I. Call to Adventure
Steve Bala can remember the day back in 1982 when he unwrapped his first two “G.I. Joe” action figures. A few weeks later, “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” comic books premiered on shelves, and it felt like destiny. When the Saturday morning cartoon hit the airwaves, the battle cry “Yo Joe!” entered his heart through his eardrums.
Twenty-six years later, the trademark war whoop of the Joes still took Steve’s breath away. He made a pilgrimage every Wednesday to Midtown Comics near Times Square to browse the latest graphic novels and figurines — some “G.I. Joe,” some “Star Trek,” some from the world of Stan Lee or the D.C. universe. He had two “G.I. Joe” tattoos, one a back piece. Gainful employment as a grown man had become a means to fund his toy-buying habits. And his apartment boasted rows of warriors and spaceships. He’d broken up with a close girlfriend a few years earlier when she told him, “If we get married, this stuff has to go.” Steve had responded, “G.I Joe since 1982. You, just a couple of years.”
Yet all this nerd stuff had finally done something more than drain his paychecks and imperil his relationships.
The sign on Grand Street, in the heart of hipster Brooklyn, read “ACTION BURGER,” a graphic splash above glass double doors that seemed ripped from a comic book, a vector art explosion serving as a siren call to geeks: Enter a world of Adam West’s Batman and muscle-green Hulk and Wonder Woman deflecting bullets with her bodice. It was 2008, and these icons of the Baby Boom generation were long past their dusty stage. Inside the store was a dry erase board with a menu writ in markers — Hero Burgers, Action Fries, Action Rings. It was a comic nerd’s dream, a diner with greasy food and superhero décor fit for a caped crusader.
Standing outside his restaurant shortly before the March 1 opening, Steve shook his head, believing that Action Burger was his dream and fearing his dream wasn’t going to work. He’d spent two years planning and five months building this monument to his one true love: comic lore. Almost finished, the place pulsed with a kind of nerd power. Early press had revealed enthusiasm for Steve’s concept. “This place is going to vibe very well with the Williamsburg bed-head boys,” wrote one commenter on Eater, a website that obsessively chronicles restaurant openings. But the whole thing felt tenuous.
Steve exhaled, thinking back to the day he’d first conceived of Action Burger. It happened one afternoon in 2006 while he was slinging drinks — his favorite in a series of underachieving jobs — at a dive bar on East 6th Street in Manhattan called Cherry Tavern. “I love pop culture stuff,” he’d thought. “And I love food.” He froze, as if struck by a ball of energy. “Why not combine the two?” For Steve, it was a mystic brew of elements that rose up and glistened like a star, better than if the Justice League teamed with The Avengers to join the forces of Iron Man and the Green Lantern.
He’d found his business partners in Joseph Cortes, an original founder of a Manhattan burger chain called Lucky’s Famous, and Victoria “Irene” O’Neil, his cousin. It was them against the world — until it was them against each other.
The restaurant came to life backwards, in many ways. In their eagerness to open shop, Steve, Joseph and Irene rented a storefront at 513 Grand Street and spent two months rehabbing the space before filing the papers to form a company. “At the beginning, it was all very good,” Steve remembered. But as they neared their scheduled opening in March, the dynamics changed. According to Joseph, Irene “tried to push us out after we basically built the Grand Street location.” From Steve’s perspective, “She got it in her head that she didn’t want me as a partner, but I could manage the place.” Irene took a more practical point of view. “I was the sole investor,” she said. “You know what sole means? All my money was in that business.”
Her words echoed in Steve’s head as he stood before the store, admiring his creation but feeling like the hero who’d ridden his horse into quicksand. He’d poured his best ideas into this place…but Irene had ideas of her own. Their corporate documents, which had created 200 private shares of “Action Burger Corp.,” had named Irene as the sole shareholder — a bombshell to Steve and Joseph, who’d lost their legal standing as owners. Brightly lit and ready for business, Action Burger felt like an extension of Steve, but he realized that he soon might be Anakin Skywalker: a hero minus a few limbs.
They opened in the midst of the argument about ownership. Within days, Steve and Joseph had reached their thresholds and agreed, together, to abandon the project. “I took my name, which is Action Burger,” Steve said. “And I took all my stuff.” As customers entered the establishment expecting service, Joseph removed his recipes, and Steve removed his memorabilia, which gutted store and officially severed their involvement. Irene was shocked at her cousin’s abandonment, which left her alone to run the business. “That was my life savings,” she said. “And he took that from me.”
513 Grand remained closed intermittently for the next month, with “Under Renovation” signs posted while Irene struggled to revise the concept, invent new recipes and hire new staff. “She tried to continue it, but she didn’t have the passion for it,” said Steve. “She hired other people that she didn’t know to reopen.”
