The Burger Coalition

The secret sauce is the people.

by André Natta

“There’s such an energy formed when six passionate people all share a table.”

That’s what Atlanta-based designer James Martin said to me during a recent conversation here in Birmingham. More on why shortly…

There are many who believe that online communication can completely replace the need for these face-to-face interactions. Google+ Hangouts give participants the opportunity to talk to as many as nine others at the same time via your desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet. I recently took part in an impromptu chat on my Facebook wall that generated 49 comments.

There’s something different about pulling people together for an intimate off-line conversation. As the Year of Alabama Food continues it’d be silly not to recognize the well-chronicled example of that philosophy courtesy of the folks down in Greensboro at PieLab. Birmingham now  has a monthly initiative of its own called The Burger Coalition.

Co-founders Dan Gavin (a Birmingham based web developer and designer at Scout Branding Co.) and Martin  started the project innocently enough and not necessarily with what’s resulted in mind.

“Initially, we had an idea to create a burger club for our friends to have a monthly reminder to hang out with each other,” according to Martin. “As creatives, we’re always so busy, so to have a specific date to look forward to hanging out with your pals makes sense.”

It’s caught the attention of many since its start, with articles appearing in everything from Southern Living to Oxford American to The Atlanta Egotist.

“The accountability of it could have added so much pressure to the idea,” Martin says. “We maintained that we must keep it casual and not let things get too big. Each of us do other things so we want this to remain a fun thing to look forward to each month.”

The meals take place monthly with one in Birmingham and the other in Atlanta. Five slots are available on a first-come, first served basis with those attending  paying  for their own meal.

It’s not that there haven’t been other efforts to use the Internet to organize gatherings. There have been several examples here in Birmingham in recent years –  everything from a monthly gathering of the city’s seemingly tightly connected social media community via Lunch Bunch to the recent expanded use of social media to make people aware of the efforts of o2ideas’ Shelley Stewart and Samford University’s Dr. Andrew Westmoreland via the Birmingham Kitchen Table.

The size of the Burger Coalition gatherings may seem small in comparison, but it may be one of the reasons why it works.

“One of our initial thoughts to keep the meals limited to five folks in each city has been brought up in our gatherings,” said Martin. “We’ve wondered if we should continue keeping them intimate in order to foster a concise dialogue or broaden them. Thankfully the guests have all appreciated the current format.”

If you’re wondering if burgers are as good of a vehicle for conversations as pies (like maybe the ones served down at PieLab), Martin says they are.  “They create this sense of joy for folks when they have it. It fosters conversations and brings together people that may not know each other. It’s served in different ways and can be eaten any time.”

They say they’ve seen all sorts of conversations develop offline – everything from underground nocturnal twitter groups talking about proper patty formation to groups gathering for burger crawls. It’s partially due to the guestbook maintained on the site, allowing folks to know who’s joined. It’s something that Gavin hopes past attendees will use to “stay in contact, they know that they can use each other’s resources.” It’s also seen as another way to encourage others to think about attending.

The sense of community they’ve developed has helped them secure a couple of sponsorships as well, including one from Sir Kensington’s Gourmet Scooping Ketchup.

They’ve stayed quite humble despite the expanded attention.

“We’re just a couple of guys that like burgers and exploring our cities, so to have people that want to be a part of that journey with us is pretty great,” says Gavin.

They currently plan to stay focused on Birmingham and Atlanta, perhaps enabling some much needed conversation within and between these two cities – one delicious burger at a time

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