Erin Mueller and the Naina's stuffed burger phenomenon
The hole-in-the wall restaurant won best burger at YYC Burger Week in 2013
"I'm going to give you an A on one condition," Erin Mueller's culinary arts instructor at SAIT told her on their final day of class. "As long as you promise never to go into a kitchen again."
Erin agreed. The cooking class had only been one small component of her tourism and hospitality course, and she had burned herself enough on various cooktops to discourage the idea of pursuing a kitchen career any further.
"You're going to be a great manager and you have great personal skills, but you should probably stay at the front of the house," he told her.
Ten years later, Erin and her mom Kelly, own Naina's (pronounced nine-ahs — Welsh for 'grandmother'), in a teeny strip mall you're most likely to miss on the connector between Ogden Road and Blackfoot Trail S.E. The restaurant, kitty-corner from the Crossroads Market, wasn't the ideal location or space, but it got them started.
In Calgary, new restaurants constantly open in prime locations with million-dollar interior design and marketing budgets but Erin and Kelly got a deal on the tiny place after smoke damage from a fire next door sent the previous tenants elsewhere.
Born and raised in Calgary, Erin went to work in Dubai for a few years, got married and came back home to find herself divorced with a toddler. She found it difficult to find a job that would accommodate the rotating custody schedule of her daughter so she and her mom opened the restaurant in part so she could care for her while she worked.
It was a perfect partnership — Kelly, a retired teacher and avid baker, took on the baking duties, while Erin did the cooking and ran the front of the house. They painted and decorated the dining room themselves, scouring sales for seats, tables and artwork. The comfort food menu — grilled cheese, homemade soups, stews and chili — matches the oilcloth tablecloths, shelves of knickknacks and weathered cookbooks, family photos on the wall and a chalkboard menu above the till.
"I remember reading one review on Urbanspoon or somewhere," Erin told me over the stuffed donair burger they created for this year's Alberta burger fest. "It said, 'It's kind of a scuzzy place — it looks like they spent maybe $500 decorating it.' And I remember thinking, I don't think we spent that much."
After a year, the fledgling restaurant wasn't drawing many customers and Kelly was forced to return to teaching in Saskatchewan in order to subsidize the restaurant, leaving Erin to keep Naina's afloat with one staff member and her young daughter in tow.
One day, Erin watched an episode of her favourite Food Network show that demonstrated how to make a stuffed cheeseburger and thought, 'Why just cheese? Why couldn't you stuff it with all kinds of ingredients?'
She played around and added a stuffed burger to their menu, allowing customers to create their own with ingredients like sautéed mushrooms, pulled pork, jalapenos and bacon.
The first year it was on the menu they sold just a handful, but then it caught on — as good food served up in hole-in-the-wall spots tends to do in this city — and people started to come to Naina's specifically for a stuffed burger.
They won for best burger at YYC Burger Week in 2013, were runners-up in 2014 (second to Craft Beer Market, with far more tables and longer hours), and made the top three best burgers in the city list in Avenue magazine.
Last year they made 1,400 of their custom burger week burgers — and almost as many Naina-licious burgers — not counting customers' own stuffed burger creations. This spring, Naina's stuffed burger was featured on the Food Network show You Gotta Eat Here, and business has doubled since the show aired.
They're now looking for a bigger space to accommodate the growing number of customers who want to get stuffed.