A substantial portion of Mariel Street’s personality can be summarized in a sentence: “I like moving parts.” We meet for burgers at Liberty Burger Keller Springs, where our table quickly becomes the eye of the lunch rush storm. Burgers, skinny fries and Kale Mary salads zip out of the kitchen and tables are cleared with lightning speed to make way for new customers who want to try the Chillerno, which features flame-roasted poblanos, and chipotle barbecue sauce or the seared Ahi Tuna with sesame slaw and wasabi aioli. Most burger places are designed with ketchup and mustard color schemes meant to stimulate the appetite, but Liberty Burger is different. Mariel chose green, a nod to her commitment to local sourcing and environmental responsibility. The Statue of Liberty is subtly woven into the design.
Mariel sports a stylish blond pixie cut and a lightbulb tattooed on the wrist. “It’s my deal-making hand,” she explains when I ask. In 2017, she was one of Dallas Business Journal’s 40 under 40 because of Liberty Burger, which, in seven years, has grown into a local chain that lives in the space between fast food and high-end chef-driven concepts.
“The restaurant industry is part of my DNA. It’s what I grew up doing and it’s exciting. I don’t have to work in an office, I can wear what I want and work for myself,” Mariel explains over a Wild, Wild West with chicken instead of beef. She recommends playing with the menu and encourages every customer to make their meal their own. It’s the idea behind the name: liberty.
When she says that the restaurant business is in her blood, she isn’t exaggerating. She grew up immersed in the inner workings of restaurants thanks to her father, Gene Street, who built a restaurant empire with concepts like Black Eyed Pea, Cantina Laredo, Cool River and III Forks. Most of her five brothers are also in the restaurant business. Three are currently her business partners. However, her father never wanted her to follow in his footsteps.
“[He told me] it’s too hard, it’s too much work, it’s too risky,” she recalls. “He always tried to talk me out of it. But if you tell me not to do something, I’ll look at it twice as closely.”
Besides, she describes herself as a “jump-out-of-a-plane” kind of person. Someone like that doesn’t achieve her dreams by doing things the normal way. Mariel’s way included a degree in linguistics, driving an ice cream truck in her 20s to fund her travel bug and, eventually, the Peace Corps.
“I wanted to do some good, travel with a purpose, and spend more than two weeks in a town. I wanted to live it, get into that culture and be a part of it. Peace Corps was my opportunity so I took it.” Gene Sr., her father, didn’t want her to join the Peace Corps either and offered to pay her way all over the world if she didn’t join. Mariel turned him down. “I didn’t want to take his money to do what he wanted me to do, instead of what I wanted to do,” she explains.
For two years she lived on one of a tiny cluster of islands in the South Pacific called Vanuatu where she worked as a literacy instructor, training local teachers in one of the most remote places left in the world. There were no telephone poles or hotels and very little infrastructure. The Islanders’ native tongue hadn’t ever been written down so the children taught her a pidgin language so they could communicate, as well as where to find the best bananas and avocados, which she picked fresh off of the trees. Looking back, Vanuatu was an incredibly isolating experience, so much so that for years after, Mariel wouldn’t step foot on a beach. At the same time, she calls it the most beautiful place in the world, one that completely changed her relationship with food.
“It opened my eyes. Here, we’re so used to just buying meat and not thinking about where it comes from and what they do to get it that way. There, if you want meat, you’re chasing the chicken down. I know how meat tastes when it’s the cleanest it can be, nothing on it because you don’t have anything to put on it,” she explains. “I know what it looks like, tastes, like, smells like. Then I came back here and realized meat isn’t supposed to have a shelf life of two weeks.”
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After the Peace Corps, Mariel’s first idea was a burger truck down in Austin, since food trucks were all the rage. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she admits. “Being a hostess and waitress didn’t qualify me to run a food truck.” She went to her brother, Gene Jr., who at the time ran a bar called Snookie’s. “I started bugging him for money. He kept saying no because he was trying to get into tacos. We just weren’t on the same page.” For a year, she drove back and forth between Dallas and Austin, asking Gene for money and driving back to Austin to test tacos.
