On the Line: Mick Schepers of Mick's Karma Bar, Part One

We admit it, it's cool when a chef talks to us about our food blog. In the conversations leading up to our interview with Michael “Mick” Schepers, we're pretty sure he referenced most of our team in one way or another. We also met his wife, youngest daughter, and learned enough about his eldest that we practically know her, too. Every answer had a story behind it, and while it was a boatload of information, we wanted to listen.

Your earliest food memory:
Chocolates from the Reber Company in Germany! My Austrian uncle worked for this company, and one year I got a whole bag (10kg, an obscene amount) of Mozartkugeln. I stuffed my face with them until I felt completely nauseated. Up to this day I am still not much of a dessert or sweet fan.

Favorite meal growing up:
Sunday lunch with my family, generally eaten out. My favorites are paella mixta or Indonesian rijsttafel. Both are rice dishes served family-style.

Your best recent food find:

Smoked marlin tacos from Oscar's in San Diego. It was kind of unusual, but good! I have no idea whether using smoked fish is a Mexican or San Diego thing, but we can always Ask a Mexican?! I have no doubt Southern Californians love this place; there is avocado on everything!

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Vietnamese food, so I am told, while delicious, I have not tasted Vietnamese food elsewhere. Nevertheless, a lot of my Viet customers tell me that their mothers make the best pho. It kind of reminds me of Italians and their mamas making the best pasta. It's probably because of the time they take to make the broth.

We also have great chefs working over here with great concepts, such as Haven. One must look at the great menu Greg (Daniels) brings to you. The Playground– somewhat of an erratic menu that constantly changes, but Jason's customers love it. Mr. Santana and his Broadway. We even got Shuck, an oyster bar, just to name a few. I think considering the OC is supposed to be suburbia, the offerings are pretty damn good, possibly better than some cities. I haven't even mentioned the unique food trucks or taco shops, or even innovative chains like Bruxie.

Most undervalued ingredient:
Sour milk. Not bad milk that is one month old, but milk that just turned sour (somewhat unpalatable milk that is not bad yet). It makes excellent pancakes. You will never find it in any restaurant; we are not allowed to use expired foods. Commercial products of similar taste may contain vinegar. Should your milk at home expire, there is always an excuse to make pancakes!

Explain the “Karma” in your bar.
This one is an unusual story. It involves changing our business into one that is selling what nobody sells at the bottom of an office building around here. Gary, co-owner of Karma tequila, is our neighbor and good friend. The topic of my business came up, and I was never happy with Mick's “Cafe Bar” because of the “Cafe” in the name, Mick's “Juice Bar” for the same reason, and both these menus had something in common called a steak hache.

Sometime in Spring 2010, while enjoying a great barbeque at Gary's house, he provided me with the best advice, “Who cares what you call it as long as the food is good.” Best of all, my landlord had offered to replace my sign, and they needed to apply for a permit that week. I walked out of that BBQ with Mick's Karma Bar, a logo, and the best advice ever from my wife, “People in office buildings do not eat burgers.

The next day I showed the Cafe Bar menu to one of my longtime customers, who asked me, “What on Earth is a steak hache?” My reply, “It's like a burger that owes everything to the quality and freshness of the meat.” His reply, “Michael, do yourself a favor. It ain't going to fool me in eating a burger. I don't eat burgers. Help yourself. This is America. People over here love burgers.

In November 2010, Mick's Karma Bar was born, a “Juice” bar with a range of wraps and a burger that owes everything to the quality and freshness of the meat– The Karma Burger!

How many burgers are you serving on a typical day?
300 to 500 burgers, with the latter being served at the end of the week.

What fast food do you admit to eating?
It's been a while, but big fat chicken tacos from Del Taco with one red and one black sauce.

What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Double espresso on ice, right here.

What's up with breakfast?
Unfortunately, we stopped serving breakfast at the end of May last year, a month-and-a-half after we opened at night. There are only so many hours I can work in a day, and breakfast orders at 10 a.m. conflict with our prep work. Anything that leads to chaos of our core product will be shelved. The same thing happened to our juice bar. It got shelved last August.

