What do Ted Nugent, Wilson Phillips and Smokey Robinson have to do with last month's opening of CaliBurger in Pasadena? They are just some of the artists featured at retro dinner concert theater the Rose, which houses the first California location of the international burger chain.
The 900-plus-seat Rose caters to a middle-aged clientele that orders from a rotating menu including such classics as prime rib, lasagne, wedge salad and salmon. Owner Lance Sterling perfected the menu at his other concert venue, the Canyon in Agoura Hills. He also owns the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills and the Libbey Bowl in Ojai. But he'd long wanted to bring a tasty but cheaper and faster alternative to the neighborhood to balance out the venue’s plated offerings.
“When you come to a concert, if you're over [age] 40, you want to sit down and be taken care of,” Sterling tells the L.A. Weekly. “They want to come in and sit down to see [Berlin lead singer] Terri Nunn on the stage and want to eat with their significant other. They don't want to be in a meat market. They want to have good food.”
That said, Sterling noticed that patrons at the Canyon would sometimes opt to grab quick food elsewhere. Instead of losing business to the competitors, he decided to provide that alternative himself. He started seeking a burger concept, and after hearing that CaliBurger won in a best-burger competition in Seattle, he flew north to check it out.
CaliBurger boasts locations in 12 countries around the world, including China, Dubai, Sweden and Malaysia, but despite its name, sunny aesthetic and its founder John Miller’s SoCal roots, it never existed in California until Sterling bought the SoCal franchise rights. In addition to the CaliBurger Pasadena location, he's planning to open another location close to the Canyon in Agoura Hills.
While CaliBurger clearly channels In-N-Out’s look and menu (the CaliDouble and Cali-style fries are exactly what you think they are), it also offers chicken sandwiches, bacon-topped burgers and spiked milkshakes. In-N-Out devotees can decide for themselves whether CaliBurger is a true rival for SoCal’s fast food burger crown.
CaliBurger also sets itself apart with its high-tech gadgetry. A mobile app allows you to order ahead from your phone, so your food is waiting for you when you arrive. Or use the self-ordering kiosks to minimize human interaction while you charge your devices at a station and play Minecraft or Hashtag Blitz on the giant FunWall video screens. Just opposite the FunWall, however, is the box office desk for the Rose, and next to that is one more incongruous element: a long counter known as the Chef's Gallery, which currently offers freshly made pizzas and a salad bar. Sterling explains this head-scratching addition by revealing the history of his Paseo Colorado space, where he says a Gelson’s grocery store used to sit.
When Sterling first opened the Rose, residents would wander in and reminisce about the sandwiches, pizzas and salads at Gelson’s fresh food counters. “I said, ‘I will put that back for you.’ It's open now. I only have salad and pizza and desserts up, but the deal is is that someday I want to find a sushi chef that wants to do his own sushi, and I'll set him up with a legal sushi counter,” Sterling says.
Gelson’s DNA also lives on through its kitchen, which has been revitalized by the Rose. “That's why we don't serve rib-eye [like the Canyon does], because I couldn't do flame in here, so I can't caramelize,” Sterling says. Caliburger operates out of the former Gelson's bakery, and the pizza counter is located where the floral department used to be. "That pizza oven that is over there is a ventless pizza oven. We can literally make a pizza every two minutes. Then there's a meat department in the back that I don't use," Sterling says.
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The new CaliBurger hasn’t been operating as long as the Rose, which opened in February, but so far Sterling says he hasn’t noticed overflow traffic from the younger clientele, even though no wall separates the two spaces. “It's like it's not even there. It operates in its own little world,” he says. That may be true for now, but at the recent Berlin concert at the Rose, a family with teenagers was seen enjoying CaliBurgers and fries at a table before the concert started.
The loyal concertgoers and tech-savvy burger aficionados aren’t the only ones checking out Sterling’s curious mix of eateries. "Pretty much if you're a fireman, a security guard in downtown [Pasadena], they go in there," says Sterling. "I think we're a huge hit with all of the people who work at night.”
So far, neither the Rose nor CaliBurger, located in Pasadena’s Paseo Colorado shopping center, has signage on the exterior of the building. CaliBurger is open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. daily, while the Rose opens three nights a week for concerts.