“You have to sell so many tacos. And they only go for about $2 each, but burgers, done right, can be worth $10,” Mariel concludes. “Burgers are recession-proof. People eat them every day in every part of this country. If you brand it correctly, a burger will sell everywhere.”
She came to Dallas armed with a button-down shirt and the Liberty Burger logo plastered on a high school poster board and pitched her idea to her brothers, Dace and Gene Jr. They offered to invest, but not in an Austin-based food truck. She’d have to create a brick-and-mortar concept in Dallas. Mariel moved back to DFW two weeks later.
“When I first discovered Austin, I wrote Dallas off,” she says. “It wasn’t until I moved back here that I saw that there are so many unique pockets. Dallas is such a great city. People want to know what’s going on and will drive across town to try a new restaurant.”
It took 16 months to find all of her vendors. At Liberty Burger, the food is locally sourced from ranchers and farmers Mariel trusts and artisan bakers she has vetted. Condiments that can’t be locally sourced are made in-house.
“We could make a lot more money if we did things differently,” she points out. “If we got mass-produced meat, it’d be cheaper. But our meat is single-herd. If you buy meat at the grocery store, they take it from different herds all over the world, from Latin America, the US, Australia and mix it all together to make a more cost-efficient product.”
The first Liberty Burger opened on Forest Lane, prefaced by the huge sign that went up while they were still training and finalizing the menu. Originally, Mariel wanted to create a build-your-own-burger concept in the vein of Which Wich or Chipotle, but the menu had become clogged with too many choices. Days before the grand opening, they’d changed it completely, offering new signature burgers that the staff was still learning. One day during training, Forest Lane was shut down for a breast cancer awareness marathon. Mariel remembers the sea of pink shirts passing outside the window.
“People kept coming in to see if we were open. So finally I said, ‘People, in your places. Let’s wing it.’” They opened during the marathon. “It was like moths to a flame,” Mariel recalls. Within an hour on its first day, Liberty Burger had sold out of burgers. “It wasn’t the smoothest opening,” she chuckles. “Imagine waiting an hour and I walk up to you at the ripe old age of 27 and tell you, ‘Sorry, I’m out of burgers.’ Then you’re like, ‘Can I speak to your boss?’ And I go, ‘I am the boss.’ Oh, that’s why this is such a disaster.”
For the first couple of weeks, Liberty Burger had more customers than they could feed, selling out every single day with hour-long waits and lines around the building. In the beginning, Mariel received brutal feedback, but she didn’t have time to waste. Ninety days after opening her doors, she realized she’d stopped running out of burgers every day. People were still waiting in line for an hour for lunch. Without knowing it, she’d even started to cultivate what every restaurant depends on: regulars. One man first dined at Liberty Burger two weeks in and proceeded to return for 100 days in a row for a turkey burger. Every time he stopped in, he made a point to encourage the Liberty Burger team. “Day 67,” he’d say. “You’re doing an awesome job and your product is amazing.”
Looking back, Mariel knows those first 90 days were when she fully committed to her dream. Since then, she has expanded to multiple locations, most scattered across DFW and one in Jackson, Wyoming. She has her eye on San Antonio and Houston too.
“For me, the key is adapt and adapt quickly,” Mariel says. “National chains that open 40 stores in a year can’t make quick and fast changes. They copy and paste the same concept over and over again. I can provide all the predictability and consistency of a national chain, but I can adapt. We can stay hyper-local. I give [franchisees] the right foundation but allow them freedom. They can tweak stuff to make Liberty Burger right for their community.”
These days many of the Street siblings are involved in the restaurant world and usually each other’s business. For example, in 2017 Gene, Dace and Mariel all helped their younger brother, Marco, open Street’s Fine Chicken in Dallas. November 5, 2018 marks seven years of Liberty Burger. Mariel admits that none of it was meticulously planned. “I don’t know whether it’s good to say that or not,” she laughs. “But that’s how we’ve gotten here. Our systems are strong and our core team is well-developed. We didn’t stick to a rigid plan so we were free to seize opportunities that came our way. I think that was the key: being free.”