When Boxcar Burgers first opened near the Ronkonkoma train station last January, owners Steve Cannon and Mike Dorian expected to cater to the commuting crowd.
But the coronavirus pandemic changed all that.
With ridership on public transit drying up with many able to work from home, the Boxcar Burgers owners decided to connect more with the local community.
The instant fans have since rallied around this old-school burger joint.
“It’s a tremendous feeling knowing that people in the community are embracing us,” Cannon said. “It’s a very humbling feeling having the people take us in like that.”
Boxcar Burgers is a simple concept, a quick takeout spot for the burger-lover on the go, Dorian said.
It’s also a labor of love for the two Port Jefferson Station natives, who have been best friends since they were 12 years old.
The two dreamed up Boxcar Burgers after years in the restaurant business as managers at known Port Jefferson spots such as Danfords and Lombardi’s on the Sound.
“We always talked about owning something,” Dorian said. “But everyone talks about owning something, you know?”
But by the spring of 2019, the two had decided to make the leap.
They found a small spot in a former pizzeria in Ronkonkoma and got to work, eager to tap into the busy transit hub that they believe is poised for revitalization.
“Everyone’s on the move, everyone’s on the go,” Cannon said. “It’s more of a grab-and-go type of atmosphere around here.”
Cannon and Dorian did most of the renovations themselves, literally laying brick after brick inside the eatery.
In January 2020, the two opened the nostalgic, no-frills Boxcar Burgers. Its menu is packed with the titular burgers, as well as milkshakes and quick bites like hot dogs and fries.
The takeout spot also features railroad-themed specialty items. There’s the “Switchmaster,” a double cheeseburger on two buns made of grilled cheese, and the Third Rail, a popular crispy chicken sandwich with bacon and ranch.
“Everything’s simple but we put the heart and soul into it,” Cannon said.
But right after St. Patrick’s Day, everything “came to a screeching halt,” Dorian said.
Travel restrictions and quarantines caused by the pandemic caused the usual customer base to dry up. Cannon and Dorian said they always intended to cater to a local crowd eventually, but were counting on the commuters to drive business at the start.
“We had to really switch gears and focus on the community,” Cannon said. They shifted to emphasizing takeout and online orders.
The owners said they’re grateful for the support of those in Ronkonkoma who came to support them as word-of-mouth spread. Community groups on social media began posting about the burger spot. The owners said families now order takeout for dinner or lunch meals.
Dorian said some regular customers stop in two or three times a week for their burger fix.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I’ve been in the industry my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Best of all, the two owners have had countless chats with their regular customers, and feel a strong connection to those who have kept them thriving amid the pandemic.
“We’re having a conversation [with our customers] like they’re friends or family,” Cannon said. “They’re part of our business too.”
Top: Steve Cannon and Mike Dorian, the owners of Boxcar Burgers in Ronkonkoma (credit: Facebook).