Oddly enough, even with so many great burgers available to us here in Petaluma, our enthusiasm never seems to wane at the news of another fresh choice. So, it was with great excitement when word of mouth reached me that a guy from Louisiana named “Gator” had just opened a new burger joint in Petaluma.
Born in California, Glen “Gator” Thompson spent his first eight years in Louisiana’s Bayou Pigeon, before his family returned to Oakland. Gator’s love of cooking started when he was eight years old and has not ebbed since.
Gator earned his nickname in the Army.
“After about 16 shots, I got talked into wrestling an alligator at a farm down in Florida,” he said with a grin and a chuckle. Everyone was chanting “gator” and after winning the match, the nickname seemed to stick.
A passion for food
Gator continued to follow his passion for food after leaving the Army. He started out with the Holiday Inn Corp, then the Beverly on Wilshire, before moving back to the Bay Area where he would train at Café la Salle in Sacramento and then under Chez Panisse’s former chef, Paul Bertolli, at Oliveto in Oakland.
Gator’s popularity grew and eventually he opened the highly acclaimed Alcatraces in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Serving California Cajun with Southern hospitality and a Mardi Gras atmosphere, the restaurant was well liked by San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer.
Gator would go on to open several other restaurants, including Gator’s Neo Soul Café in San Mateo and Bayonne Southern Dining in San Jose. However, the crash of 2008 would see these restaurants close, but Gator remained in the restaurant industry working as a chef/consultant before landing at Fenix in San Rafael. This is when Gator discovered Petaluma.
“Our family moved to Petaluma while I was working at Fenix,” he said. “We fell in love with how friendly everyone was. We loved the vibe. I knew I wanted to base Gator’s Rustic Burger out of Petaluma.”
While running the kitchen at Fenix, Gator was invited to compete on the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games,” hosted by local culinary legend Guy Fieri. His wife encouraged him to compete. He would end up winning the show twice before being invited back for Guy’s Grocery Games Masters, where he placed in the top four.
First food truck
All this notoriety and cash winnings made it the perfect time for Gator to launch into his long-time goal of offering healthy, delicious and affordable burgers, first through a food truck, and then eventually at a brick and mortar location that he hopes will span a franchise.
“Years and years ago, I started working on my take on the burger,” Gator said. “Nobody was offering a good handcrafted bun, with great beef, at an affordable price, so I saw a niche.”
Gator first found affordable grass-fed, free range beef from a 30,000-acre ranch in Montana.
“It took eight years to develop the bun,” said Gator of his custom rosemary garlic bun, which is baked daily at his commercial kitchen on Lakeville Street. “And because no two are alike and rarely are they perfectly round, I call them ‘rustic’, which is where the ‘rustic’ part of our name comes from.”
Launched on May 1st of this year, Gator’s Rustic Burgers were an instant success. Initially, Gator’s was parked at the Casa Grande Shopping Center, where I immediately heard rave reviews from the folks at Sarah’s Eats & Sweets. They have since relocated to The Block, Petaluma’s food truck beer garden, where they are currently a mainstay. But, order early, and often, because it is not usual for Gator’s to run out of food with so many patrons flocking to The Block.