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How the Home of the So-Called “Best Burger in America” Truly Collapsed

A Thrillist piece claimed to have “killed” the restaurant, but the owner has a well-documented history of legal trouble

Johnny Acurso/Eater
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

For decades, Northeast Fremont burger bar Stanich’s was a neighborhood favorite, a no-frills sports bar racking up positive local press since opening in 1949. Last year, its cheeseburger was named the best burger in America by Thrillist. Then the restaurant closed, seemingly for good. The publication’s burger critic, Kevin Alexander, took responsibility earlier this month, claiming in a widely discussed piece that he “killed” the restaurant by giving it national exposure.

But a Willamette Week story that dropped today revealed that Stanich’s is far from a helpless victim of too much good press: Owner Steve Stanich has a documented history of abusive, manipulative, and petty treatment of both his employees and his family members, including a domestic violence charge for strangling his now-ex-wife and multiple citations for violating probation.

“Alexander says he was unaware of Stanich’s legal troubles,” the WWeek story reports. When reached for further comment, Alexander told Eater PDX that he was merely unaware of “the extent” of Stanich’s legal problems. “I had heard of the 2014 issue” — Stanich was arrested in 2014 after choking his wife — Alexander said, “but not beyond that.” Alexander also said that he has asked WWeek to issue a correction to that effect; arts and culture editor Matthew Singer said the publication will not issue a correction, instead adding a clarifying paragraph to the story.

Ironically, the more subtle points of Alexander’s piece last week — which did not offer a plausible alternative reason for the restaurant’s eventual closure — have only grown sharper: When a publication offers acclaim and attention to an unheralded restaurant or chef, how can it be sure that it’s doing so responsibly, every single time?

Stanich’s wins big, according to Thrillist

In 2017, national food writer Kevin Alexander decided to take a year to somewhat definitively find the “best burger in America.” He traveled to 30 states, ate 330 burgers, and decided that Stanich’s cheeseburger was the best of the bunch. In his follow-up piece, Alexander says Stanich was brought to tears in gratitude. He writes that Stanich told him, “My parents are thanking you from the grave.”

The swarms of culinary tourists arrived soon afterward. In an Oregonian story that ran earlier this week, critic Michael Russell says the restaurant became “clearly overwhelmed” after the Thrillist accolade went live, with long waits for basic burgers and an exhausted, overworked waitstaff.

Stanich’s closes and blames the publication

Stanich’s closed in January 2018 after almost 70 years in business — and eight months after the Thrillist list went live — for a “deep cleaning.” At the time, Stanich told the Oregonian that the overwhelming wave of business made it hard for employees to keep up a standard of service and the space clean, so the restaurant would close for a few weeks to get back to normal. Almost a year later, the restaurant is still closed, and Stanich still hasn’t set a re-opening date.

The 4,000+-word apology

Alexander’s theory as to why Stanich’s never reopened after its “cleaning”: He murdered it, and the “best burger” award was the weapon. In the piece, Alexander uses the closure to grapple with the media’s role in inadvertently harming restaurants it intends to champion.

“How do I do this better? Is there a way to celebrate a place without the possibility of destroying it?” he writes. “Or is this just what we are now — a horde with a checklist and a camera phone, intent on self-producing the destruction of anything left that feels real, one Instagram story at a time?” Alexander’s follow-up story received glowing praise on social media, he appeared on National Public Radio, and people beyond the food world, like celebrated statistician Nate Silver, discussed the story publicly.

Alexander’s piece explicitly mentions that Stanich had some sort of family issue that also contributed to the closure, in language that is now clearly coded. “He asked me not to reveal the details of that story, but I can say that there were personal problems, the type of serious things that can happen with any family,” Alexander writes. Thrillist and Alexander have not responded to further requests for comment.

Stanich’s legal trouble is revealed

What Alexander’s follow-up story left out, according to WWeek, are a series of lawsuits and arrests. In 2010, Stanich sued a former employee for defamation after she and another former employee filed a wage complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Stanich was forced to pay the employee’s legal fees after the judge dismissed his proposed lawsuit.

Four years later, Stanich was arrested for domestic violence after strangling his wife in front of his teenage son, a charge that was reduced to a misdemeanor after Stanich pled “no contest.” He went on probation, during which time he was supposed to abstain from alcohol and avoid contact with his wife. During his probation, Stanich violated his no-contact order and spent 10 days in jail. He was cited twice for drinking alcohol during his probation, including a DUII the summer before the restaurant closed — according to the official probation violation, Stanich used the same excuse twice when stopped, saying he was leaving a wake, and that he had “‘two drinks’ in memory of his friend.” He was charged with reckless driving in April 2018.

Stanich and his wife divorced in 2016, and after agreeing to give her the family home, support payments, and custody of the family dog, according to Willamette Week, he alleged she had “defrauded” him by claiming to have stage-four cancer. (According to Willamette Week, her doctor confirmed the diagnosis.)

Stanich told the alt-weekly that his domestic and legal problems “had absolutely nothing to do” with shuttering the restaurant.

The backlash

Within the first 24 hours of the Willamette Week story going live, readers have already begun to question Alexander’s missing reporting regarding Stanich’s legal trouble. “That @Thrillist article we all loved about the burger place kept a domestic-violence conviction off the record and passed it off as ‘serious things that can happen in every family,’” Deadspin editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell tweeted. “That is egregious journalistic malpractice.”

Alexander isn’t the only journalist receiving criticism; local restaurateur and famous devil’s advocate Nick Zukin called out Willamette Week’s Matthew Singer, claiming the publication had no right to publish Stanich’s private business. “If a restaurant says they close for personal reasons is @wweek going to blast the details of their owners’ health problems and divorce from now on?” he tweeted. “@MarkZusman and @mpsinger should apologize and edit their article on Stanich’s.” The debate regarding whether Willamette Week went too far in exposing Stanich’s personal problems continues in the replies to the publication’s tweet, with reader Michelle Llaguno adding, “I personally do not want to frequent the establishment of someone convicted of spousal abuse.”

Overall, however, the response on Twitter has mainly focused on the overall shock regarding Stanich himself. In the words of Oregonian producer Samantha Swindler, “The sandwich man we all felt sorry for choked his wife & violated probation.”

In the second Thrillist piece, Stanich told Alexander that without an opportunity to franchise or another business partner, Stanich’s will not reopen. More recently though, Stanich told Willamette Week that the restaurant would reopen in December with new staff. After 10 months closed and several promises to reopen, Stanich’s future remains as unclear as it’s ever been.

Did a Rave Review Really Shut Down Portland Burger Bar Stanich’s? Maybe It Was the Owner’s Legal Troubles. [WW]
I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It. [Thrillist]
Seriously, Though, What’s Going On With Stanich’s? [EPDX]


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