PANTEGO – It happened one night when chef Kenny Mills was working at a restaurant in Dallas.
“A bunch of us were sitting around talking and one guy said, ‘Burgers is the hot new concept. Everybody’s doing it,’ ” Mills said. “One chef said, ‘I’m experimenting with brisket.’ I said, ‘Really, you’re cooking brisket and mixing it in with your hamburger?’ He said, ‘No, no. I’m grounding up brisket and making brisket burgers.’ So when I was driving home, I thought to myself, ‘Man, he missed it.’
“When you cook the brisket first and let it cool and mix it in with your hamburger, then you’ve got something. So I went home and got the hamburger meat and the [slow roasted] barbeque and mixed it together. Then I came up with a steak sauce and added bacon and cheese and we had a great hamburger.”
Mills got even more creative. He also came up with a burger with a mixture of pulled pork (the Carolina pork burger). He kept on experimenting with ways to cook the burgers and created a line of hamburgers that became a big hit with customers.
In recent years, Mills’ burgers have been served at Chop House Burgers in Pantego. In 2012, the burgers were featured on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives with Guy Fieiri on the Food Network.
“The first year we were open [originally in Arlington 2011], we did about a half million dollars in sales,” Mills said. “But after the feature story about us on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives aired, we doubled our sales that year. The year after that, we didn’t know what to do. We had lines out the door and half way around the block.”
Mills’ philosophy of success is simple. It’s all about staying focused.
“Don’t quit,” Mills said. “A long time ago, I worked at On The Border and we opened up their second store. During training, the manager told everyone to take a break and everybody but me went outside. But I kept working. Then one of the managers came up to me and said, ‘Do you know why you will succeed and they won’t? It’s because you don’t quit.’ I’m just too hard-headed to quit. I find that people give up at the wrong time a lot of times. I find they will succeed if they’ll just give it a little bit more.”
Mills, 56, said he’s tried working in other occupations, but he always has found his niche in the restaurant business.
“When I was 15 and in high school and needed a job, I applied at a restaurant in Arlington called King’s Table,” he said. “I started washing dishes and busing tables. I’ve been doing it ever since. So, that’s more than 40 years. About 1980, TGI Fridays opened up in Arlington. I got a job there as a line cook. I got serious about cooking then, and it just accelerated.”
Mills sold Chop House Burgers to Michael Lee in early February, but he still counsels Lee and comes in and cooks when there’s an influx of customers. Mills said Lee bought his recipes and prepare the food the same way he did when he owned the Pantego restaurant. Kevin Lee, Michael Lee’s son, helps manage the restaurant.
Mills said he’s always enjoyed the process of working with a restaurant staff to turn out great food for customers.
“When the rush hits, it’s 90 miles per hour with your hair on fire,” he said. “Everything is clicking, everybody’s happy, everybody’s working and the food is going out. It’s kind of a cool moment. You’re full of pride because everybody that you’ve trained is doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Everybody is in a groove and they’re doing it correctly.
“You feel good about the food that’s going out because it’s your concept. You’ve taken it from an idea to a full-blown concept. You feel like everything that you’ve trained everybody on has come to fruition.”
Taylor Gerlach, a kitchen manager who has worked for Chop House Burgers for four years, said Mills is a great teacher.
“I’ve never learned so many things,” she said. “Chef Kenny learned by doing things hands on. He gave me a chance. I went from dreading the job to loving the job. I’m not sure at what point that that happened, but it happened without me realizing it. I love working here. It’s just something that I enjoy. There’s so much backlash about food places, but the thing about this place is it’s not fast food. It’s a different experience here. Everything is done by hand. I definitely enjoy doing this.”
Abby Nichols, another Chop House employee, said she also is sold on working under Mills’ supervision.
“I like the environment,” Nichols said. “I like the fact that we’ve been on TV. People come and say, ‘Hey, you guys were on TV.’ It’s a lot of fun. Chef [Mills] creates a lot of interesting burgers. He comes out with a lot of specials and people come in and they like them. Then word spreads. He does a lot of interesting stuff that I haven’t seen anywhere else.”
One happy customer is Lynne Burachel of Arlington, who said she comes in once a week.
“The food is great and always fresh,” she said. “Everybody is always really nice. When I ask for the different dressings, they say it’s never a problem. I really go for their salads. As far as their burgers go, I think their mushroom Swiss is the bomb. You always get plenty for your money.”
Chop House Burgers
2230 W. Park Row Drive