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Kirk's Steakburgers sold to new owner

Uploaded: Feb 24, 2015
John Withers has owned Kirk's Steakburgers since 1996, when he bought the Palo Alto standby from the son of the original owner, Bill Sincere. Sincere opened the first Kirk's on El Camino Real, near Arastradero Road, in 1948.

But now, in 2015, the restaurant is again changing hands. Withers has sold the no-frills burger joint, now at Town & Country Village, to a South Bay restaurateur who said he plans to update the restaurant, but keep it as Kirk's.

"It will stay Kirk's," new owner Rick Juncker said Friday. Juncker runs Erik's Deli Cafe, a casual sandwich-and-soup spot with more than 30 franchised locations throughout the Bay Area.


Kirk's Steakburgers, founded in Palo Alto in 1948, moved to the above location at Town & Country Village in 2002. Palo Alto Weekly file photo.

But it will be a changed Kirk's. Juncker said he'll immediately do some physical upgrades ? new chairs and tables, lights, wall coverings ? and take some more time to make some thoughtful tweaks to the menu.

"We're going to try to balance the legacy of the place ? (to) strike a strong balance between keeping what has brought people in for ? some people, 50 years ? and not take that away but also, Palo Alto's a pretty dynamic and diverse community," Juncker said.

He wants to add some menu items that have a "broader appeal," like fusion burgers with Asian or Latin ingredients, poutine or pork belly fries, though he's wary of overdoing it at an establishment like Kirk's.

"Overreaching is my biggest concern," Juncker said. "We want to bring some stuff in and be creative, but not try to be something it's not."

Kirk's has long been famous for its massive steakburgers, grilled over charcoal since 1948, first in Palo Alto and later at outposts in Campbell and Cupertino. John Withers, who oversaw the restaurant's move from California Avenue to Town & Country in 2002, was the first one to expand the originally bare-bones menu, eventually adding french fries, chicken sandwiches, milkshakes, salads and sides.

("Bill Sincere was irascibly tough, adamant about his menu," Withers said in a 2010 interview. "'Want fries?' he once scowled, 'Go somewhere else.'")

Withers, now 72, has been slowly selling off all the locations. Palo Alto was the last one to go.

"It was time for me to stop doing that and do something different," he said Monday.

Withers said he was never worried about descriptions on Yelp or other review sites about Kirk's being "downscale."

"Kirk's is what it is," he said. "It's been in business since 1948. There are a lot of things that have come along since then and Kirk's has survived it all. I've never been one to have many frou frou things. There are restaurants where you can have burgers with truffles and things like that.

"If I started doing those kind of things, that wouldn't be Kirk's."

"Kirk's is what it is and that's the struggle that we'll have ? to try to be creative and be innovative without coming off as trying to be too fancy," Juncker echoed. "It's still a burger joint."

Expect to see the physical upgrades in the next few weeks and the menu changes around April 1, Juncker said.

Withers said he could never figure out how to make a veggie or turkey burger or sweet potato fries that would still be true to Kirk's, so he didn't.

"He's (Juncker) going to probably do things like that, and that's great. I'm not one to stand in the way of the progress. It just wasn't for me," Withers said.

Withers expressed confidence in Juncker and wished him the best. He also said Town & Country management and owners have been "unbelievably helpful and cooperative."

"They deserve a shout-out for that," he said.


Comments

 +   9 people like this
Posted by Burger, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Feb 25, 2015 at 8:42 am

Get ready for the $10-15 Kirk's steak burger. It was only a matter of time.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Midtown, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 25, 2015 at 12:14 pm

What, with $15 hotdogs, $25 burgers can't be far behind!


 +   16 people like this
Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Jackson Park,
on Feb 25, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Why don't you people show the new owner some encouragement rather than criticize him for something that hasn't happened?

Is this the way you want to welcome a new small business owner to your neighborhood?

Really?


 +   11 people like this
Posted by Lucy, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 25, 2015 at 12:33 pm

Well, this sucks. I've been going to Kirk's since I was a kid and it was on Cal Ave. I like it just the way it is. Both the menu and the decor. That's the charm. If I wanted something fancier I'd go to Gott's or even The Counter.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by No thanks, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 25, 2015 at 10:01 pm

Kirks is a comfortable place without the expensive add-ons. Really sorry to see it go. No I don't feel I have to encourage a chain restaurant with more than 30 locations. I'll miss Kirks.
Just another reason to avoid the ridiculously expensive Town and Country. T&C is for conspicuous spenders who spend $3-4 and more for one cupcake.


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Jackson Park,
on Feb 26, 2015 at 9:31 am

@No thanks:

Kirk's is not going away. It is under new ownership and will remain Kirk's; it is not going to be converted into an Erik's Deli Cafe store.

It's worth pointing out that the new owner appears to understand some of the sensitivity of trying to "be creative and be innovative without coming off as trying to be too fancy" (his own words).

I, for one, will be interested to see how Kirk's evolves and will likely drop by at least once to assess the changes myself before passing judgment on the new regime.


 +   10 people like this
Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of another community,
on Feb 26, 2015 at 11:31 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

I agree strongly with Jay Park. At least have the humility to TRY the new incarnation, before rushing to judge it!

