By TYLER BARTON/Montana State News
It’s the end of a busy day. Jonathan Heap is wearing a black chef’s coat, still greasy from the day’s service. A bandana is tied around his forehead to keep the sweat out of his eyes. Athlene Heap is wearing a white coat, along with a tidy chef’s cap. Both are cleaning up after a hard day’s work, scrubbing grills and scouring dishes. The kitchen still sizzles with the residual heat of cooking, signaling only hotter days to come as the summer approaches.
There is not much room to maneuver inside the kitchen. It is, after all, only a school bus that has been refit with cabinets, drawers, grills, and more. Jonathan’s head nearly touches the ceiling as he stands over the stove, cleaning away.
They are tired but satisfied.
Jonathan and Athlene, a married couple and owners of the Heap Burger, have one mission: to make the finest burgers in Bozeman.
The Heap Burger bus is hard to miss. If you’re driving down Oak Street, you can spot it with even the most casual northward glance, resting in the Kenyon Noble parking lot where it permanently resides. It’s big, bold, and unmistakably bright red—a school bus repainted and repurposed into a restaurant.
Sitting in the driver’s windows is a huge sign which reads “OPEN.” The windows on the starboard side of the bus have been repurposed into a single sliding window at which hungry customers can place their order. Adorning the same side of the bus is a collection of classic highway signs, and a menu which consists almost entirely of the quintessential American entrée: burgers.
Its burgers are similarly big and bold, as well as spectacularly messy. Served with house-made kettle chips and one of a variety of drinks, the Heap’s burgers make for a delicious meal for hungry and discerning Bozemanites.
“There are so many burger places in town,” says Jonathan, the Heap Burger’s head chef. “So many. Everybody sells a burger. Even the sushi joints in town sell burgers. … We decided if we were going to make them, we were going to make the best ones in town.”
It’s hard to argue that they haven’t met their goal. The Heap Burger uses the finest, freshest ingredients they can find. Their burgers are one-third-pound, hand-pressed patties, made with freshly ground beef. Their buns are grilled and made locally at On The Rise Bakery. They use only fresh condiments.
And their menu is nothing to scoff at, featuring a variety of flavors not found anywhere else in the valley. The menu ranges from basic (the Grandma Heap: Dill Pickles, Red Onion, and Ketchup—just the way Grandma Heap liked it), to classic (the American: American cheese, dill pickles, red onion, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard, and mayo—a recipe as old as the burger itself), to unique (the Kitchen Sink: raspberry jam, jalapenos, bacon, a soft-fried egg, and cheddar cheese), to downright exotic (the Preschooler: creamy peanut butter, house-made jalapeno jam, fried pickles, and American cheese—part of a rotating special; it’s better than it sounds).
So what goes into creating these tasty, unique burgers? The scrubbing stops—Jonathan pauses for a moment to answer.
“Taste, taste, taste,” he says, emphasizing it more every time. “Taste again. It’s constantly eating, to be honest.”
A moment passes, and he resumes his cleaning. “Coming down with some hot weights,” he says, bringing still-heated kitchenware down the narrow aisle of the bus. Athlene shuffles aside to give him room, then goes back to her duties. It’s oddly effortless. The couple handles their daily routine with the ease of a well-oiled—or, rather, well-greased—machine.
Each burger’s flavor, or rather, each “flavor profile,” as Jonathan calls them, is carefully considered—made and remade in a variety of ways until it is perfected.
“There’s groups of flavors,” he says, “groups of ingredients that you use to bring out subtleties and nuances in the other flavors. … I often get stuck on flavor profiles. I often feel bad for Athlene because when I get stuck on them, it’s two or three meals a day that I’m making things with those flavors going into them. Chicken burgers, pasta dishes, salads—anything I can to get those flavors right and worked out.”
For example, Jonathan says that he was once stuck on a specific flavor profile, namely apple, bacon and fennel. This profile eventually inspired one of their monthly specials, the Mountina, which featured green apples, carmelized onions, apple-Pernod reduction, lettuce, tomato and Mountina cheese. But sometimes burgers have to be changed, simply because it doesn’t taste exactly how it should.
“We have to sometimes increase the amount of apple that goes into it, because the beef dulls the apple flavor,” he explains. “Or we decide that it’s not hitting your mouth the right way—that you get all of the flavors and then at the end you get the bacon. So we decide that the bacon needs to be closer to the bottom of the burger so it hits your tongue sooner so it all mixes together.”