Watching the fallout from a distance might have proven validating for Steve — evidence that he was a necessary ingredient — if only Irene hadn’t continued to use the name he created. Each misstep sullied the name “Action Burger” and closed the door on his hope that, someday, he’d try this again. By April 11, 2008, Irene reopened the restaurant, and Action Burger received its first review. The critic from Serious Eats began, “I’m not going to spend a lot of time dwelling…” and went on to describe the burger as having “an odd smokey flavor and a tough patty.”
Perhaps this reviewer should have waited a few more days to sample the wares. On April 17, food safety inspectors walked into the store and cited a dozen health code violations, from lacking a permit to operate to evidence of live mice and rats on the premises. The ensuing publicity led to Action Burger being placed on New York state senator Jeff Klein’s “Dirty Dozen New York City Restaurants of 2008.” It was this knockout that shuttered the business.
Game over? Not quite. Advertising at New York Comic Con, the massive fan convention that took place in April that year, had always been part of Steve’s grand plan. And now he watched as Irene’s marketing vendor distributed Action Burger fliers to convention-goers — attracting a crowd to the just-closed restaurant. Comic fanatics, some dressed in bulky superhero costumes, cabbed across town from the Javits Center over the Williamsburg Bridge, only to discover the restaurant shuttered. “We were all pretty pissed and wasted a bunch of time and money,” wrote one fan in a comment section. It hurt Steve to see his cousin bungle the tactic and upset the geeks who should have loved his idea.
Steve’s dream had been not only destroyed but dishonored. He couldn’t return to his previous life; the Cherry Tavern had already hired his replacement. Bala family gatherings were now torturous affairs, with Irene present and tensions still high. Steve kept telling himself that if he rode out the drama and made it to GIJoeCon, an annual “G.I. Joe” collectors’ convention he’d attended for seven years running, he’d find some peace. The convention began in Dallas on June 26, and he’d already booked a ticket and set aside the $500 he needed to purchase a box set of action figures only available to JoeCon attendees. Then, shortly before the trip, something exploded in his head.
He felt the shock of it, like a bang from a two by four, and the left side of his face went limp. He couldn’t walk. He slurred his words to the 911 operator. He was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village and diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. As he lay there, fully conscious but phasing in and out of cogent thought, he could focus on little else but the fact that he was missing JoeCon. “That is what I regret,” he said, much later.
Gradually, he regained his speech and relearned to walk. Since Steve and his family had no history of traumatic brain injuries, the root causes seemed a mystery, other than the fact that this happened when everything else went bad around him.
But at least Steve didn’t obsess over Action Burger any more. It’s as if the injury opened a window in his head, and the thought flew out. Steve didn’t dig for information as his cousin moved to reopen the restaurant. He didn’t observe when a profile appeared on Merchantcircle.com for a new business at 513 Grand called “Comic Burger.” He didn’t feel emotion when it became clear that Irene intended to realize Steve’s vision without him. She’d invested too much and couldn’t walk away.
Irene refinanced the mortgage on her residence in the Bronx to free up approximately $150,000 in additional equity. The restaurant reopened and passed health code inspections with a perfect score on November 20, 2008. An article entitled “Second Chances” appeared on Eater about the refurbished Comic Burger. The reporter, Amanda Kludt, noted that the décor looked “exactly the same” as before. With the restaurant reincarnated, unmistakable similarities between Action Burger and Comic Burger made it clear that Irene had been more than inspired by Steve’s idea; the concept, she believed, was hers.
One of the first customer reviews of Comic Burger posted to Yelp was a one-star rating dated April 12, 2009: “The waitress/lady who took our order was really creepy. I couldn’t tell if she’d just blown a bunch of Xanax or had a lobotomy.” Several reviews noted the lack of enthusiasm rubbing off into the customer experience: “what is up with these jokers”…“I really, really want to like this place”…“I felt really uncomfortable eating in there”…“misses the mark HORRIBLY!” The restaurant churned along for another year, and when Comic Burger gave its last gasp and shut for good in March 2010, few mourned its passing.
* * *
II. Crossing the Threshold
Steve hadn’t met anyone who could match his single-minded devotion to fictional characters in far-flung worlds until he met Vlane Carter.
Vlane, who was dating Steve’s sister at the time, was a sci-fi author and fanatic gamer who’d spent a decade perfecting his point-and-shoot skills playing the Xbox video game franchise “Halo.” Indeed, saving the future-world of “Halo” was almost a nightly ritual for Vlane. He’d even bulked up his upper body in subtle emulation of Master Chief, the game’s famous hero behind the golden visor. Through the strategic battlefields of “Halo,” Vlane explained, “I was able to develop my mind over the years.”
