Kai Campbell grew up in the South Ward, graduated from University of Virginia with a degree in economics, and came back to Newark. He never expeted to find himself behind a grill flipping burgers.
But those of us in Newark who enjoy a good gourmet burger can be thankful that he is.
Campbell opened BurgerWalla on Halsey Street at the end of 2014. If you’ve ever been to Shake Shack, Smash Burger or Five Guys, you get the idea. Fresh ground beef pressed just before it’s sizzled up on a hot grill and fries that taste like they were just cut from a potato.
Kai Campbell working the grille at BurgerWalla, a new gourmet burger joint on Halsey Street in Newark.
It’s also one of the few eateries anywhere where you can get Boylan sodas from the fountain. (Boylan, if you don’t know, is a little soda company that was founded in 1891 in Paterson. Known for its Birch Beer, the bottling company is still located in New Jersey – in Teterboro – and has expanded beyond its signature beverage to hand-crafted sodas made with real sugar, not high fructose corn syrup.)
“I’m super passionate about burgers,” Campbell said. “I’ve been working on burger recipes for a very long time. I would just make them for friends and family cookouts. And people always liked them.”
(You’re probably wondering what inspired the name, but you’ll have to read to the end for that.)
Campbell is one of a handful of pioneers on Halsey Street who has made a bet on the future. Right now, Halsey Street is still a work in progress, with construction workers frantically scurrying about to put the finishing touches on Prudential Financial’s office tower and gut and renovate the former Hahne’s department store directly across the street from BurgerWalla.
While it’s not a sure thing, it’s a pretty safe bet that the workers from Prudential as well as the hipsters eventually inhabiting Hahne’s will be spending their lunch hours devouring BurgerWalla’s beef, chicken, lamb, shrimp and veggie burgers.
“It’s one of the reasons why we opened up here,” said Campbell, who lived on Halsey Street before moving recently to the Ironbound. “We took the risk now and hopefully we’ll be rewarded with more bodies. The uptick in the area is definitely something we’re looking forward to.”
Campbell didn’t intend to get into the burger business when he graduated college. When he came back to Newark in 2004, he was hired to help organize the National Hip Hop Political Convention, a four-day event co-founded by a future mayor named Ras Baraka that brought politically active young people to Newark from all over the globe.
When the convention ended, Campbell landed a job in property management with the administration of Mayor Sharpe James, where he worked on eminent domain issues around the Home Depot development on Springfield Avenue and the Prudential Center arena.
After Cory Booker was elected mayor of Newark in 2006, Campbell assumed his days in City Hall were numbered. Instead then-Deputy Mayor Stefan Pryor asked Campbell to stay in the administration. He was among a group of economically savvy aides who created the Brick City Development Corp., the non-profit economic development arm of the city until it was reorganized last year by Mayor Baraka.
At the BCDC, Campbell worked in real estate development, hoping to convince chains like Dinosaur BBQ, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Hotel Indigo to take a chance on Newark.
About six years ago, he left the BCDC to start a development and consulting company. But when his business partner landed a job with a financial firm, Campbell decided to wind the business down and open BurgerWalla.
When he was working at the BCDC, Campbell said he frequently met with representatives of burger restaurants about opening one of their outlets in Newark, but they told him Newark wasn’t ready.
“I would meet with these folks to convince them, but eventually I said ‘screw it, I’ll do my own burger joint’,” Campbell said.
The emphasis at BurgerWalla is on quality. Like Shake Shack and other gourmet burger joints that are popping up all over New York City, BurgerWalla gets its meats from Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, the storied New York family butcher that moved to North Bergen in 2010.
“We looked at what’s the best can we afford and what we could afford to charge our customers for the best, and decided on Pat LaFrieda,” Campbell said. “I appreciate the farms they use, I appreciate the way they raise their animals and handle the meat.”
If there’s such a thing as a celebrity butcher, Pat LaFrieda Jr. would hold that title. The author of a book about meat and a glowing article in New York Magazine, LaFrieda creates custom burger blends for each of his restaurant clients.
Campbell said his restaurant isn’t aping Shake Shack. But if there’s one New York gourmet burger joint that he respects, it’s Mikey’s Burger on the Lower East Side.
Still, Campell said BurgerWalla is different than his pricier New York counterparts.
“The way we spice the burgers is all our own, these are all our own recipes,” Campbell said.
Campbell originally intended to open BurgerWalla in a building that he was planning to buy at the corner of Raymond Boulevard and Halsey streets. When the deal fell through, he ended up leasing space at the current location, 47 Halsey Street.
“I believe small investment should follow large investment,” Campbell said. “I can’t play with Prudential, but I can play next door to Prudential. The new folks that are coming to town – whether they work here, go to school here, or live here – will value a higher quality burger.”
So what exactly is a walla?
In Indian culture, Campbell explained, a walla is a salesperson. So a shrimp walla would be someone who sells shrimp. Ergo, a burger walla is someone who sells burgers, though in a country that worships the cow, it’s unlikely there are many burger wallas in India.
Let's just say we're glad cows are not deities in this country.