While Kuma’s Corner has been a Chicago institution for almost eleven years now, it wasn’t until about 2008 when the restaurant really got on the map. That’s when they decided to fully embrace the culture of the metal music they played at their location on Belmont Avenue. Naming burgers after bands including Slayer, Pantera, Metallica, Neurosis and Iron Maiden (among others), they quickly became a must-stop for metal and non-metal artists alike on tour, along with the metal and meat-eating community of Chicago. They’ve since opened another Chicago location, as well as one in the suburb of Schaumburg, and last year, opened an Indianapolis location. Luke Tobias, who’d been the head chef at the original location (as well as the former guitarist of Encrust), is running point in Indy now. We caught up with him to chat about the Kuma’s mentality, the brand’s expansion and what it takes to get a burger on the menu.
What made the company decide to open up an Indianapolis branch?
Ever since the inception of Kuma’s, we’ve been looking to expand into working class markets. The first location, on Belmont, is really working class, regular dudes, families, and so we wanted to be able to do that. And we looked at a number of locations – Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh – and Indianapolis made the most sense. The location was in a neighborhood that sort of mimics the neighborhood that the original location is in and we pulled the trigger.
And this is the third Kuma’s?
This is the fourth location. So we’ve got the original at 2900 W. Belmont, the second location was actually called Kumas 2 and that’s at 666 W. Diversey in Chicago, and then ther’s another location in Schaumberg, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago, and then this one.
How long has Kuma’s been around?
I’ve been with Kuma’s since the beginning of 2008, and Kuma’s started in 2005. We didn’t really start picking up until the end of 2007, the last quarter we started kind of getting a lot of decent exposure and TV coverage and that sort of thing, that’s when you started seeing appearances on the Food Network and places like that, and it really started to pick up during the Spring and Summer of 2008.
Was it metal from get go?
We were always playing metal, but the concept of the burgers didn’t start until the start of 2007. Actually, we were getting ready to close. The burger and the mac and cheese were selling really well and everything else that was on the menu was not doing as well and so they said, “Well, let’s see what happens here, we love all these bands, we love this style of music, why don’t we just focus on the burgers and we’ll name them after metal bands and do the same thing that we’re doing, environment-wise, you know, when you come in we’re listening to the Priest and Metallica, but we’re going to build the menu, it’s going to be 15 burgers, and see what happens.” And, that happened, things started picking up. So to answer your question, the menu was not always centered around metal burgers, but the aesthetic of it and everything else was centered around metal.
Do you have to get any like okays from the bands?
We have contacted almost everybody that had a burger in one way or another. When I came to know you, we were running the Bloodhorse burger, so I reached out to them and said, ‘Hey look man, we love your band, we’re doing this burger for you guys,’ and they were super stoked about it. Through various channels we’ve gotten feedback from a lot of the bands, even having some of burgers mentioned in bizarre places. Like, we had Rob Halford talk about the Judas Priest on the red carpet at the Grammys. Whatever channel the information gets to them, we are always excited when the band acknowledges us.
How often do you have different limited edition burgers?
Every month, at the very minimum. We do a burger of the month every single month and 9 times out of 10, we’ll do a new one. Every once in a while we’ll run an old burger that we’ve done in the past. Then sometimes we’ll do one-offs. A few years ago when Pentagram started touring again, we did a one-off for them over the weekend when they played in Chicago. At that time it was a pretty big deal that Pentagram was touring at all so the guy was alive so we did a burger.
What goes into creating a burger? How many people work on actually making the new burgers?
It’s case by case. A lot of times we’ll have the band as an inspiration. We’ll put in together, start working on ideas, and it can be one guy doing the whole thing and he comes in like “Look, man, here’s my idea, this is what I did,” and it’s awesome. There have been a lot of times where it’s a collaborative effort, kind of like a band where you come in and say, “this is my idea and I’m going to do this and this and this” and you try it and it doesn’t necessarily hit the mark right out of the gate, so you go back and talk to the other chefs and talk to the sous chefs and say “okay, what should we do here,” and everyone puts in their ideas and it develops and develops and builds until you have the final product. So it goes both ways.
Are the same burgers at every location?
For the most part, the menu stays pretty static as far as the core burgers. The locations may have one or two different ones, like at the Schaumburg location they run the Sourvein on the permanent menu, it’s got chicken and waffles on it. But, for the most part, the Kuma, Slayer, Black Sabbath, all those things are static across the board at all locations.
Were Indianapolis diners familiar with Kumas, or was it essentially like starting all over again?
We’re not super far from Chicago, it’s only a couple hour drive. So, there are people who are familiar with what we do and are excited about it. There is a small but very active metal scene in Indianapolis, so the reception has been really good among those crowds, but at the same time, like you said, there’s a lot of starting over, reintroducing ourselves, explaining why we’ve been able to do what we’ve been doing for the last, moving on our 12th year now.
Do you think it could work in any city with a working class neighborhood? Or is it kind of not a one size fits all sort of thing.
I don’t necessarily think it’s a one-size fits all sort of a thing, but what I will say is that the style of music that we’re talking about appeals to a wide range of people and obviously it was, I think, created as a result of people being, I don’t know, frustrated with their situations or whatever it is, but it’s not like millionaires starting metal bands, you know? And so, I think there’s a wide base of people that it appeals to, and I think that that’s present anywhere. So, if you can go someplace, produce a solid product, and produce an awesome atmosphere I think it’ll work, it just depends on how long you’re willing to weather the storm.
Were you familiar with Indianapolis before you moved there to run the location?
Yeah, I was born and raised in Indiana, and am from northern Indiana so I used to go to shows in Indianapolis at least semi-regularly when I was growing up and I knew people down here, my girlfriend lives down here and she’s got a pretty wide network of people too, and I knew a lot of them, so, yeah.
Are there plans to open more locations? How big do you and the rest of the people at Kuma’s envision the brand being?
I’m one part of kind of a larger team but I think the sky is the limit depending on the community you go into. Certainly, I think if we keep with moving into a working class neighborhood, it’ll work long term as long as you can weather the storm and appeal to the people that live in those communities. It makes sense for Indianapolis because it’s very similar to what we were doing when we started out. Would it work in South Dakota? I have no idea, but there’s a lot of testing and market research that goes into things like that so who knows how big it could get.
Are there any plans immediately to open any new locations in the near future?
Not instantly. I know that there’ll be another Chicago location, I believe, opening up in the distant future.
You’re a musician yourself. What came first: music or food?
Music. Well, I guess theoretically food. But yeah, absolutely, it’s not kind of something that just obviously occurred to me that food and music, or at least music of the style that you and I are talking about, would automatically go together, but it does work.
Is Encrust still a band?
No, we played our last show two years ago at the Culver Lounge. When this all started coming together and we were talking about opening a new location, we played our last show and kind of put it to rest.
Kuma’s Corner Indianapolis is located at 1127 Prospect Street, in Indianpolis, IN