So when Steve pitched Vlane about his vision for happy superhero hamburger-land, the project had been on the backburner — almost four years after the Irene disaster. Steve told so many friends about the first Action Burger that it almost became a running joke. No one in his right mind would attempt the same idea again. To them, the possibility of reviving Action Burger was the lie Steve told himself so that he’d never have to leave his job at M&M/Mars, where he now stuffed candies into store displays as a product placement specialist. But something in Steve’s words, perhaps his trove of comic book knowledge, captured Vlane’s attention. And when an idea catches in Vlane’s mind, like besting a new game, it germinates and expands and becomes the only thing that matters. “I get these ideas man,” Vlane said. “So many ideas. But this was, like, the biggest.”
Vlane, above all things, was an implementer, a man who brought business strategies into reality like Master Chief thwarted alien invasions. He ran a street marketing business placing magnetic vinyl posters onto vehicles. Calling his removable ads “truck tattoos,” he sold them with the line: “Turn your naked vehicle into an advertising machine.” Vlane had also MacGyver-ed a method of installing LED signs into the front and back windows of SUVs. That neither of these two concepts had blossomed into profitable ventures was immaterial. Failure was not to be feared but studied like game tape, an attitude that Vlane had developed perfecting his “Halo” gameplay.
Steve told Vlane about Action Burger in March 2012. So what if Vlane had no previous restaurant or food service experience? Steve had bartended at the Cherry Tavern, and that was experience enough for the both of them. Like “truck tattoos” or Vlane’s “BioSapien” comic series, Action Burger was now a go for launch. By June, they were scouting for places. By August 1, they’d found the location. By September 1, the site was theirs.
When keys traded fingers and they entered the premises, The Double Rose’s — corner café for the senior citizens of East Williamsburg — ceased to be, and the 800 square feet became Action Burger, back from the dead. Steve, once again, stood in command of his dream. Salivating at the door of this place, which had been closed for just a few days, Steve swore he could “taste the action” in the smells that remained.
Burger in hand, purchased from some unnamed competitor a few blocks down the way, Steve strode heroically across the tiles of his new domain. His body looked pre-molded like an action figure’s: squat and hefty, yet somehow sculpted in the upper body, with a rounded nose, sideburns like Wolverine and hair gelled in place permanently. He wore his trademark outfit: T-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts. Vlane donned the same uniform. Yet Vlane added polish with his weightlifter’s physique, trimmed mustache and clean-shaven head. Side by side, laughing and pushing one another, they resembled Bebop and Rocksteady from “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Steve and Vlane examined the guts of 292 Graham Avenue, which savings and credit and $100,000 of invested risk had bought. Nearly every asset in Vlane’s financial arsenal had been tied into the restaurant. He had sold his 2008 Cadillac Escalade for $26,000 and refinanced the mortgage on his Bronx home to free up $45,000 in additional equity. The rest of the $100,000 he’d pooled with Steve had come from credit cards and personal savings. It was a sum that covered their security deposit and a few months’ rent, plus menus, food supplies and cooking equipment. They each owned fifty percent of the business.
Together, Steve and Vlane were gambling men defying a national downswing in new business entrepreneurship that had reached a sixteen-year low in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Contrary to the cultural mythos of the startup and near worship of charismatic founders like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, fewer and fewer people were actually going into business for themselves, though many more were playacting by watching TED talks and using words like “disruptive.” As Steve and Vlane high-fived, small businesses around them were collapsing so frequently that the failure rate within three years was at eighty percent.
Surveying the fading navy-blue paint job, which would have to go, over the waist-high wooden paneling, which could stay, Steve could hardly believe all this action had sprung from an idea in his brain. He waltzed into the kitchen, a mash-up of industrial appliances crowding the smoke-stained walls, which must have been white at some point in the last century. The stainless steel of the deep fryer barely shone through the film on its surface, which, if it could speak, would speak of fifteen years of bubbling mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers. Steve lit the grill, the blue flames flickering and forming their gentle cones. The wide silvery surface, perfect for cooking bacon and burger patties, gathered warmth.
Then the grease pan ignited in the far back corner under the grill, and flames spread in waves, catching layers of backlogged grease from decades of diner cooking. Steve’s eyes grew wide as the fire spread from its molten base and danced up a pipe that led to the overhead exhaust system, which clearly hadn’t been cleaned recently. A blaze poured onto the grill like flames from a dragon’s throat.
Vlane smelled smoke and came running. He found Steve standing pensively, considering the situation — and still eating. “I’m a very relaxed person,” Steve explained later. “To overreact, to get paranoid about something, is to invite chaos.” But the kitchen was a firestorm. “What’s happening?” Vlane screamed. In his blitzkrieg effort to open the restaurant, Vlane was tapped out to the fullest extent of his credit. To see the kitchen ablaze, it was as if he’d soaked that money in kerosene. They’d just started paying on their insurance policy, which cost them a reasonable $3,000 per year; imagine what a fire the first day would do to premiums.
