Food & DrinkFood Features

Bang Bang Burgers Celebrates a Decade of Success

Joseph Huang's strength is in his simplicity

A photo of someone holding a cheeseburger from Bang Bang Burgers in Charlotte, NC
A Bang Bang burger from Bang Bang Burgers. (Photo by Peter Taylor)

There’s not usually much to be gleaned about a person’s adulthood from their fourth grade yearbook. Yet a quick glance at Joseph Huang’s entry from his elementary school in New York gives one meaningful clue.

Jammed below his birthday (11/29/74) and his country of origin (Huang was born in Taiwan) and above his favorite group (Miami Sound Machine, misspelled in the yearbook) and a signature from a classmate named Inae telling Joe he “looked cute in the tux” reads two words that would serve as prophecy for Huang: “Restaurant Owner.”

“They asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I wanted to be a restaurant owner,” Huang told Queen City Nerve. “So it was always in the back of my mind for many, many years. It’s almost like a lifestyle.”

On Nov. 4, Huang will celebrate his 10th year in business as owner of Bang Bang Burgers, one of Charlotte’s most popular burger joints, recognized repeatedly as such with local awards and trophies from food competitions like the Moo & Brew Fest. The restaurant has been recognized in annual Queen City Nerve’s Best in the Nest issue, voted Best Burger by readers in 2019.

The road to success has not been an easy one for Huang, however, as he has worked his way up through the restaurant industry, seen plans to own his own restaurant fall through multiple times and worked himself to near burnout once he got Bang Bang Burgers up and running.

Now as he approaches his 49th birthday and a decade in business, Huang is preparing for an extensive renovation of his original Elizabeth location, followed by about 10 more years of ownership before he starts to look at retirement options.

Having opened a second location in South End in 2018, Huang has kept the door open to potentially opening one more, but that would be it, he insisted.  As someone who got into the restaurant business for the passion of it, just wanting to make enough to pay his bills and make people happy, he stands by that original dream.

“What I realized is that I just want things to run smoothly … and just live a comfortable life,” he said. “I can really go hard and try to make tons of money and keep opening up one [location] after another, but I’ve realized I’m going to give up something for that, and it could even be my health … so then what will happen is, I do that, make lots of money, and when I’m 65, as soon as I retire, I die a year later. What’s the point then?”

A culture shock from NYC to Charlotte

Having graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York in 2000, Huang started his career with a number of low-wage jobs in New York City, including as a line cook under famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer.

Meyer is perhaps best known outside of NYC for founding Shake Shack, but he has also overseen a number of more high-end restaurants in the city, including Blue Smoke, where Huang worked as a line cook and learned under Meyer.

His takeaway from the experience was one of hospitality in the true meaning of the word, as Meyer worked to cultivate a workplace experience that went against the stereotypical New York City kitchen — one where arguing and bickering were not tolerated — which translates to a better experience for customers, he explained.

Huang recalls one specific experience when a large group of people he had known since childhood came into the high-end barbecue spot for lunch. Most of them had been settling into their high-salary jobs in finance or other fields by then, while Huang had recently earned a pay raise from $10 per hour to $10.50.

Meyer recognized what was happening and told Huang to go change into a cleaner jacket, which confused Huang. Then he began sending comped plates out to Huang’s friends table, eventually telling Huang to go join them and hang out a bit.

Huang walked into the dining room, where he was greeted as the chef by not only his friends but unknowing patrons.

A photo of the owner, Huang, of Bang Bang Burgers smiling while sitting outside of the restaurant.
Joseph Huang, owner of Bang Bang Burgers, outside of his original Elizabeth location. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“They gave me something to be proud of. It was such a nice thing, and I didn’t really understand what was going on,” he said, laughing. “I felt really good. Of course, this many years later, I’m realizing it’s like, that sort of niceness, the hospitality, being nice to people. And it’s so powerful … It was just the way that he did things.”

In 2009, Huang moved to Charlotte to meet up with an old friend who wanted his help in opening a Korean restaurant here. Having lived most of his life in and around New York City, arriving in the New South was a culture shock.

“I came out here, I was like, ‘Man, this is really nice,’” he recalled. “You drove through neighborhoods and people were, like, waving at you. It’s like, I have New York license plates. Why are you waving at me? I don’t know you.”

Beyond the overall mood of neighborliness, Huang quickly made another observation that concerned him.

“He wanted to open up a Korean restaurant until I realized there were no Korean people here. It’s not the same as New York. A Korean restaurant to cater to who, to American people?” Huang asked. “I realized, okay, so this is not going to work because we’re not jiving here. I don’t think you’re seeing what I’m seeing.”

Rather than move back to New York, where he thought he would feel like a failure, Huang decided he liked Charlotte enough to stay. He took an apartment in Uptown and got a job as a chef with HMS Host, which manages most of the food and beverage locations inside the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

In 2012, he linked up with two business partners to open an eatery in the Pecan Point shopping center in east Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood. Huang was meant to be an operating partner with a 20% share of the business, hoping the other two partners would use their experience in running restaurants to lead the way in the business.

Over the course of the next year, however, he realized he had been taken advantage of. His partners had taken the tens of thousands of dollars he had put into the venture and invested it elsewhere while leaving the Elizabeth space to languish.

Eventually the landlord called Huang, whose name was on the lease, and told him that his partners hadn’t paid rent in three months. Rather than evict all three, the landlord asked Huang, who had by that point taken the hit and moved on, if he wanted to come back and take control of the space.