The new owner did pledge to respect "the legacy" of Kirk's, but at the same time, must serve today's market, or go out of business (as many restaurants do). Most of us can remember things we liked from decades ago -- but they change, as do we. It's not like you have the option to go back.

Apparently online food forums (especially with pseudonymous posters) attract a self-selected type of commenter that likes to complain about things it hasn't yet tried (in this case, the new Kirk's). That phenomenon was already noted years before the Embarcadero papers went online.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Desmo, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 26, 2015 at 11:59 am

>>fusion burgers with Asian or Latin ingredient

Ugh. There's that word. "Fusion".

Enough with this terrible trend that should long be dead. "Asian Fusion". "This and that fusion".

Just make a great American burger.


 +   13 people like this
Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Jackson Park,
on Feb 26, 2015 at 1:10 pm

@Desmo:

Look, this new owner should have a chance at adding new menu items. Kirk's already makes a good hamburger. If the new owner thinks the market wants additional options like "Asian fusion", "Mexican fusion" "sriracha-enhanced", or whatever, let him try. It's not like he's removing the hamburger from the menu.

Dining styles change over time. Younger diners want different options, and if restaurateurs want to stay in business, they need to recognize this. Whether they change their offerings is a different story, but look at Scott's Seafood in the same shopping center? They're going out of business and the owner specifically said they couldn't fill enough seats; that owner admitted that younger diners had different interests.

No one is requiring you to eat EVERYTHING on the menu. You just need to find things YOU like.

Is this concept really that difficult to comprehend?

What, should I stop patronizing restaurants when I see a menu item that I'm not interested in? That's absurd.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by FoodE, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 2, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Hope Kirks keeps the old favorites, like steakburgers, but I think new options are great too. After watching that film "Chef", I have a craving to try a Cubano sandwich. Just a request...


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sparty, a resident of another community,
on Mar 3, 2015 at 1:55 am

Sparty is a registered user.

Back in the day when we wanted to go to Velvet Turtle or Victoria Station we had to walk there and back. Uphill both ways, in the snow! And we liked it!


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Jim H, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Mar 3, 2015 at 10:02 am

It was interesting to see that once Gott's opened up at T&C, Gott's seems to always be busy, but the crowds are thin at Kirks. I much prefer Kirk's. If the new owner can improve Kirk's w/o going overboard on trying to cater to "Palo Alto" it could be a great thing.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on Mar 3, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

I'm bummed that they're going to fiddle around.

FoodE - weird that none of the Cuban sandwiches I've tried in the area hit the mark :-(


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Bob, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 23, 2015 at 4:11 am

Kirk's is the greatest! It's good to see someone invest, but I share the worries that the change will be for the worst. Kirk's is like the original Shake Shack-- an east coast chain that is building superior burgers. Maybe they can catch the same buzz here.

Let's get more Poly students to embrace it!


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Anne, a resident of Midtown,
on Jul 10, 2016 at 8:43 am

I started going to Kirk's as a kid when it was on El Camino Real, then on California. When it closed there and moved to Town and Country with new owners the burgers changed significantly. They no longer had the same flavor or presence. The burgers were completely different.

Bring back the orignal Kirk's burgers! Hope the new owners can back-track and get the real recipe back! Those burgers were the best I've ever had, and nothing comes close!


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Max Rosan, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 22, 2016 at 10:32 pm

I remember Kirk's when it was on California Avenue. The tempting aroma of charcoal grilled hamburgers could be detected several blocks away during the busy work week lunch hour. Kirk's made me a die-hard charcoal grill person, and I still BBQ exclusively with charcoal at home decades later. No gas grill for me, never! And I never use lighter fluid! I'm a purist who only uses wood kindling to start the charcoal.

I moved away from my hometown of Palo Alto in 1979, but returned often to visit family & friends. I'd usually try to make it over to Kirk's, but dammit they were never open for dinner that I remember. Later, they either moved or opened up a 2nd Kirk's on San Antonio Ave. I have been to that one several times before, and the burgers were just as good there as they were on California Ave. I'm reading some skeptical comments regarding the new ownership... time will tell. Give 'em a chance, folks! Other "burger joints" I have enjoyed in the PA area are the Dutch Goose, Rozotti's, and the Oasis. But they all pale in comparison to Kirk's. Here's hoping the new owners will continue to use charcoal, which is what has made Kirk's so special all those years.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Pat Chester, a resident of another community,
on Oct 28, 2016 at 11:55 am

My family's been eating at Kirk's and their several locations (El Camino Real/PA, California Ave/PA, Campbell, short-lived Santa Clara and Sunnyvale) and the now-gone Cupertino/Saratoga for 4 generations, starting with my father at the El Camino Real/PA location. Year by year, the locations have been going away. Have enjoyed the T&C location with its casual and comfortable environment, except for the traffic congestion and it's further from my home. Do not know what to expect now with new ownership. Maybe they should change the name since the menu is changing too. Nothing like a good quality charcoal grilled steakburger with all the condiments (or none at all). IMHO, it will be nothing like the original Kirk's with previous owners #1Bill Sincere and #2John Withers. I say keep it simple.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Julia Chester, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Nov 4, 2016 at 11:51 am

As a long time customer of Kirk's, I hope that the new owner does not overreach. It's the basic simple ingredients that makes the food so good. I can understand a few updates here and there, but please don't change too much.



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