People have to understand Friday's a busy day. Last Friday, we sold close to 300 burgers just at lunch. It's a lot of prep work: 300 lettuce leaves, 600 tomato slices, shredded cabbage, sauces and whatnot. Everything in our burger is made in-house, and what we cannot sell on Friday should not be sold any other day.

For new customers, it's not easy to locate. How do you explain directions to your bar?
I think the issue is that there is no signage anywhere. We are pretty easy to get to, right by the 55 and 405 (interchange), use the same parking as El Torito Grill. Follow signs to Kitima or Specialties Bakery and Cafe.

One food you can't live without.
Cheese. It must be in my Dutch blood. I can just eat it by itself. Oh, it's awfully nice to eat it like that.

Best tip for the home cook:
Keep it simple. Even some chefs get lost in dishes that are far too complex.

We know you read our blog, so what have you read up on lately?
Dave Lieberman's rant on salad dressings. Why is there corn syrup in Western salad dressings and everything else? I will never get sucked into a conversation publicly on whether anything is good or bad for you. I will always say an egg and oil never killed anybody, albeit people seem to think fat-free dressings made of corn syrup taste great and are better, and they pour humongous portions of it on their salad on sheer belief that their lunch is healthy. As far as I'm concerned, the only reason there is corn syrup in everything is because it's cheaper than egg and other ingredients.

What do you think of your social media following?
I love it! Our tiny store is entirely social media driven. We have no street front, no (paper) menus, no business cards. Even our name has no significance it what business we are in today. We don't even have Google keywords on our homepage. While people generally consider me the social network guru, I had no idea what was bringing in people here at the beginning. It was more like a social media hijack when people started to come into our store, looking at their phones and ordering “The Karma Burger” without looking at our menu board.

I decided to run with that, even doing away with salads at first. Not because they did not sell well, but because we had to meet demand for our burger product. The social media things happen faster than twilight, which means it can destroy your business faster than when twilight occurs. It gets even worse in that they take pictures! Your product better look somewhat decent. I was kind of lucky that our burgers tend to generally look good (for the price) in a picture when executed properly.

The product was developed with utmost care. Designed to sit in a box for people that dine at their desks, with cabbage (bitter) at the bottom to shield the bun from the sauce (a medium flavor that delivers slight spiciness and a bit of savory flavor), plum tomatoes (sweet), thinly sliced red onions (sour), leaf lettuce (bitter) that is sturdy and crunchy, even after a prolonged time, protecting the top bun from the tomato and the American cheese (slight pungency and saltyness), a processed cheese that we can actually call cheese. And most importantly, our bun (astringent) that's not whole wheat, but holds everything together. It all comes with our meat that has less of the seventh taste (fat). The quality of the all-natural Angus sirloin that we continuously grind as well as hand form the patties to order, means that we can still produce a juicy patty that is medium-well on our charbroiler.

The sole purpose of our burger product was so that I could possibly sell 50 of them with the rest of the Karma Bar menu. I may make it (in this business). People do not understand that there were only a couple of thousand people left around here. Some may choose not to eat at Carl's Jr. or MacDonald's across the way, and might be willing to pay a little bit more for better quality. The truth of the matter is that my wife is right; people in office buildings generally do not eat burgers for lunch. Only once in a while. Sandwiches, salads and soup, yes– all the time. Do office workers in the Irvine Concourse eat a Karma Burger? Yes, the ones that choose to eat our product when they feel like eating a burger. But people from office buildings everywhere come and eat our burger, as well as students and families through word of mouth and the social network! Even Siri sends me customers.

I think the social network has not changed the fundamentals of the restaurant business, but will forever change the way retail real estate works in the long term (20 years from now).

You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Sunny side up eggs, whether on thinly sliced ham and bread or ranchero style. It doesn't really matter as long as they are sunny side up.

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