“Pull the Ansul!” Vlane shouted, which meant triggering the Ansul chemical fire suppression sprinklers that the previous owners had installed above the grill for emergencies — to avoid burning down the building. Heat made waves in the air that forced them to step back into the other room, but Steve could see, through the smoke, that the fire was contained to the fan and grill.
Steve shook his head no, vetoing the Ansul, and Vlane’s face filled with rage. The Master Chief didn’t appreciate defiance. “It’s only where the grease is,” said Steve. “The kitchen’s all metal and tile.” Steve understood that pulling the Ansul would drench the kitchen in flame-retardant foam that would cost their newborn business about $1,000 to refill. One grand seemed a stiff price to pay just to light the grill.
Steve finished the last bites of his burger as Vlane ran outside in a panic. To Vlane’s relief, no signs of smoke could be seen from the street. Vlane’s instinct was to call the fire department, but Steve told him to quit it. Tossing his wrappers into a wastebasket, Steve noticed a fire extinguisher beneath the register. Luckily for Action Burger, the tank still had pressure. Steve grabbed it like a soldier and stepped, literally, into the line of fire. He wielded the nozzle like A Real American Hero and snuffed out the monster.
Later, as Vlane cleaned the white flakes from the grill and out of the exhaust fan, Steve papered the windows with old comics that he’d found in boxes at his parents’ place. Using faded pages from “The Incredible Hulk” and “Wonder Woman,” he wrapped Action Burger like a gift and steadied himself for a few weeks of gut-and-build renovation.
* * *
III. The Road of Trials
When the doors opened on September 19, 2012, walking inside Action Burger felt like walking into the bedroom of a ten-year-old boy named Steve in 1985. His dream was unleashed. Walls were painted the fluorescent yellow of Wolverine’s spandex. G.I. Joe figurines stared from behind plastic toy displays. Covers of “Robin” and “Justice League” comics masked the building’s old wooden panels. They were emblazoned as wallpaper beside a sign bearing the restaurant’s official new tagline: “Taste The Action.”
To place their orders, Action Burger customers advanced to a counter the color of Captain America’s body suit. The menu was its own branded adventure. Customers chose between “Villain Food” (burgers, crispy chicken or anything fried) and “Hero Food” (turkey burgers, veggie burgers or anything grilled). “This was my way to try to teach kids to eat better,” Steve said. “Hero is the healthier food, and anything villain is the worst food.”
Trading cards and toys that had previously overflowed in boxes and piled up in the corners of Steve’s apartment…and his storage unit…and his old room at his parents’ place….gained a second life on the shiny tables. “It’s my house brought here,” he said. “And this is only the smallest fraction of what I’ve got.”
Three arcade games, sourced from some corner of Vlane’s garage, dominated the front windows. Vlane, ever the competitor, offered customers a deal to battle him in the 1990s classic “Street Fighter.” Beat him in three games and you got a free order of fries. Days into their opening, Vlane remained unvanquished. “I could play any character except for Zangief,” he bragged. “But I specialize in Ryu.”
As rabid fans displaying their memorabilia, Steve and Vlane had innocently sidestepped U.S. copyright restrictions, which otherwise required written permissions from Marvel, Hasbro and countless other entities whose characters were displayed throughout the store. Several copyright precedents existed to shelter guys like Steve, including his right to display his own memorabilia so long as he wasn’t charging for admission. The core franchise featured in Action Burger was, in fact, their own intellectual property: Vlane’s “BioSapien” comic series.
Front and center on the menu were “BIO-Action” food creations — all based on characters from Vlane’s sci-fi universe. Self-published, the “BioSapien” series features Jaden Marino, a teenager who is bioengineered to stop an alien invasion. The crowning achievement on the “BIO-Action” menu was “The Jaden” burger, a culinary interpretation of Jaden Marino’s good and evil natures. The fifteen-ounce foodstuff contained two turkey burger “Hero Food” patties, plus a three-ounce “Villain Food” beef patty placed in the center.
This phantasmagoria of sight and taste and touch may have seemed like play for Steve and Vlane, but Action Burger was not their hobby; it was a business with a federal tax ID number, and the financial risks were very real. The livelihood of the restaurant depended on $500 in daily sales, which was reachable only by achieving a pace of fifty orders per day. Anything less meant going out of business within six months, which meant Steve and Vlane sitting in bankruptcy court.
Although Steve and Vlane had founded a geek oasis that they considered to be “kitsch,” many of the young professionals patrolling East Williamsburg considered Action Burger to be garish. Accustomed to the more subtle design aesthetic of bistros and boutiques that lined Bedford Avenue, some local residents were jarred by the liberal use of secondary colors and Comic Sans.
