By Stephanie Carlson Curtis
What originated as a family nickname has become a popular brand for a burger joint in Carmel that’s made a tasty impression since opening in May 2003. Now Bub’s Burgers and Ice Cream and The Big Ugly Burger have made a delicious and daring debut in Zionsville to satisfy a growing appetite.
Matt and Rachel Frey, creators and owners of Bub’s, chose to open their fourth restaurant in Zionsville to provide a family dining option as well as serve businesses and the community. “The town has been wonderful to work with, and they are excited to have us to help keep the downtown thriving,” said Matt. “We developed a partnership with Bob Harris, the landowner, to establish our free-standing restaurant overlooking the creek.”
“I hope that it becomes a fun destination point for Zionsville families,” said Rachel. “I love the building and the location and can envision the families at Lions Park visiting for burgers and ice cream after games.”
After many years as a traveling corporate salesman, Matt decided it was time to focus on family and figure out a career that would allow him to be home and make a decent living. “I was on the road 40 weeks a year. When Rachel and I started having kids, the priorities changed,” said Matt. “I have always been in the food business. At 14 years old, I started doing dishes at the Ritz.”
The youngest of five siblings, Matt grew up in Carmel and worked for his brother-in-law, Chuck Lazarra, owner of the Ritz Charles banquet hall. “He was like a father figure to me, and he gave me an early introduction to the food service industry.” Lazarra was also a valuable mentor and the inspiration for naming the restaurant Bub’s.
“It was a huge risk leaving the security of my sales job and corporate perks to open a restaurant,” said Matt. “On top of that, Rachel was pregnant with our third child, so it was a bit stressful working seven days a week, 15 hours a day, but I was home every night.”
Matt said long days were required to create a blueprint and a procedure for someone else to follow in order to grow the business. “When we were developing the original concept, Chuck advised us to keep it simple. We knew our focus was going to be on burgers, so we came up with this big burger as a marketing point, thinking it wouldn’t sell as much as the smaller burgers.” But The Big Ugly Burger, a whopping one-pound feast, was a hit right off the bat. Soon the restaurant walls were covered with 4×6 photos of diners who polished off The Big Ugly.
The first summer, Bub’s was much busier than the Frey’s expected, and as new business owners, they were not fully prepared for the rush of hungry customers. “It was just me and one other guy in the kitchen flipping burgers and making milkshakes like crazy,” said Matt. “I’m so thankful that people were forgiving and understood because it took forever to get a burger.”
“Matt would call me frantic from the restaurant right in the middle of lunch because we had gotten slammed and were out of tomatoes. I would chase the kids down through the house to gather them, hurry to the car because it was always a huge emergency. You can’t have a Bub’s burger without tomatoes!” said Rachael. “I’d cart them all into the grocery store, usually with one having to take an emergency potty training stop or have a tantrum, run to the produce aisle for a bunch of tomatoes and then haul the tomatoes and my armloads of toddlers back to the van to race to Bub’s.”
Their three children have grown up with Bub’s and pitch in to help out at the restaurant. “It’s a family business, and all the kids can learn from working here,” said Matt. “My oldest, Nick, hosts, buses tables and does other jobs around the place. My two girls, Lucy and Ann, help out too.”
Reflecting on the decade of Bub’s existence with challenges and rewards, Matt recalls how important it was that they had saved enough money and made good household financial decisions, so when the time came, they were able to invest in their business, grow it and eventually pay the bank off. “We are so fortunate that Chuck had so much experience and advice to share,” said Matt. “Rachel and I are the sole investors. It’s our gig and our risk. It’s a good partnership because my wife is very analytical, and I am a sales guy.”
The Zionsville Bub’s is the fourth restaurant the Frey’s have opened. The first burger eatery is located in Carmel’s Arts and Design District along the Monon Trail. The second is located in Bloomington near Indiana University. Bub’s Café serves breakfast and lunch and is located south of Bub’s Burgers in Carmel also along the Monon Trail. “We look for a special ambience in a unique area for our restaurants, like the wooded area and creek in Zionsville where families can relax and enjoy a burger.”
“We have some very loyal fans who feel very strongly about our brand. That makes me extremely proud because we have worked hard to create a consistent process and product. I look back on especially the first three years we were in business and think about the countless hours we worked, and the idea that people would respond so positively is very gratifying,” said Rachel. “We also couldn’t have the success we have had without a great staff, and we appreciate their hard work.”
Matt said their success is the result of lots of family and community support and their desire to provide an unforgettable experience for their customers, generating a loyal following. “Our identity is burgers, milkshakes and beer. We keep it simple and family-oriented, and we are good at what we do.”