On the trendy Lower East Side in Manhattan frequented by many Gen Zers and millennials, the fast-casual Gotham Burger Social Club, which debuted on Jan.10, 2024, has become one of the places, like Smashed NYC on Orchard Street, attracting patrons for their tasty burgers. But for owner and founder Mike Puma, his new burger joint symbolizes a major transformation in his life that happened naturally, out of his own passion.
For nearly 30 years, Puma, who is 52-years-old, was a financial advisor at Oppenheimer and Co., a global full-service brokerage and investment bank. But he always loved developing his own recipes, particularly the burger.
He calls his burger joint a social club because when it first started it was a way to bring all of his “buddies” together, and he calls its name “a nod to his Italian heritage.” It seats about 40 people. Catering is about 10% of its revenue and delivery will be coming soon. When he capitalized the business, he tapped several investors, whom he declined to name, and he is majority owner.
A former Wall Street advisor turned restaurateur is turning his smashed burger shop into a Lower East Side hit and is thinking about expanding.
It all started back in 2013 when he asked some friends to join him on a burger tour. That led him to putting some of his reviews on Instagram, which added some followers. Then in 2017 he made some burgers for a fund-raiser for Social Tees Animal Rescue and that spurred his zeal for making burgers and seeing where it might lead.
In 2017, he started doing pop-up fundraisers and special events, on the side and during his free time, while he was still a full-time financial advisor, for Social Tees, Jeff Michener Foundation and the Carl Ruiz Foundation. That led him to independent eateries such as Pig Beach, Ray’s, Marshall Stack asking him to do pop-ups to spark their business.
One Pop-up Led to Another
He started with one pop-up a week, which turned into twice a week, and then three. “What was part-time quickly became full-time,” he says.
These pop-ups happened post-pandemic when people were feeling relieved, freer, and listening to the music and eating the food, revived their sense of spirit.
Goodbye Financial Industry: Hello Burger Joint
Finally he decided to take the leap and open a burger eatery. In 2023, Puma retired from the financial industry and now devotes his full-time to making Gotham Burger Social Club thrive.
Puma relied on an old-family recipe, consisting of a healthy portion of onions, with a small amount of beef, reminiscent of the original White Castle sliders. He says he adjusted the classic onion burger recipe and adapted it into his own.
These burgers are made when the chef “smashes” the ground beef onto the grill with a spatula, creating a sear on the outside of the meat.
He describes it as a “nostalgic burger because it reminds you of those childhood classics.” It derives its taste from “honing in on the proper smashing techniques and controlling heat is also very important,” he reveals.
The Egg Cream Returns
Puma also included on his menu, an egg cream, the famed New York City concoction of milk, seltzer and chocolate syrup, that was once highly popular and has mostly faded away. He also sells frickles, which are deep-fried dilled pickles, chopped cheese tacos and tater tots.
He says its target audience at Gotham Burger is quite eclectic, encompassing “toddlers eating their first burgers to elderly people enjoying our food.”
Asked how Gotham Burger differs from nearby smashed burger eateries such as Burger America and Smashed NYC, he says he hasn’t tried Burger America’s menu and is more interested in forming a community than outdoing the competition.
It is also running the kitchen at Threes Brewing in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which started on Dec. 1, 2023. Right now, it serves as an additional revenue flow, but he’ll see if a longer lease is in the works.
When this reporter had an early dinner there on a wintry night, he was surprised by the 10 people working in the open-air kitchen. Puma said it was before a change of shift and some were training. Tasty single burger, tots and a beverage cost just under $20. Seating is varied including counter seats looking out on Essex Street, seats looking into the kitchen, with booths in the back.
Initial response on Yelp for Gotham Burger was very positive. Emil from New York City said “the real star is the burger; it comes with 1, 2 or 3 patties, and they are really smashed and absolutely delicious. Service was fast and friendly.”
And Joseph from Brooklyn described the burger as “super savory and greasy, the kind of guilty pleasure that I’d definitely lie to my doctor about eating. Even though New York’s burger smash scene is dense, I hope they stick around for the long haul.” And Peter from Forest Hills called it a “very high-end White Castle burger.”
The Next Step
Asked about its future, Puma replies that he envisions expanding it regionally and nationally. How many stores will be company-owned and whether it will be franchised are yet to be determined.
Puma sees its keys to success as: 1) Building the right team since the dishwasher is as indispensable as the chef, 2) Ensuring hospitality, including greeting each guest with a smile and remembering their name, 3) Consistency of food, so it tastes the same night after night.
Puma sees the moral of his career transition to restaurateur as, “You’re never too old to take a chance and take a risk about something you’re passionate about.”