When Gideon Kalischer, a Williamsburg resident who worked for Google, first saw Action Burger, he became so distracted by the signage that he got into a fender bender; the red-and-yellow awning of the store held his eye long enough for him to plow his 1998 Toyota Camry into another sedan. No one was hurt, and, fortunately for Gideon, the accident went unreported. Nonetheless, the incident sparked a fan-like obsession with Action Burger — an interest, like so many passions of his generation, at once mocking but also sincere. “I’m always ready to talk Action Burger,” said Gideon. “But it’s really difficult,” he continued, “because you have to go into the backstory about how the burgers are based off the comic book that the owner wrote himself.”
Sampling the food and going on Internet adventures to research the “BioSapien” world, Gideon became perplexed as to what an obscure graphic novel series had to do with a pit stop for hamburgers. (Vlane had invested $25,000 into “BioSapien” but, by his own estimates, he’d sold just 600 issues.)
Customer traffic was light in those first few weeks, with Steve reduced to standing on Graham Avenue in his cook’s apron and giving away comics to attract interest. A young cartoonist named Sahve Greef, eighteen, who’d just graduated from high school, passed by and recognized him from a previous Comic Con. She asked about displaying her artwork in the store.
Sahve stood diminutive, almost elfish before him, with an emo-style hairdo that swept over her left eye. Talented and shy, he sensed that she was of his ilk, one of the comic book crowd. “What are you doing with yourself?” he asked. “Do you need a job?” Sahve began working for tips as a delivery person. Within weeks, she was ringing in orders for $8 an hour behind the register. Steve proudly displayed her artwork beside his “G.I. Joe” memorabilia. “She is the son I never had,” he told people.
Steve and Vlane had, in fact, rushed the opening of Action Burger so that they could troubleshoot on the fly and perfect the restaurant by October 11, the first day of New York Comic Con 2012. 100,000 comic fans were expected to swarm the streets of New York. Despite the 2008 fiasco, Steve knew the convention could be their springboard.
To draw pedestrians to their booth, Vlane hired three models to dress as Bellona, the female love interest of “BioSapien,” donning scarlet wigs and silvery jumpsuits. (This gimmick, known as using “booth babes,” is largely opposed by gender rights advocates and has been banned at several conventions. But New York Comic Con hadn’t prohibited the practice, and Vlane couldn’t argue with the results.) Prowling the convention floor, they handed out 20,000 flyers in three days, and, when the doors of Comic Con 2012 closed on October 14, forlorn fans jumped in cabs and headed straight for Action Burger. More than thirty-five people descended on the store and sold Action Burger out of most items. Four groups of people came from Comic Con who hadn’t known each other beforehand. But, by the end of their meals, they were friends and compatriots. For Steve, that Sunday was confirmation of everything Action Burger could be: “A community unto itself.” October 14 also represented the first profitable day for the restaurant.
Reviews started pouring in. “Best. Burger. Joint. Ever,” wrote Thrillist. “Great food, great burgers and comics,” said Tony Tantillo from CBS 2 News. Orders surged. Traffic on Action Burger’s Facebook page spiked, with the total number of “likes” rising from 15 to 380 in days. Negative feedback was confined to mostly Yelp rants, where Vlane posted essay-long responses to customer complaints. “Seriously, you’re leaving drunk reviews on yelp?” Vlane wrote to one customer. “That is so low (like Lex Luther low).”
Following the Comic Con boom, Action Burger averaged fifty-four orders per day. They hired a second fulltime cook and a dishwasher/prep cleaner. Though Steve and Vlane were still treating themselves like free labor, forgoing salaries to invest the maximum back into the business, their gamble appeared to be paying off. They were tasting the action, and it tasted good.
* * *
By November 2012, Action Burger had emerged as a full-on novelty in Williamsburg — a destination restaurant for both tourists and locals. A geek in London listed traveling to New York and eating at Action Burger on his bucket list. Sahve had been promoted from delivery person to all-around helper: cashier, cook and custodian. Steve and Vlane each continued to give the restaurant eighty to ninety hours per week, but the pace made them proud. Steve could work any job, from food prep to delivery, and so could his partner, although Vlane avoided the grill following his trauma with the grease fire. Through a combination of online orders and in-store traffic, Action Burger posted two consecutive months of profit. The business seemed on solid enough ground for Vlane to lease a new Cadillac Escalade, which he nicknamed the “Action Truck.”
Business crested as Action Burger headed towards the New Year. Confident in their outlook, Steve and Vlane closed the store for Christmas, the first day off since their opening in September. Never ceding to the weather or exhaustion or birthdays or holidays, they’d stayed open even on October 29, 2012, the day of Hurricane Sandy.
