Cathie Anderson: Burger joints fight it out at the corner of Madison and Sunrise

Published: Tuesday, May. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 22, 2012 - 10:39 pm

The Habit and Fuddruckers crouch behind a shared berm on Sunrise Boulevard, so close that a walk between them burns little more than 20 calories. Across Sunrise Boulevard, also behind a bunker or, um, berm, lie Smashburger and Nations Giant Hamburgers.

My friends, this stretch of road in Citrus Heights is pretty close to the center of the region, and I'd also call it the center of the action in a tussle for burger supremacy that has national chains opening sites left and right.

It would seem as though the four restaurants, nestled not too far from Madison Avenue, would bite into one another's sales, but that's not necessarily true. In fact, Sacramento State business professor Jai Joon Lee told me that the chains' search for similar demographics often leads to such clusters.

David Prokupek, Smashburger's chief executive, said his Sunrise eatery is doing 50 percent more business in Citrus Heights than at four other regional locations.

"I think it's healthy to be around where there's competition," he said, "… where people are already making a lot of choices about what to eat. I think that actually adds to convenience."

Smashburger and other so-called "fast-casual" restaurants have higher prices – $8 to $10 for a meal – than fast-food chains but promise premium ingredients. Prokupek calls it "better food fast."

Agent Carolyn Billeci of Nationwide Insurance sits in an office next door to The Habit, and she'd like for you to drop by but not solely for the obvious reason: "Sometimes we get people walking by, and they see our sidewalk sign and come in and get a quote."

Asked to pick one burger, the Bay Area native copped to a bias for El Cerrito-based Nations and its pie. Plus, she adds, "You can get a hamburger at 7 a.m., if you want."

It's Z recipe, or no deal

No one cares quite like a daughter does about getting Mom's recipes right. Vikki Elzey, chief executive of Sacramento's Z-Foods, is proof.

Elzey already has sealed contracts with Corti Brothers, Sunrise Natural Foods, and recently Nugget Markets to sell the sweet and sour zucchini relish that she makes with a recipe from her late mother, Mellie Stephens.

The difficulty has not been finding retailers, Elzey said. Rather, she's struggled with finding a manufacturer that can consistently replicate the taste that had friends and neighbors raving over the relish.

"Once you buy a product and you love it and you go back and get it again, you expect it to be the same," said Elzey, who is sitting on a shipment of 158 cases that didn't come out right. "That's why I'm not going to even put this product ... on the shelves."

This is the second manufacturer that she's tried.

"We've just had the worst run of luck trying to find a (manufacturer)," Elzey said.

The setback has the 60-year-old entrepreneur seeking a commercial kitchen where she can make the relish herself.

A 10-ounce jar of the Z-(as in Zucchini)-Foods relish retails for $4.59, Elzey said. It's a great topping for hot dogs or other sandwiches, said Corti's Josh Moresi, but it can also be mixed with cream cheese and served as a topping for canapés.

Showtime and mealtime

Natomas High School graduate Teal Wicks won't be reprising the role of Elphaba when "Wicked" bows Wednesday at the Community Center Theatre. But Broadway is still tapping the talent cultivated here. Rescue's Ashley Dawn De Santis performs in the ensemble and understudies for Elphaba in the nearly sold-out production. De Santis, a St. Francis High School graduate, performed from ages 9-18 with the River City Theatre Company of Sacramento. Touring with the production since Jan. 10, De Santis will have a familiar place to lay her head since she's staying at home with parents Tim and Debbie Mortensen. ... My predecessor, Bob Shallit, told you back in March that a Mel's Diner would replace the nation's last Lyon's restaurant at 30th and J streets in late May. "Late" officially begins today, when Mel's opens its doors seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

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Read more articles by Cathie Anderson





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