By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
After David Grossman took his very first bite of a premium hamburger at Epic Burger in 2008, a math term immediately came to mind.
“It wasn’t just great tasting,” recalls Grossman, who had also ordered fries and a strawberry milkshake for lunch at the eatery’s first Chicago location. “It also had a perfect bun-to-burger ratio.”
Twelve years later, Grossman—a Northbrook native and Highland Park resident since 2021—became Epic Burger’s president and CEO. The 56-year-old has overseen five locations, including spots in Skokie (Old Orchard Mall) and Evanston, since 2020.
Grossman is still very mindful of the crucial role math plays at thriving Epic Burger, home of the halal certified “More Mindful Burger.” But another discipline—theater, no less—also helps brings the house down.
“However, many people are working behind our counter at an Epic Burger, they’re all on stage, putting on a show every day,” Grossman says. “They’re performing genuinely for every customer. If someone enters one of our restaurants looking gloomy, our employees smile or give them a free cookie, hoping to turn that mood around. We surprise and delight.
“I learned a ton from (longtime Subway development agent) Phil Mesi,” Grossman adds. “He taught me that the last three feet of a 1,000-foot pipeline in the restaurant industry are the most important feet. The first 997 feet, you’re focusing on location, finding a good architect, purchasing the equipment, making sure the food is top-notch. But those elements rank behind the friendliness and interactions that take place in the last three feet—the distance between a diner and a cashier.”
Epic Burger’s biggest burger, by the way, stands nearly three feet tall (slight exaggeration) and should come with a Sherpa.
Grossman, a 1985 Glenbrook North High School graduate, chose to major in journalism— not math, not theater—at the University of Kansas. A varsity baseball player and a JV wrestler in high school, he covered the women’s basketball team in college and aimed to become either a sports announcer or a sportswriter.
But the script changed when he decided to cold call Subway one day in the late 1980s. Grossman wound up talking with Mesi.
“I told him I was trying to start a neon sign company,” Grossman says. “Remember when Subway shops had the words ‘We Bake Our Own Bread’ in neon lighting? Above the words was the image of a chef ’s hat, but it looked like a mushroom to many. My suggestion to Phil was, ‘Why don’t you replace the chef ’s hat with ‘Subway’ to draw even more attention to the name of the chain.
“He loved the recommendation.”
He also hired Grossman three weeks later to serve as a Subway director of leasing. Grossman worked at Subway from 1989 to 1996 before taking a position with General Growth Properties, a real estate company and shopping mall operator. His GGP tenure lasted 13 years. Grossman’s professional success continued at the Canadian fast casual restaurant franchise Freshii from 2009-2018.
“I’ve loved every job I’ve ever had,” says Grossman, who was a delivery boy for Mario’s Pizza in Northbrook during his junior and senior years at Glenbrook North. “Phil, at Subway, was an instant mentor, and I met and got to know some amazing entrepreneurs and real estate people at GGP.”
Boston-based Cue Ball Capital invested in Epic Burger several years ago. A founding general partner of Cue Ball, Mats Lederhausen—founder and CEO of the investment platform BE-CAUSE LLC— called Grossman in August 2020 and asked him to visit Epic Burger locations in the Chicago area during a 90-day stretch and then report back to him.
“I was surprised by what I discovered,” Grossman says. “Shortcuts had been taken. It wasn’t like the restaurant I knew when I ate my first Epic Burger. It was broken. “I fixed it.”
Grossman bought a 51-percent stake in Epic Burger and is in his third year as its president and CEO, with an eye on significantly expanding the enterprise before the end of the month. Don’t be surprised if the number of locations more than doubles.
“I’m super excited about Epic Burger’s next chapter,” Grossman says.
Grossman, a son of Sybil and the late Jerry Grossman, closed his book on bachelorhood when he married Lauren, a native of Deerfield, in 1994. They raised future Deerfield High School graduates Myles, Hallie, and Drew. Hallie, 25, died after a brief illness in March. She planned on attending medical school.
“Smart, silly, and loving, and she truly loved helping others,” David Grossman says. “Hallie never sought the spotlight, never liked the spotlight.
“I think about her every day.”
Leading a balanced life buoys Mr. Grossman. The family man enjoyed a split doubleheader with Drew on August 30, attending a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field before capping the day at the Train concert at Ravinia Festival. Decades ago, his uncle Ben, an avid skier and world traveler, introduced him to Thai food, and he’s essentially been addicted to the “adventurous” food ever since.
Grossman also plays softball in Wilmette on Sundays and rarely turns down opportunities to ride his mountain bike, play paddle tennis, strike winners in pickleball, or ski.
“I work hard and I try to work smart, every day,” says Grossman, who was a force behind the openings of three Indianapolis businesses— a Freshii, an Elevation Burger, and a Pinkberry—in one day. “And I never wake up and think, ‘Ugh, I have to go to work.’ When I was young, my dad liked to tell me, ‘Be your own boss someday, because you’ll get to do everything your way.’
“But there’s so much more to life than work,” he continues. “Balance is the key. I like spending time with family, friends, and neighbors, hearing the waves crash the shore in Highland Park, playing sports, going to concerts, and teaching. I love to see people develop into better people, whether that’s at work or in another part of my life.”
David Grossman’s bottom line?
“It’s all about people, because you won’t find fulfillment if you go it alone,” he says.
For more information and a look at Epic Burger’s menu and five locations, visit epicburger.com. Epic Burger, which also offers chicken sandwiches and hot dogs and a variety of milkshakes, among other fare, will celebrate its 15th anniversary by offering a “$5 Burger and Fry Combo” on September 15.