Then traffic became scarce, and online orders dropped in the month of January, right as they’d hired a new delivery person and a second short order cook. “We had too many employees and not enough customers,” Vlane said.
As Steve tells it, so long as the money was flowing, the Master Chief could tolerate Steve in charge. “He was supposed to be the back end,” said Steve. “Taking care of paperwork. Taking care of the licenses. Promoting his book through the store.” But when the money slowed to a trickle, Vlane couldn’t let the business flounder. “I had to jump in and change everything,” Vlane said. To float the business through the winter, Vlane invested a sum that he’d received in a recent settlement from a lawsuit.
The Master Chief expanded the menu in January and again in February and again in March — always adding new creations, never taking away. He blazed ahead like Thor with his hammer, ignoring studies that advised restaurateurs never to exceed seven appetizers and ten main courses. Those who contradicted him were “stuck in an old way of thinking.” The most expensive new burger was the $17 “Dark Energy Knight,” which, Vlane admitted, few ordered. Their top seller continued to be the standby: Action Burger and fries, which cost $8.
This empire-like offensive of more Action Burger, and more stuff inside Action Burger, contradicted Steve’s approach to running a restaurant. “You can always add to a business,” said Steve. “You can never subtract.”
With the new movie “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” starring Dwayne Johnson, set to premiere in March 2013, Steve shifted his focus into making March a themed month at Action Burger for “G.I. Joe.” Steve envisioned the store going through novel iterations in its décor with the release of new movies, like “Star Trek: Into Darkness” in May and “Man of Steel” in June. Sahve posted original Joe artwork on the walls, including an ink print of the ninja warrior Snake Eyes. Steve dusted off his “G.I. Joe” decals and put up his Cobra banners. He dug out his old Joe comics and refreshed the toys in the display cases. “Oh, it was beautiful,” said Steve. “People loved it or hated it. But they came in, and they talked about it.” Announcing his entrance in the store with a loud “Yo Joe!” for a month was enough to distract Steve from the reality that Vlane was now manning the guns on every level of the enterprise.
Master Chief now stalked his menu like a hunter; his passion for reconceiving its entrees, its arrangement, verged on obsession. Putting his self-taught art direction skills to work, Vlane personally designed each menu to capture the attention of any individual who glanced at the Action Burger logo twice. Vlane believed so deeply in his methods that he put the new menus on his credit card and hiked around Williamsburg in ten- to fifteen-degree weather distributing them for eight to ten hours per day.
Concurrently, Vlane launched a street marketing campaign with his Action Truck. He covered his white Escalade top to tail with magnetic decals that screamed the latest updates on Action Burger and “BioSapien.”
“I’ve never seen a restaurant with a moving billboard like that,” said Gideon. Two LED signs blinked and scrolled accompanying messages, which were sometimes hard to read behind the glass. Several of these “truck tattoos” featured artwork from his sci-fi series but many more consisted of pixelated shots of Action Burger entrees. “They looked horrible, the pictures of the food,” said Steve. “And I knew professional photographers who wouldn’t even charge. He just wants to take them all with his cellphone.”
Vlane suction-cupped a dispenser to the Action Truck and filled it with menus. He parked the SUV at strategic locations and counted the number of menus remaining at the end of each day. He documented a dozen spots around Williamsburg where his “hit rate” was highest. The Action Truck gave out, according to Vlane, fifteen to thirty flyers per day, with the most active spots being the street parking areas in front of neighboring businesses like Barcade, a video-game-themed bar.
Owners of these businesses, nonplussed by Vlane’s cleverness, wrote him heated emails asking him not to market directly to their customers. Barcade, by a long shot on a sniper rifle, was the most effective place for Master Chief to park. Patrons of the bar, on average, took more than sixty of his menus in six hours — until Barcade employees expressed a conflict with Action Burger and Barcade both having arcade games. “They just kind of threatened and left hints that they don’t want me parking there anymore or something could happen,” said Vlane. “It became very aggressive in terms of the email conversations,” he continued. (The ownership of Barcade offered no comment on these accusations despite repeated requests.)
Charging headlong, blasting through pessimism, Vlane saw Action Burger franchises in his future. His dream was to get the store featured on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to venture capitalists. Vlane felt that his restaurant, his truck tattoos and the “BioSapien” series constituted a triple threat. Legally, he tied “BioSapien” into Action Burger with a 70,000-year contract — in the series, 70,000 represents the number of years that aliens are advanced beyond the human race — mandating that every Action Burger franchisee in the future use his series and its characters. “If the restaurant does well, the books do well; if the books do well, the restaurant does well,” Vlane opined.