He shrugs. “It’s a lot of trial and error. Not many I’ve done have worked the first time. It makes me feel good when they do.”
Jonathan’s keen awareness of taste and food did not come as an accident. He has a long history with food. But when and where did it start?
He chuckles at the question—it’s a broad query, but, for him, one with a blindingly obvious answer.
“I think at some point, I always knew,” Jonathan says. “Growing up I was the little fat kid who always loved food. Be it a movie that had a good food scene in it, or helping mix pancakes because I liked watching the oil mix in all the dry ingredients and disappear. I’ve always liked food.”
When he was a teenager, his love of food even allowed him to both rebel against his parents and earn favor with the ladies. “As I started to get older in high school, we weren’t really allowed to date before we were 16. But there were a couple of girls that my best friend and I liked. So we started doing dinner parties every week. We went to a different house and cooked dinner for each other as an excuse to go on dates without going on dates.”
He smiles. “I found that was a really good way to get girls. They were always really impressed when you could cook.”
As the years went on, when Jonathan went to college, he switched between studying a number of different subjects, including computer science, business management, marketing, accounting and pre-dental.
Jonathan says, “After a semester of each, I was like, ‘Yeah, this isn’t what I want to do. Why am I doing this?’ So I’d switch again.”
Finally, in between semesters, inspired by his lifelong love of food, he decided to go to culinary school.
“Loved it,” he says. “We got to eat our homework every day.”
“You got to eat other people’s homework every day,” Athlene adds, eliciting a laugh.
He eventually graduated top of his class. After graduating, he worked a number of different jobs. The last job he worked was as a chef at a retirement home. The home advertised that they made everything from scratch—fresh mashed potatoes, homemade bread and more.
The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“I got really excited,” says Jonathan, “but quickly found that what they were advertising and what they were doing were not the same. It was like heating up Stover’s mac n’ cheese. It was just horrible. I felt dirty every day that the customers were paying for something they thought they were getting, and they weren’t getting it.”
Jonathan wanted more than that. He wanted to serve good, quality food. So, he began to brainstorm, and came up with the idea of a food truck. After pitching the idea to investors, and running through several versions of the plan (one of which involved a British double-decker bus, which would’ve had seating on the second floor; another involved setting up in North Dakota to serve hungry oil field workers), they settled on the Heap Burger. The rest is delicious, scrumptious history.
They aren’t done yet, though. Across the six years that it has been open, Heap Burger has grown 16 to 25 percent each year, which is not a small achievement in a restaurant-filled town such as Bozeman.
“Something that I think is exciting,” Athlene says, “about opening a food business in this valley is that Bozeman has a lot of good food. A lot. And it’s exciting to be part of that food scene as an active participant. And then on top of that, to be recognized for having good food among those other good restaurants and chefs.”
As successful as the Heap Burger currently is, the Heaps are excited for the possibilities of the future.
“Truth be told,” Athlene continues, “[the bus] was never meant to be the end-all be-all for us. It was meant to be a way to get our foot in the door of the restaurant business and move up to something different and bigger.”
If this is only the start, one can only imagine what a bigger, better restaurant might look like.
“Well, Jonathan has about five different restaurant ideas,” says Athlene.
Jonathan laughs. “My pipe dream is I want to move to an island in Honduras and make all-you-can-eat buffet food down there… A comfort food restaurant is something I’ve always wanted to do. Something where you go in and it’s all served family-style, like going to Grandma’s house on Sunday afternoons.”
That isn’t his only idea. “A Brazilian-style grill mixed with a Montana steakhouse. So, big cuts of meat, seasoned with Montana flavors, done with Montana sides, done with bison, elk, those kinds of things—but all cooked with that rotisserie style used in Brazilian grills. I think with the tourist population up here, that would be a huge hit.
“I would love to get to walk away from these,” he says, motioning to the grills. “I always say with our food here: It’s just flippin’ burgers. There’s a reason they make jokes about it. It’s not hard, what we do. We take the time to do it right, but anyone can learn it… I’d love to someday walk away and have someone else run [the Heap Burger].”
Despite their love for the Heap Burger, if they could establish a new restaurant, they would, bringing their culinary skill to new and expanding venues, while making new and exciting food. And, as Athlene mentions, “The bus is always for sale for the right price.”
Whatever their future holds, one thing is for certain: Jonathan and Athlene will continue being passionate about food. The Heap Burger is a delicious proof of concept—prototype of things to come. But in the meantime, go try a burger. You won’t regret it.
– edited by Emma Hamburg