Huang canceled his flight to Texas, where he was scheduled to undergo training to become a manager at a since-closed Charlotte restaurant, and took the space in Elizabeth.

Before their split, the original trio had agreed to open a burger joint, and that’s about all Huang knew when he walked into his new restaurant, where his former partners had left food rotting in refrigerators and no sign that they had ever made a serious attempt to open up shop.

A photo of various foods from Bang Bang Burgers' menu, including fries, their burger bowl, and famous burgers.
A spread of Bang Bang Burgers menu items. (Photo by Peter Taylor)

With some help from a friend who had invested in the original venture but believed in Huang enough to back his newly revived effort, Huang turned it around and opened on Nov. 4 2013.

“I didn’t know the business stuff,” Huang said, still seemingly in disbelief a decade later that he pulled it off. “I had to figure out, what’s a federal tax ID? I don’t know. What’s the difference between a business account and a personal account? I don’t know. What’s workmen’s comp? I don’t know. What’s insurance? I don’t know. So on top of all of that stuff, I had to figure out how to hire people, train people, open up without doing any marketing. And it was nuts.”

What Huang did know, however, was food.

“I knew from culinary school, generally, what a good product is, right? So if it’s hot, if it’s a little bit crispy, not too much salt, the base foundation of what we do over here, I felt like, well, this is going to be my strategy,” he explained. “As long as the food comes out good every time, then eventually we will get busier. And that was it.”

The growth of Bang Bang Burgers

When Huang opened Bang Bang, he had no marketing budget. There wasn’t a ton of foot traffic around Pecan Point, but there was a lot of other traffic.

He spent every morning from 7-8:30 a.m. standing on Pecan Avenue, where traffic regularly backed up for two to three light cycles, handing out menus to drivers.

Having watched many of his colleagues in New York City fall into cycles of burnout and self-medication, Huang was purposeful about getting his rest, working more than 12 hours a day but splitting them up with a few hours of self-care daily between the lunch and dinner shifts.

“During that time of the first few years, I realized if I screw myself up, then I am going to be screwed up,” he said. “So it was like going home, not drinking too much, sleeping, really just trying to take it easy — almost like this mentality of being in a marathon and being mentally prepared just to take it easy.”

Of course, beyond the employee training and marketing, Huang had to think about the food. Without much space in the location — Huang will finally install his first walk-in coolers during the upcoming renovation — he knew he didn’t want to try to spread the menu out. Burgers and fries would be his specialty, and he would do those right.

In the months leading up to the opening, he visited burger joints around the city to critique and analyze the options.

“A lot of places put tons of stuff on a burger — these really fancy cheeses, all these sauces, lots of bacon, whatever.”

He recalled one trip to Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar where he saw a triple-bacon burger.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever ate a burger and said to myself, ‘What this needs is more bacon. And then on top of that, even more bacon after that.’ Why would you need triple bacon? It doesn’t make any sense. And I realized it’s because people are just throwing stuff on there but not really thinking it through.

“I think that a really good burger is one where you just have the beef and the bun and almost nothing else. And that tastes good, right? If that tastes good, then you add a sauce, then you add bacon, then you add other stuff.”

Huang modeled his burger after Toast Uptown, a restaurant and bar where he grew up near Columbia University in New York City, using the same beef as Toast, sourced from Creekstone Farms in Arkansas.

He spent time researching different buns as well, eventually landing with the Charlotte-based Dukes Bread after owner Adam Duke came into the restaurant.

Huang had worked in chain establishments with HMS Host where fake butter was used on each bun, something he felt adamant about refusing to do.

A photo of a cheeseburger from Bang Bang Burgers.
Bang Bang Burgers. (Photo by Peter Taylor)

“With Adam’s bread, the bun already has butter in it; it has milk, butter and eggs,” he said. “It’s almost like moving towards that cake battery type of direction in a bread. So it already has a butteriness. It already has a yumminess to it by itself, a little sweetness to it, and so I don’t have to put any other extra stuff. It’s that whole idea of making it really simple, but having those simple things be really good.”

Huang’s team also cuts the fries in the shop each day by hand and dunks them to order. His signature Bang Bang sauce is always served on the side with his best-selling Bang Bang Burger so that each customer can administer said sauce to each bite as they wish rather than spread it around the bun and overwhelm the dish.

It’s a process he said is inspired by his upbringing eating traditional Taiwanese meals that consisted of different bowls holding different ingredients so that each bite was different.

It’s a way of eating that Huang used to proselytize to customers about in the dining room during the restaurant’s early years, though he’s since learned to stand back and let folks enjoy the burgers as they wish.

He has not, however, lost his passion for the way that each order is made fresh upon the customer’s request, a major reason behind Huang’s refusal to overextend himself by opening new locations or expanding his existing ones, even if the demand is there.

He compares his vision for Bang Bang to that of the tiny eateries he sees in Japan while scrolling YouTube food videos.

“They have these Japanese small spaces, a husband and wife making food, and maybe they need money, maybe they don’t, but they’ve been doing that same thing the same way for 20, 30, 40 years,” he said. “They only make one or two things, but whatever they make is really, really good, and they’re making it themselves.”

Huang has considered the money-making opportunities of expansion, but at what other cost, he wonders.

“I think chain restaurants, when they make decisions about how they want to do things, it’s always for the purposes of making more money, which is, okay, I’m not knocking that, but then when you start making those decisions, the people that you’re hurting are your own employees or you’re hurting the quality of the food.

“I realized I want to make something that actually is more meaningful than that,” he continued. “I want to be happy and proud of what I do.”

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