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Some restaurant concepts get their start as a food truck. Others start as a traditional standalone on a busy commercial drive, while still others start as a walk-up window in a tiny, urban, hole-in-the-wall space.
But for one popular concept in Los Angeles, the origin story not only goes back to real estate that’s a bit more unusual—a small counter in a liquor store—but it also evolved into something much higher-scale than its humble beginnings.
The Standing Room, a two-unit operation dishing enormous burgers with Korean and Hawaiian culinary influences, opened its first location in 2011 in Catalina Liquor, an inconspicuous convenience store in Redondo Beach, California.
Lowell Bakke, The Standing Room’s founder, had worked in restaurants and wanted to eventually open his own place. So when his cousin inherited a liquor store with space in the back, it seemed as good a spot as any for testing ideas.
“It was something we opened to practice, I guess you could say, a concept that we would try to eventually move into being a full-service restaurant,” Bakke says. “We weren’t really expecting it to take off the way that it did, and luckily it ended up blowing up.”
Named for the fact that the small counter was supposed to be takeout only, The Standing Room started with 12 items on the menu, mostly burgers and sandwiches, as well as fries and other sides.
Initially, Bakke says, dishing those decadent burgers out of the back of a liquor store—one with a playful cartoon whale painted on the exterior—was something of a tough sell.
“At first, people looked at us like we were weird,” he says. “They definitely thought it was kind of gross. … We literally started giving away burgers for free. We were like, ‘Look, try this out, see what you think about it, give us some feedback.’”
Customers eventually came around and provided their feedback. Guest recommendations led to new menu items. And culinary innovation led to positive Yelp reviews and word-of-mouth buzz—buzz that grew into a cult-like following.
The Standing Room’s options became some of the more coveted burgers in all of L.A., with many customers waiting in line for as much as an hour, Bakke says.
“When we started getting really busy, we went to the city and asked them if we could put in seating,” he says. “We ended up taking a couple parking stalls that were in the lot and making a seating area.”
That popularity wasn’t without reason; the concept’s Instagram-worthy burgers were unlike anything else in the city. For example, there’s the signature Napoleon burger, which is loaded with bacon, caramelized onion, smoked gouda, cheddar and American cheese, a fried egg, spring mix, braised short rib, truffle parmesan fries, tomato jam, and Korean aioli. Then there’s the Bull burger, which is topped with spring mix, Korean marinated beef, kimchi, shishito pepper, caramelized onions, cheddar and American cheese, and a kimchi dip.
The liquor-store Standing Room menu also includes sandwiches and plates, with fries, pan-roasted edamame, and shishito peppers available as sides.
True to Bakke’s vision for the restaurant—and seemingly a giant leap forward from the Catalina Liquor space—The Standing Room’s second location, which opened in 2014, is a full-service restaurant in nearby Hermosa Beach.
The decision to make the second location full service mostly came down to the experience Bakke was trying to create; many guests had told him they wanted to sit down to The Standing Room’s burgers with a beer, and he wanted his restaurant to be the kind of place locals would want to go hang around in—a place that was at once high-quality and comfortable.
The Hermosa Beach space came with a live-music license, so Bakke and his team built it out as a gastropub with a full bar, starters, salads, desserts, and a broader range of entrée options.
“Overall, with the food, it’s always been trying to put out really quality food for a cheap price,” Bakke says. “I always envisioned that someone with a business suit could come in and someone in shorts and flip flops from the beach could come in. It’s not like we were aiming for a specific type of customer—it’s just quality food for everybody at a good price.”
He adds that the transition from counter service to full has been much more difficult than he anticipated.
“When I first did it, I thought that it would be easy, but it’s definitely not,” he says. “It’s a different animal. It was quite a big slap in the face when we opened up the restaurant.”
There are plans for further growth, Bakke says, but he’s not committed to any one service model. He envisions a mix of counter-service and full-service locations; the sweet spot moving forward, he adds, will likely resemble a fast-casual restaurant with beer and wine available. Hard liquor isn’t a must for The Standing Room concept, he says.
The decision on which model to open, Bakke says, will simply come down to real estate—whether that’s a standalone location, a hole in the wall, or even a counter in the back of a liquor store with a cartoon whale painted on the side.
“The concept we have could translate to a food truck, could be a counter space, and it could be a full-service restaurant,” he says. “Whatever opportunity arises, I think that’s what we’d go with.”
This story originally appeared in QSR's July 2017 issue with the title "Room for Two."