Business & Economy

In-N-Out rival CaliBurger opens its first California location in Pasadena

A chipotle chicken burger, a
A chipotle chicken burger, a "Cali Double" burger and "Cali Style" fries.
John Rabe/KPCC
A chipotle chicken burger, a
A cheeseburger and fries at CaliBurger in Pasadena.
Photograph by Elina Shatkin
A chipotle chicken burger, a
CaliBurger in Pasadena on its official opening day: June 19, 2016.
Photograph by Elina Shatkin
A chipotle chicken burger, a
CaliBurger in Pasadena on its official opening day: June 19, 2016.
Photograph by Elina Shatkin

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UPDATE: Listen to the audio to hear Off-Ramp's John Rabe and Elina Shatkin taste test the new Pasadena CaliBurger.

In-N-Out was recently named the top fast food burger chain — which is good news for CaliBurger.

Haven't heard of CaliBurger? You're not alone. The upstart chain is counting on America's affection for burgers — especially In-N-Out burgers, some might say— to change that.

In 2012, CaliBurger opened its first outpost, in Shanghai, where Chinese customers ate up its "Double-Doubles" and "Animal Style" fries. Jonathan Wong, the chain's chef de cuisine and a former store manager at In-N-Out, didn't claim it was an original concept. He flat-out told the Los Angels Times, "The model was In-N-Out."

Unsurprisingly, In-N-Out sued — for trademark infringement and counterfeiting. The matter was settled out of court and CaliBurger agreed to tweak its menu and decor, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Three years later, CaliBurger is chugging along with franchises throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East and two U.S. locations (Seattle and Maryland). Patrons can buy burgers and fries in white, yellow and orange packaging adorned with palm trees that look similar to In-N-Out's logo. All that's missing are the bible verses on the bottom of its soda cups.

Is imitation truly the sincerest form of flattery? Or is CaliBurger a blatant rip-off? Now, you can decide.

After soft-launching two weeks ago, CaliBurger on Sunday officially debuted its first outpost in Southern California, the birthplace of the fast-food drive-through and home to iconic brands McDonald's and In-N-Out. It's located in Pasadena (245 E. Green St.) in a food court adjacent to music venue the Rose.

Where In-N-Out favors a sparkling white retro aesthetic that recalls 1950s car-hop culture, the Pasadena CaliBurger feels like an eatery in the lobby of a Las Vegas casino. The menu moves beyond In-N-Out's purist repertoire of burgers, fries and milkshakes to include the CaliChicken and Chipotle BBQ Chicken sandwiches.

Comparisons with In-N-Out are inevitable but for the man who owns the Pasadena CaliBurger franchise, that's not why he chose the chain.

"Being from New York, I guess I don't think of it like that. To me, I don't see that at all," Lance Sterling says.

Sterling, who was one of the co-owners of the House of Blues, currently owns a few local music venues including the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills and the Rose in Pasadena, which feeds into the dining area where CaliBurger is located.

He saw that before and after concerts, he was losing diners to low-cost restaurants. Although the food options inside the Rose and in its surrounding dining hall include steaks, pizza, salads and brownies, he knew he needed a burger.

"I see The Hat out here. I see Umami Burger. I talked to all of them," Sterling says. "I think that we stand on our own pretty readily. I picked the best burger, that's how I picked it."

It's also a practical business decision and Sterling is nothing if not savvy about business: "I just believe with the minimum wage going through at $15 an hour, the days of waitress and waiter restaurants is pretty much gone."

Sterling says he hopes to open a CaliBurger in or near each of his music venues and he's currently working to secure two additional locations. From there, who knows?

But Sterling does know one thing — he's ready for CaliBurger to make its mark in the land where the fast food burger was born: "I know what a good burger is. I think the market is huge here. I'm a pretty competitive guy so I don't think any of those guys will be a problem. I think my burger is better than any of those."