When Michael Dorian and Steve Cannon met as teenagers, and later worked together at Danfords Hotel & Marina in Port Jefferson, they couldn't possibly foresee the quandary they'd find themselves in together decades later.
In January, the two best friends opened Boxcar Burgers in a vacant space at the Ronkonkoma LIRR station — about six weeks before coronavirus restrictions kicked in for restaurants and LIRR ridership plummeted. The crisis had the potential to undo the long, tricky months of opening a new business.
"We got over all of the hurdles, and then a global pandemic hit," said Dorian. "What are the odds?"
The foundation of Boxcar Burgers is classic, griddled burgers, finished in three minutes flat and handed over inside a rustic space lined with brick and weathered wood a few steps from the train platform. Customers can take their burgers, hot dogs, hand cut fries and Tater tots to go, or eat at a long window counter with a view of the platform — at least, that was the original plan. Now, Cannon and Dorian mostly spend their days alone here, fielding takeout and delivery orders via phone and their website.
"The concept took a lot of time to figure out, such as the size and thickness of the burger," Cannon said. (He went on to spend 16 years at Danfords, as the manager of WAVE Restaurant and then food and beverage director). He and Dorian eventually settled on a chuck-brisket blend for the $3.50 baseline hamburger, served on a potato bun and decked out with pickles, minced onions and a generous slather of ketchup (the cheeseburger, $4.25, also has melted American cheese). Both versions are intensely evocative of the burgers of childhood, and that was sort of the point. "We wanted to do something old-school and vintage, Cannon said.
The partners created a housemade spicy black bean burger ($7), and also serve hot dogs ($3.75 each) with audible snap, hand cut fries (starting at $1.75), and sides such as Tater tots, mac-and-cheese bites, battered onion rings and jalapeño poppers filled with cream cheese.
It was a menu designed for busy commuters, of which the Ronkonkoma station sees about 15,000 a day. Yet in mid-March, those passengers disappeared as people began self-isolation and working from home. "It was a tough pill to swallow," Cannon said, after the two had labored for four months to renovate and open the place, which included complex negotiations with the MTA, which owns the building.
Dorian and Cannon vowed to crank out burgers through the crisis, and began to run specials, as well as offer curbside pickup and delivery via Uber Eats and DoorDash. In their push to get their name out, the partners found they were tapping a broader clientele than they had originally planned on. "It may have been a blessing in disguise," Cannon said, trying to look on the bright side. "Some people knew we were here, but a lot of locals don't necessarily drive past [the station]. We've been able to keep our head above water."
"I really feel for a lot of restaurants," Dorian added, particularly those with large staffs. He and Cannon have been able to keep the business going themselves. "We do everything here."
Boxcar Burgers opens daily at 11 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and midnight on Friday and Saturday. Find it at 90 Railroad Ave., next to the Ronkonkoma LIRR station. 631-615-2717, boxcarburgersli.com.