What is a burger worth? There is the price — what the restaurant charges, a dollar amount assigned and posted on a menu — and there is the cost, the money that goes into producing it, from ingredients to labor to the electric bill. Neither fully speaks to what it’s worth, though. Sometimes, especially in Los Angeles, a burger’s worth transcends the number next to the dollar sign. It can be a familiar comfort, a beacon of aspiration, or a lifeline in a neighborhood that has started leaving people behind.
The price of a burger at the Window at American Beauty (stylized as Win~Dow) is $3.95. It comes with a single patty of certified Angus beef pressed on the griddle with onions, house sauce, pickles, and American cheese, served on a Martin’s potato roll. Four dollars for that much burger is an almost absurdly low price, even by fast food standards.
First, look at the American chain landscape. A quarter pounder with cheese at McDonald’s is $3.79; a Big Mac is $3.99. A double-double at In-N-Out is $4.35 (singles are a modest $3), and a double at Shake Shack is north of $8; an almost identical-looking double at the Window is under $7. With the exception of In-N-Out, each of those fast food companies has locations not only domestically but across the globe, and all benefit from the sort of economies of scale that make so-called cheap food profitable. Shake Shack has 254 locations globally, and even it can’t sell a cheeseburger for under $5.99.
Now consider that the Window is attached to American Beauty, a more upscale steakhouse owned by the American Gonzo Food Corporation — the group that also founded Superba and the Pitfire Pizza chain. And then, think of the location in the heart of cool kid Venice, the neighborhood next to the glittering ocean, home to one of the more expensive zip codes in America. Four dollars for a burger here isn’t just ridiculously inexpensive, it’s almost suspicious. In the context of Venice’s decade-long discussion about gentrification, it’s hard not to ask: Is this $4 burger a cover to avoid having an otherwise very hard conversation?
“We’re not losing money on the burgers,” assures Jeff Goodman, CEO of American Gonzo Food Corp, overseeing the group’s dozen sit-down and fast-casual restaurants around Southern California. “It’s certainly not the item with the highest profit margin. We have to be really clever and thoughtful about all the surrounding work we do.” Without providing concrete numbers, Goodman estimates that the Window sells somewhere between 500 and 700 sandwiches a day (there are fried chicken sandwiches and some salads too, but the majority of sales come from the burger). The “restaurant,” really just a duet of takeaway windows run by a necessarily small staff, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. So if Goodman’s numbers prove accurate, that averages out to roughly two sandwiches a minute, every day.
Low overhead and high volume don’t tell the whole story. Goodman admits that the burger, in some sense, is a marketing win for American Beauty overall, where dinnertime steaks inside can cost north of $120, and cocktails start at $14. “Three is a powerful number,” he says of the burger’s price. “We wanted this to be an egalitarian place, where anyone in the neighborhood or otherwise can come and have a meal.”
“It’s a touchy thing in this neighborhood,” admits American Beauty co-owner Bruce Horwitz, who is also an owner in the long-running Venice restaurant the Tasting Kitchen. “It wasn’t simply lip service during the endless community meetings that we had, that we were not some moneyed developers coming to gentrify their neighborhood. We actually wanted to add something of substance and value, and meet them where they were.”
Part of what makes the conversation around American Beauty so touchy is the space itself. For two decades the building was known as Venice Ranch Market and La Fiesta Brava, a homestyle Mexican food restaurant serving $1.50 tacos. It closed (and ultimately relocated) in 2015 amid a fury of controversy and protests from locals concerned about losing yet another small family business in Venice, at a time when Snapchat was crowding out the rental market and with homelessness on the rise. Horwitz told local blog Yo! Venice! at the time that he felt for the Camarena family that ran La Fiesta Brava, who had been operating under a month-to-month lease for years.
Offering “something for everyone” is a common talking point for new restaurants, particularly those in changing communities where locals have good reason to be wary of getting priced out of the conversation. It’s also just smart business sense for operators in restaurant markets as saturated as Los Angeles, where every dollar and diner counts.
Cynics would say that a few attractively priced items on an otherwise more expensive restaurant menu often serves as little more than a shield against having hard social discussions. A $3.95 cheeseburger is exactly the sort of dish that would help to obfuscate a narrative about an unwelcome restaurant spending its way in to a market that didn’t ask for it, then hiking up prices and alienating large groups of people. Horwitz says that’s not what’s happening here.
“You don’t really open an entire daytime service because you think the optics are good on the burger,” Horwitz argues. “Lunch in Venice is hard, no matter who you are. Abbot Kinney is littered with failed attempts.”
Optimists would say that an inexpensive meal is still a win — for those on a fixed income, for those local skeptics used to only seeing their neighborhood’s prices go up, and for business owners capable and smart enough to harness its power while still operating at a profit. Who cares if the steak inside is $120, when the burger feeds hundreds of people every day for under $4? If affordability and community bridging is the goal, then a $3.95 cheeseburger is exactly the sort of dish that helps on both accounts.
Goodman and Horwitz know the history of the building they occupy, and they see this protracted era of Venice as a community still in flux. The neighborhood is a high-low paradox of its own, where tech money can drive out local renters and push homes to sell for $14 million, all on the same block as a homeless encampment.
They also know the model can work elsewhere, with another Window attached to a different kitchen they own in a different part of town — or, as Goodman envisions, as a standalone building with a small footprint, and maybe a drive-thru model. The plan for now is to plant a second Window right on the Venice Boardwalk at 1827 Ocean Front sometime this summer, in a tiny standalone stall steps from the sand. The prices will be the same as on Rose Avenue, and the expectation is that this new location will also turn out 500 or so burgers every day, if not more considering it’ll be serving until 7 p.m.
Goodman is thinking beyond Venice too, and says the company is eager to see where they should go next. What that new neighborhood will be, and how that community might feel about a $3.95 cheeseburger, remains to be seen. For now, the current Window at American Beauty in firmly entrenched on Rose Avenue in Venice, and Goodman and Horwitz are happy to be turning out two burgers a minute, every minute, to the hundreds of locals that keep choosing to show up every single day.
The Win~dow at American Beauty is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 425 Rose Avenue in Venice.