A group of passionate burger lovers had a dream of creating a delicious and affordable cheeseburger with high-quality ingredients. After two years of experimenting in the test kitchen, HiHo Cheeseburger was born – the only burger joint that exclusively serves 100% grass-fed wagyu beef.
We sat down with two of the operating partners Matt Levin and Sheeroy Desai to hear about the journey of opening in Los Angeles.
How did HiHo begin?
Matt: The story of HiHo goes back to 2013, when HiHo co-founder Jerry Greenberg (Who is also one of the co-founders of Sushi Nozawa Group (SUGARFISH, KazuNori & Nozawa Bar) decided that after 15 years of cooking burgers at home it was time to stop talking about opening a burger restaurant and just do it. At that point we really had no idea it was possible to find consistently marbled, 100% grass fed beef, that not only tasted good, but was better for you. But, after about two years in the kitchen trying every kind of beef, cheese and bun, we stumbled upon First Light in New Zealand, a cooperative of farmers. That was when the first bell went off, and we thought, “Oh, this is interesting!” So we started there, and built the business around this amazing beef.
What brought you from Ojai to Santa Monica?
Matt: We first opened in Ojai in 2015. It went really well, but most of the HiHo team was based in Los Angeles, so after two years we decided to move the operation down here. It was a really hard decision and we absolutely loved Ojai and being there, but we’re obsessed with quality, and we wanted to be closer to the business to oversee everything.
Where does HiHo get its name?
Matt: It’s ridiculous to say this, but no one really knows. We know that it’s a happy name, and has a nostalgic feel to it, just like our burger.
LA has so many great burger places – it must have been intimidating to open up here.
Matt: It’s true – we feel like if you’re going to jump into this market, you better do something really well. So, hopefully we’re doing that.
What makes your burgers stand out from other spots?
Matt: Everything we do starts with, “What does it taste like?” We use 100% grass finished wagyu because it tastes better, but it’s also better for you—lower saturated fat, higher in omega-3s with no GMO’s or hormones ever. So for us that’s a home run.
Sheeroy: Grass fed wagyu burgers really don’t exist anywhere else.
Matt: We used the beef in Ojai for a few years, but before we decided to really build a business around it, Jerry took a trip to visit First Light in New Zealand to visit some of the farms himself. He came back and said, “This is one of the best operations I’ve ever seen.” He was hugely excited, and even ended up investing in First Light.
Sheeroy: It’s really huge for us not to use preservatives. We use the word “clean” a lot, and that comes down to ingredients all of us actually understand. No chemicals. No “what the heck is that?” But the taste has to be there. At the end of the day, people want healthy food as much as possible, and a good deal, but above all of those things they want it to taste really good.
We see you’ve won a lot of LA burger awards!
Matt: We were on lists right away, which really helped. Eater.com was really kind to us. It was a good combination of people hearing about us, and then people leaving and telling their friends about us. And then, two years in a row, we won the Los Angeles Magazine Burger Bracket, which we’re really proud of because it’s the people who vote. We also took home the People’s Choice award for best burger at the 2019 LA Times Food Bowl.
We put a lot of love into our food, and a lot of effort into making it healthy and taste delicious, so for people to recognize that, and to have families in here feeding their kids is really rewarding. I have a one-year-old and she just had her first HiHo about a month ago, her first burger ever!
How can you manage to keep it so affordable with a prime location in Santa Monica and high quality ingredients like wagyu?
Matt: The honest answer? It’s not easy. But we do it.
Sheeroy: That’s a big part of what we believe in. We want both the food and the price to be very approachable. But it’s really hard. It’s not just the high-quality beef we use, we make everything from scratch: our onion jam, pickles, pies, French fries, etc. So, how do we do it? Obsession with detail.
Matt: We don’t cut any corners. There’s not a thing on the menu we don’t stand behind. Nothing goes on the menu until it’s a home run. That’s why we have a very simple, small menu.
Are you interested in ever expanding the menu?
Sheeroy: We’re not looking to add things, we think it’s better to be simple and do things really well. But there will always be new ideas. And we’re always thinking, “Can we improve?”
Matt: We are food fanatics. We have a meeting once a week and a trial process, we go to the test kitchen and we work through new ideas. We added the “make it spicy” option for the burgers and we added the cheesecake, neither of which were on the original menu.
Sheeroy: We listen to our guests. Our “spicy jam” came from people asking for spicy sauce. So, we said, “OK, let’s see how to give people the spicy option they want.”
Matt: We also didn’t have the triple burger when we first opened, but our guests wanted a bigger burger. We started it as a secret menu item, but then we realized it was really popular, so we put it on the menu. We don’t make any decision quickly or lightly. We want to make sure that everything stays to our standard, or exceeds it.
I read and respond to every Yelp review – we hear our guests, we love our guests, and we want them to leave feeling like, “I have got to come back here.” It’s really important to us that everyone who works in the restaurant knows everything about the food. Hopefully the guests feel that passion and want to come back.
So, what’s next? Are you looking to expand?
Sheeroy: Yeah! Santa Monica opened almost two years ago. We hoped it would do well, and always thought that we would love to expand within the LA area, but we weren’t focused on that. We were obsessed with getting the food and the menu right. But it’s always been a thought for us, and now we’re opening a second location later this summer in Mid-Wilshire. We’ll continue to look for other opportunities to expand, but, like everything else about us, we’ll go at pace that we think makes sense, a pace that won’t impact the quality of the product.
Matt: Our aim is simple: our cheeseburgers should put a smile on your face. So we’ll keep an eye out. If you’re smiling, we’ll know we did our job.
1320 2nd St Ste. B, Santa Monica, CA 90401