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Eateries offering upscale burgers

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ROBERT SCHAUL figured that chicken wings would be the major draw at his newly opened Bam Hero’s, burgers, & wings in Stafford County.

But it’s the freshly made burgers—including the popular Bam burger—along with the subs that have been bringing in the crowds to the eatery at 560 Celebrate Virginia Parkway.

They’re “flying off the shelves,” as Schaul put it.

And no wonder.

“Everybody likes burgers,” said Billy Corbett, an Orange County caterer who recently opened Wise Guys Burgers & Dogs at 118 East Main St. in downtown Orange with two partners.

That goes a long way toward explaining why sandwiches, burgers and wraps have been the most resilient food category in this economic downturn, according to The NPD Group, a leading market research company. It also cited the fact that they’re affordable, portable and easy to customize.

Bam and Wise Guys are part of the latest trend of taking the humble hamburger more upscale. Both use freshly ground Angus beef that’s never seen the inside of a freezer.

Bam places orders for ground beef several times a week with restaurant supplier Sysco, and serves it in a number of combinations. The biggest is the Bam, a whopping double deck of 8-ounce patties. One is topped with bacon and American cheese. The other comes with onion rings and provolone.

The rest of the restaurant’s burgers are half that size. They include the meat lover’s, which includes bacon, provolone and pastrami; and the California, which gets slices of pineapple and provolone and a dollop of barbecue sauce.

Wise Guys—the name refers to comedians, not mobsters—sources its beef locally and adds a special seasoning blend to take it up a notch.

“We use an 80–20 blend” of hamburger, Corbett said. “We had to leave a little fat in them for flavor. They’re really juicy and hot and fresh.”

Customers have their choice of more than a dozen toppings, including fried onions, homegrown tomatoes, banana peppers and a variety of aged cheeses. (Ben Sherman, one of the owners, has folded his Orange Cheese Distribution LLC into Wise Guys.) Many people order their burgers with a side of sweet potato fries glazed with brown sugar.

Both Bam and Wise Guys also have fun themes. Bam’s is superheroes—both real and the comic book variety.

“I loved superheroes growing up, and we really felt that community heroes don’t get the respect they deserve,” said Schaul, who was a teacher and coach before getting into the restaurant business full time about six years ago.

He opened the business with his father, who’s also named Robert Schaul and is a retired Prince William County policeman; his mother, Barbara; and a friend, John Hickey.

“It’s always been a dream of mine,” said the younger Schaul, who has worked as a cook, bartender and manager. “I’ve been saving money for the last five years. I figured I’ve been working 70-hour weeks for other people. Why not work 70 hours for myself?”

He and his partners came up with the name Bam and the logo, which substitutes a fist for the “m,” because people say “Bam” and give a fist-pump when something is really good, he said.

One side of the restaurant is decorated with Schaul’s beloved comic book characters and classic arcade games from the 1990s, and the other with photos of real-life heroes. Firefighters, police officers, nurses, teachers and other “community heroes” get 10 percent off their tab.

“Most of the people who play the games are adults in their 40s or 50s,” said Schaul. “They say, ‘I haven’t played Ms. Pacman in ages.’”

Bam also shows superhero movies and cartoons on one of its TVs during the evening.

Wise Guys is decorated with memorabilia of famous comedians, from the Three Stooges to Jay Leno. There are even pictures of them on the napkin dispensers, and some of their jokes decorate the menu.

“Everybody’s wise guys are mobsters,” said Corbett, who owns Sweet William’s catering company.

When he teamed up with Sherman and Mike Lindow to open the restaurant, they decided to feature the funny guys instead and offer quick service for customers looking to grab a bite to eat on their lunch hour.

“We’ll be offering franchises,” Corbett said. “We’ve got to get this one worked out before we’re ready for that, but it won’t be long. There’ll be a Wise Guys in every town—I hope.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407