The Hamburg Steak was one of the most popular dishes at Delmonico's, a restaurant that opened at the port of New York in the mid-19th century. It consisted of ground meat served with onions and breadcrumbs, much to the taste of the thousands of German immigrants who came to the promised land from the port of Hamburg.
That was a prelude of what was to come, the hamburger as we know it today: cooked ground meat placed between two pieces of sliced bread and crowned with various toppings. The history of the hamburger, like many international dishes, is fraught with journeys, migrations and generational change. As is the history of Juan José Rodríguez García, the man who "reinvented" the hamburger in Madrid.
J. J. is essentially a regular guy. He looks a bit old-fashioned, and is the type who doesn't talk much but drops Zen statements meant as life lessons, such as "work a lot, but spend little." He is short, wears his graying hair parted to the side, and sports metal-rimmed glasses that seem to weigh heavy on his small nose. He also boasts about never having taken a single day off work sick.
He was born in Siñeriz (Asturias) 70 years ago and retired in recent weeks after building a meat empire with establishments at numerous food markets in Madrid, such as San Miguel, San Antón, La Paz and Torrijos, as well as other strategic locations in the capital. This mini chain of gourmet hamburger eateries is called Hamburguesa Nostra, and it has managed to find a niche in a market that seemed impenetrable, given the power of franchises such as McDonald's.
For two or three euros, patrons can take home a beef patty made in 30 different and unusual ways: Indian, BBQ, Mediterranean, Mexican, Japanese and so on. The bread is sold separately for 1.80 euros.
But this story begins long before the creation and expansion of the burger chain. In fact, it began 55 years ago, on a train from Gijón to Madrid. A 16-year-old J. J. was on it, ready to start a life of his own in his promised land, Madrid. More specifically, he was headed for a pension on Toledo street and the butcher's shop Hijos de Lechuga, on Mayor street, where a cousin of his had landed him a job.
"They set me up as a butcher, just as they could have set me up as a shoemaker," says Rodríguez, who took seven years to learn everything he needed to create his own business. At the age of 24, he rented a stand at the Maravillas market, and later, in 1973, bought a stall at Chamartín market, calling it Establecimiento J. J. Rodríguez. Even later he bought the adjoining stall, and then another, until he owned six. "Some of them we actually bought because it didn't look good to have them shut up, and because I always preferred buying to selling," he explains. Three of the stalls sold meat, and the others supplied customers with cheese, ham and ready-made food.
But the truly extraordinary thing about Rodríguez's success is that, instead of selling meat from French or Belgian breeders, as most other butchers did, he focused on Spanish cattle, and spent long hours traveling across the country to find the best breeds.
"There is abundant life outside the well-known Galician beef," he jokes. And he is right: breeds such as serrana negra, limusina, avileña and charolesa in the Madrid mountains of Guadarrama; morucha from Salamanca; retinta from Extremadura and Andalusia... Up to 16 different types of beef, sheep and pork meat, which he sold "even if it was more expensive and less profitable at first," he recalls.
This focus on national products was kept on by his son Carlos, who made a strategic name change from Establecimientos Rodríguez to Raza Nostra. But the secret of the success of this family business remains grounded on the quality and variety of Spanish meat.
"We built a good client base, both restaurants and individuals; we only sold what we believed was the best, even if it was more expensive," says Rodríguez.
Before making a business plan for his father, Carlos - an agricultural scientist by trade - did the same for other companies. He is the one who had the vision of "popularizing such a select product" by turning it into hamburgers. Three years ago, the Rodríguez family began experimenting with burgers made from their own ground beef.
"First we sold them at the butcher stalls, as another product from our factory, like our sausages," says Carlos. "But when we saw the good customer response, we launched Hamburguesa Nostra." This year alone, they have opened 10 stores. In two years, they have tripled their staff and currently employ 80 people.
The now-retired J. J. Rodríguez still makes the rounds of his small empire every day, because he finds it hard to stay at home. At the age of 70, he has started a new life as McRodríguez.