Vlane developed a genuine gift for muting outside opinions when, he felt, they constrained his creativity. “He has ideas that really can’t be,” said Sahve. “It’s insane, and Steve kept pushing for practical.” The roof in the basement of Action Burger leaked from the old pipes each day as water backed up from the street. Steve, wary of the health code history of the original Action Burger, wanted to fix the potential hazard. But Vlane preferred more and better menus, additional entrees and new marketing tactics.
By May 2013, their conversations became shouting matches in the leaky basement. Vlane and Steve drew battle lines for their competing visions, and each recruited allies to their sides. Sahve aligned with Steve. Vlane’s new girlfriend sided with Vlane, obviously. And Steve and Vlane both angled for the allegiance of Wilson, the restaurant’s primary cook. “There is no Action Burger without Wilson,” Sahve explained. Steve encouraged Wilson to begin a work stoppage to force Vlane’s hand in rehabbing the basement. Vlane encouraged Wilson to develop a new line of rice dishes and enjoy freer reign in his dominion.
The final battle occurred in the basement on the day that Wilson finally sided with Vlane. Steve sat thunderstruck, stunned like Thor when he discovered Loki (his own brother) behind the plot to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters. It was July, not one year from the day they opened, and Steve had lost control of Action Burger. He threw down his apron and left.
Sahve now stood vulnerable, having fought on the losing side of the Game of Thrones. Vlane resented her friendship with Steve and treated her for what he believed her to be: a spy. But Vlane had his own network of intelligence. He had installed an app on his smartphone that pulled a direct video feed from the store security cameras, which gave him eyes on every square inch of Action Burger. To test her loyalty, Vlane told Sahve to text him immediately if Steve returned to Action Burger.
As expected, Steve stepped back into the restaurant about a week after the blowout, and Sahve undermined Vlane’s command. She waited until Steve had left to text the Master Chief. Vlane rewound the security footage to confirm that Sahve had, indeed, defied him — and fired her. “Just to get back at me,” Steve said. “That’s the only reason he fired her.” When Steve returned to hammer out an agreement with Vlane, Steve rehired his protégé. Although she was grateful to have a job again, she sensed something temporary in the arrangement. Slyly, piece by piece, she brought her artwork home.
Steve made Vlane an offer to buy out his shares in Action Burger. When Vlane refused, needing Action Burger to boost “BioSapien,” Steve’s journey as an owner had reached its terminus. Vlane bought out Steve’s shares instead. Clearing out his toys with tears in his eyes, Steve hugged Sahve and walked past the original hero/villain menu placard. “It’s still a beautiful dream,” Steve said. “But it turned into a nightmare.” Parked on Powers Street, the Action Truck flashed its text at no one as Steve turned the corner.
That month, Action Burger received approval from the State of New York for a liquor license. Vlane fired Sahve and moved forward with a new line of liquor milkshakes and infused smoothies. Gideon and his friends gathered to read this roster of new releases in the new menu, of course, which Vlane devoted weeks to fine-tuning. “Just as soon as we forget about Action Burger,” said Gideon, “a new menu comes out or a new item comes out or there’s a new decal on the Escalade.” The milkshake madness, which filled two pages, boasted drinks like the “Gravity Tide,” a thirty-two-ounce blend of Amaretto, butterscotch schnapps and an “action shot” for $24, or the thirty-two-ounce “Ten-Miles-On-Treadmill,” a blend of vanilla ice cream, oatmeal cream pie, strawberry short cake, chocolate chip cookies, Oreos, vanilla cookies, granola bars, pecan pie, butter crunch cookies and Butterfinger candy bars for the price of $19.
* * *
V. The Ultimate Boon
On the evening of June 20, 2014, pulsing fluorescent lights lit Graham Avenue an alien blue. The concrete shook with a bass beat, and one could barely see through the Action Burger windows, which were bedecked with four-color graphic signs advertising the Pretzel Burger Frenzy, the Pizza Burger Parmigiana and the Toragon crispy chicken beef burger extravaganza.
Inside was what Vlane called a “lounge atmosphere,” or a mash-up of battle sounds, projector screens and cords snaking underneath tables to four video game consoles being played simultaneously. He branded this concept “Action Burger After Dark.” Gone was Sahve’s art on the walls. Gone was the comic kitsch, aside from a lone poster featuring a roundup of “X-Men” villains. In their place was a smorgasbord of current and obsolete game systems.
With Steve’s departure, Vlane had developed a new customer base. Dry-eyed gamers had pushed out the former crowd of comic buffs. “His strong point was comics, and my strong points were video games,” said Vlane. “I had to do what’s natural in me.”
