On Monday of this week, 75 students from Heights High School cheered and marched with the school band right through the dining room of the new Bernie’s Burger Bus to celebrate the eatery’s grand opening. The scene was one of pure joy for all those lucky enough to attend.
The school’s appearance was perfect for the occasion. Bernie’s Burger Bus launched in 2010 as a food truck operating from an old yellow school bus as a “part time gig,” for owner/chef Justin Turner. Today, Turner still owns school buses to serve his loyal customers throughout Houston, but has added brick-and-mortar locations as well. With his new restaurant at 2200 Yale Street, Turner goes to the head of his food truck class.
“In the beginning, we spent a lot of time in the Heights and it was very good to us when were just one old bus. Opening here feels like coming home. It just feels right,” Turner stated.
Parked inside the new location, in the middle of the dining room, is the original yellow school bus – Number 1918 – now functioning as the location’s kitchen. Here again the school theme is carried forward; the menus are designed to reflect chalkboards because Bernie’s specializes in “old school” burgers, shakes and fries. Each work-of-art-on-a-bun has a name reflecting the same – The Principal, The Substitute, The Homeroom and so on.
More than a few Houstonians have argued that BBB’s burgers are the best in town since the bus first rolled onto the scene. These devotees will point out that the condiments – katsup, mayo, mustard, pickles – are made in-house with no preservatives. Then, they will add that the burgers are hand-ground from Black Angus beef and brisket.
Perhaps the proof is in the pudding, um, potatoes. In seven years, Turner has gone from one old school bus and two part-time employees, to three buses, and three brick-and-mortar locations with a total of 110 employees. How did he do it?
“For starters, we began with the simple mission of serving the best burgers and fries on the planet,” Turner explained. “That’s why it was important that we used only the freshest ingredients, all made from scratch. We knew that we wanted to open restaurants and that the buses would be the perfect stepping stone to achieving that.”
Turner started his career flipping burgers at a Wendy’s in Memphis, Tenn., while a teen. He moved on to an Outback Steak House, then fell under the wing of several gifted chefs who saw raw talent in the young man, and served as mentors.
Eventually, Turner accepted a position as the personal chef for former Houston Rocket star Shane Battier who was playing for Memphis at the time. When Battier moved to Houston, Turner went with him. “I started serving from the school bus as a sort of weekend, part-time gig. We were lucky and enjoyed some really good food reviews and were very busy from the start. After three months, I realized I had to put in my notice as a personal chef and do it full time,” Turner stated.
As for the “Bernie,” it was Turner’s grandfather’s name. “When I was shopping for a food truck, and saw the old bus and its number, 1918, the same year my grandfather was born, I knew it was a sign. I knew it was the one, so I bought it and never looked back,” he said.
To what does this entrepreneur attribute his success? “Beside focusing on making the very best burgers and fries – period – we make sure we keep our great people. We have a very talented team who are dedicated to quality and to making people happy,” he stated.
What about those two, part-time employees who started out with him on the school bus journey years ago? “They’re still with me. We couldn’t have, and wouldn’t have, done it without them,” Turner concluded proudly.