Adrian Wong had one of those plum jobs his friends kind of hated him for having, pulling in six figures a year advising startup companies from the investment bank Morgan Stanley’s Boston office.
In the back of his mind, however, Wong dreamed of striking out on his own. He toyed with different concepts, but nothing clicked — until he saw a documentary about the rapid success of Chipotle.
That’s when Wong made his move, chucking cuff links for an apron and a $9-an-hour gig in the kitchen of the Mexican food chain.
Now, after six months of learning the nitty-gritty mechanics of the restaurant business, Wong is unveiling the reason for his inexplicable career change: Beta Burger, a Mission Hill eatery scheduled to open this summer that he hopes will become the Chipotle of the beef-and-bun segment, but with an unusual cooking technique.
Beta Burger is hardly the first burger company to try to carve out a niche between fast food and full-service restaurants — think Tasty Burger or Shake Shack. Nor will Wong be the first high-flying businessman to open a restaurant; Ayr Muir, the founder of Clover, started at the management-consulting giant McKinsey.
Wong’s particular take on the business includes a high-tech water vapor oven that keeps the burgers almost unbelievably moist and a healthy borrowing of Chipotle’s assembly line approach to toppings to create countless varieties of dishes.
“Fast food is all about customization now,” Wong said. “Millennials especially are saying, ‘I don’t want someone to tell me what I should eat. I want to create something personal to me.’ ”
Wong loved fast food as a kid. After conducting a market analysis, he concluded the mid-priced burger segment offered an opportunity to stand out, using the Chipotle formula.
Moreover, the so-called “fast-casual” segment, which combines the convenience and low price of fast food with the quality of a sit-down restaurant, has generally outperformed traditional chains such as McDonald’s.
Meanwhile, friends in the business cautioned that restaurants were a world unto themselves. The more they explained the intricacies, the more naïve Wong felt, which is how he ended up in the office of a Chipotle franchisee last year, handing over one of the stranger résumés the man had ever seen.
“The manager didn’t even know what Morgan Stanley was,” Wong recalled. “I told him it was like a bank. I think he assumed I was a teller or something.”
Wong worked both jobs at once, leaving his office on the 24th floor of a downtown skyscraper at 5 p.m. each day for a nearby Chipotle, where he worked until 11:30 p.m.
“It really humbled me,” Wong said. “I was cleaning bathrooms and washing dishes. It was not a glamorous job.”
It also taught him subtle but invaluable lessons he never learned getting a finance degree at Bentley University, or working at Morgan Stanley: Intangibles such as culture and morale were all-important to productivity, he discovered; adapting to slow or busy periods necessitated quick changes to employee schedules to prevent labor cost overruns; vegetables take longer to prep than meat — and so on.
Meanwhile, Wong looked for a way to make his burgers genuinely stand out. After trying a steak prepared by the “sous vide” technique, in which food is sealed in airtight plastic bags and slowly cooked in a warm water bath, he wondered if a burger could be made the same way.
The answer was, essentially, no. Health regulations discourage sous vide. Besides, it’s an inconsistent and time-consuming way to batch-cook large numbers of patties. He consulted with experienced Boston chef Tim Willis, who suggested a solution: The CVap oven, short for Controlled Vapor Technology.
The machine, invented by Winston Industries in the 1980s to keep KFC’s fried chicken from drying out, pumps heated water vapor into the cooking chamber, keeping the atmosphere humid and preventing the patties from drying out.
“Even the best chef can’t always make a dish exactly the same,” Willis said. “But with CVap, you can make the same burger every time.”
Each morning, the oven will cook the patties for about an hour at 135 degrees, then hold them at that temperature. At this stage, even Wong admits they resemble unappetizing “pink-gray hockey pucks.”
Not to worry — when a customer places an order, the burgers are finished off on a conventional flat-top grill, the direct heat adding texture, flavor, and visual appeal.
The result? A moist and flavorful patty that’s uniformly pink inside, something a good home chef might make on the backyard grill.
Beta Burger is gearing up for a June or July opening in a small storefront on Tremont Street. Wong said he’s excited, though not without reservations. Days before leaving Morgan Stanley for good in February, Wong’s boss asked how he was feeling.
“I was honest — I told him I was scared,” Wong said. “I was saying to myself, ‘Your life was just coming together and all of a sudden you’re taking a huge leap into the unknown.’ But I did my homework and this is the right time.”