, and then smashed down and hit with seasoning. It’s a quick sear, a flip, an added slice of American sliced cheese, and then onto that toasted bun. “Do you see what’s in that meat blend?” Splinter asked me, “That’s butter baby! Did you think I wasn’t friends with Adam Eaton?” While calling out that luxe factor that has shared DNA with the Saint Dinette burger, Splinter is also quick to note that this is a simple burger meant to make people happy for a $10 double. “It’s about finding your niche. I don’t want to be the Wagyu A5 burger, I don’t need Prosecco in my cheese. I love that, and there’s a place for it, but I want American slices on this, with a homemade sauce, and good refrigerator pickles on the side, there’s a place for everyone to play.”
Here’s what: that is a crisp-edged slammer. The sauce and the cheese come magically together over that buttered grind and it all gets cut with those homemade pickles for a burger you won’t put down. Eat it right off the griddle, the second they hand it to you, standing next to the tent if you can.
Splinter is a fan of both the Au Cheval burger and a double stack at Lion’s Tap, “Look, if you go to a Lamborghini dealership looking for a car to get your 8 kids to soccer practice, that car is a piece of garbage to you. And if you are looking to turn some laps on the speedway, and you pick up a Toyota Siena, that car is a piece of garbage to you. It’s not about one that’s better than the other, its about what do you need at the moment. This burger is like a few years old half-ton General Motors pickup, it’s gonna get you there, it’s really good and when it comes time to move, you’re gonna wish you had it. Is it pretty? Does it get great mileage? No, but that’s not why you got it.”
Plenty of people are jumping into the pickup. Private Sector Provisions only posts their pop-ups a few days ahead of time, and there’s almost always a line, and they always sell out. This is fan-driven, loyalists post pics on the MSP Burgers Facebook group, and I definitely recognized a few members in line (BTW: that group is wicked fun, with 11K+ locals all trying to convince you that their favorite burger is the best … there’s currently a hard Bebe Zito habit in the feed these days). The line, the beer, the chattering pals standing around throwing a double home, it’s all a part of bringing people back together.
We never know how many burgers they’ll have foil packed in their coolers, and it should not be lost on anyone that Splinter was at Surly during the limited release heydays of Darkness. This is something special, but not too special that it can’t just be a cheesy handful of beefy love. That’s the cult. Does this mean that they’ll open a burger joint soon? “We probably wouldn’t do a restaurant, but we wouldn’t mind a residency somewhere, maybe a burger window or something like that? Our next steps will be to get fully licensed so that we can do this on our own and we’ll see. But this is what we want to be doing, hanging out. I want to make people happy / fuck people up with food and beer. That’s what I want to do.” That’s the cult.
The next pop-up is happening this Sunday at Modist Brewing, details will be posted Wednesday on the socials. The burgers will be free, though the suggested donations will benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.