In a surprise turn of events, Vlane described how he’d trained himself to cook in the kitchen by pretending it was a video game. “You have to look at it like that, or it’s just an annoying job,” he said. When an order for the Toragon came in, he threw a crispy chicken patty in the fryer like a timed mine and set two beef patties on the side of the grill as ammunition. He’d multitask, careful to never let things burn because burning is losing.
By Vlane’s admission, his vision for Action Burger hadn’t moved past the experimental stage. “Profit is…I don’t know when the profit is going to come,” he said. “It’s just kind of balancing off the big mess from last year. Everything is still at a loss.” Though Vlane’s tactics could certainly grab attention, they didn’t always inspire the intended reaction.
“I don’t want to mock him,” said Gideon. “I don’t wish him bad. I hope he succeeds in business. But it’s just so bizarre.” Where customers like Gideon saw absurdity, Vlane saw his competitive advantage. “I’m about new ideas and new concepts that no one’s trying yet,” he said. Vlane could brainstorm like a virtuoso, but he was also loathe to self-edit, as if editing symbolized an old form of thinking. He piled up his mind like Legos: one idea on top of the next.
In trying every tack, he saw some of his methods succeed. By partnering with Seamless.com and Grubhub.com to create a more competitive pricing model, online orders rose 60 percent between 2013 and 2014. Local hip-hop artists packed his restaurant once a month for the “Saturday Morning Music Live” events, where flows about Superman were met with cheers in the cramped quarters — bodies on laps — as “Star Trek” played in the background. On a Thursday night ritual called “Action Game Night,” Vlane bated customers with the promise of a free round of shots if they beat him in any of the “Halo” multiplayer scenarios. Stacking the teams four players to two in the customers’ favor, Vlane still crushed his rivals.
Action Burger had achieved what Steve once called impossible — lasting a year without him. “That was his mindset,” said Vlane. “And that’s what he believed, and it was like religion or something.” No Steve Bala, no Action Burger; Steve had internalized that conviction through his experience with Irene. He continued to live just two blocks away and sometimes walked past the store. One time, Vlane caught him on the security cameras checking the health department grade in the window. “He just stared at the ‘A’ like he couldn’t believe it,” said Vlane, “like it was a ghost.” According to Sahve, Steve had “kind of called the fire department and the health department” after he left the business to report violations. (Steve wouldn’t confirm or deny this claim: “I’m not allowed to discuss these things due to the agreement Vlane and I signed.”) Vlane ended up paying fines and shelling out the money to fix the pipes in the basement.
Like a tub with a leak, Action Burger was still being drained of funds. But, at the present rate of decline, it would take several years before the death stroke. Vlane had capitalized well, and the cushion bought him time — and a chance to get the enterprise locked and loaded in the style of Master Chief.
* * *
VI. Master of Two Worlds
Steve lives a few minutes from Action Burger in a building that looks like a little red schoolhouse. He answers the door and leads me up the stairs to his Batcave. Here is the stimulus behind Action Burger, the source of personal inspiration that he’s tried, and failed, to recreate elsewhere. His living room stands as a shrine to American gods, with comic books ringing the walls, “Star Trek” figurines and a Cobra banner, the red snake flaring its hood. “It’s still a major part of my life,” Steve told me on the phone a few weeks earlier. “I’m still collecting comics every Wednesday. I’m still going to movies that are based on comics. I just saw ‘Transformers,’ and I completely hated it.”
He opens another door, and it’s like Dorothy entering the land of Technicolor. More than 300 figures, still “carded” in their plastic bubbles, stare back. Toys line every surface of his room like a fresco, floor to ceiling — twenty-fifth anniversary figures on the left; “G.I. Joe” A.R.A.H. (A Real American Hero) sets from 2001 and 2003 in the middle; and original Joes from 1982 to 1984 on the far side behind boxes and boxes of comics.
“There’s not a Joe that is up here that I actually don’t have also loose,” says Steve. He knows their backstories. He knows their favorite weapons. He knows their real names and the origins of their Joe affiliations. “They’re O-ring,” he says. “That means there’s still a rubber band inside, holding them together.” He’s seen it happen, the O-rings burst, and the figures, still mint condition, fall into a mound of limbs. The idea hurts, for some reason. We fill these dolls up with more than we care to admit. On Steve’s futon is a “G.I. Joe” bedspread, and I know without asking that this was his childhood blanket.
His complete sets of “G.I. Joe” figurines could fetch upwards of $600 each. If this entire room burns to the ground, he’ll lose almost $20,000 in tangible assets, mostly stored in those intricately painted statues made of PVC plastic. “I actually want to play with my figures all the time,” he says, “but it’s hard for me to do it.” Being an adult curtails his ability to imagine.
“I would eventually, down the line, like to do it again,” Steve says, bringing it back to the restaurant. “But it’s something I’ll have to do on my own.”