Bugs and bagels were Alvin Burger’s businesses and nobody did them like Al.
You can also call him Grampa — spelled just like that, Burger always insisted. Cuddlier that way.
“He was the best father and the best Grampa,” said Susan Burger of her father, who founded the Bugs Burger Bug Killers (BBBK) pest extermination company and the popular Roasters ’n Toasters in Pinecrest. “He always believed in the best of everyone, which, unfortunately, led people to take advantage of him sometimes.”
Burger (rhymes with merger), who died at 82 on Monday, would concede his daughter’s point when he felt the need to hire a new vice president of operations in 1978 to help boost profits at BBBK.
“I’m a very trusting person, and I used to be open to a lot of sob stories. I know how to run a mom-and-pop operation, but with this kind of operation I needed a strong administrator,” he told the Miami Herald in a 1983 story.
Wife Sandee Burger chuckles. “He was exceptional to the employees. We were 50-50 partners in that. … The good guy and the bad guy. He was the good guy,” she said.
When the couple sold BBBK to S.C. Johnson Wax in 1986, the Burgers gave 5 percent of their proceeds back to their employees by years served, not by position. Burger also did pro bono work at a Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem to eliminate infestations. Temple Judea in Coral Gables honored the couple for their good deeds, along with dedication to Jewish, charitable and community causes in 1991.
Bugs Burger Bug Killers, founded with his wife out of a bedroom at his mother-in-law’s house in Miami in 1960, proved so distinctive with its guarantee to eliminate all pests that Harvard Business School still uses BBBK as a model for one of its courses.
And with all of South Florida’s New York transplants — Burger was one of them, born in Albany on Aug. 2, 1933 — who doesn’t hunger for a schmear of cream cheese on a toasted bagel? Roasters ’n Toasters, a deli and coffee shop Burger founded in 1984, remains a Pinecrest institution. The Burgers sold what grew into a New York-style deli with additional locations in Miami Beach and Skylake to new owners in 1996.
The goodwill Burger built into both enterprises is as immense as one of Roasters’ mile-high Reubens.
“[BBBK], which operates throughout the United States, charges up to 10 times more than its competitors and yet has a disproportionately high market share in its operating areas. Its service quality is so outstanding that the company rarely needs to make good on its guarantee (in 1986 it paid out only $120,000 on sales of $33 million — just enough to prove that its promises aren’t empty ones),” wrote Harvard Business Review in a 1988 case study called The Power of Unconditional Service Guarantees.
Son Andrew Burger bought the company name back from S.C. Johnson in 2000 and operates Bugs Burger Bug Killers in Florida and Texas. “The kindest guy I know. He taught me a trade and morals and ethics,” he said.
“A main reason that the Bugs Burger guarantee is a strong model for the service industry is that its founder, Al Burger, began with the concept of the unconditional guarantee and worked backward, designing his entire organization to support the no-pests guarantee—in short, he started with a vision of error-free service,” the Harvard study read.
Actually, he started in the extermination business as a birthright — he was a fourth-generation exterminator. A 1983 Christian Science Monitor profile recounts how Burger grew BBBK after he peeked behind the curtains at a swank Miami restaurant and spotted a “million” roaches.
“Everyone was laughing when I told the restaurant owner I would guarantee I’d get rid of every pest or he didn’t owe me a dime. The steward immediately started taking bets … and he ended up making more money on the deal than I did,” Burger told the magazine.
In 1991, Burger similarly acted on inspiration with his other love, food, when he created cream cheese-stuffed Bagel Balls at Roasters ’n Toasters. “People like bagels and cream cheese — they go together — so I just started experimenting,” he told the Herald in 2008.
In 1993, Burger patented his Bagel Balls, received over $1 million for the rights, licensed the product to Medley bagel maker Gary Schwartzberg, and his creation was sold to Kraft in 2006. Kraft markets them in groceries’ frozen food sections as Bagel-fuls.
“I always called him the world’s best cook,” Sandee Burger said. “When we opened Roasters he came up with all these healthy recipes, but that’s not going to fly. People wanted corned beef and pastrami, not healthy.”
Burger, who started cooking at age 8 for his family, was a cook in the U.S. Army during the Korean War but wasn’t shipped overseas because the brass was so taken with his kitchen skills, his wife of nearly 57 years said. “The head of base said, ‘No way! You’re not taking my cook!’ He once cooked for Eleanor Roosevelt who praised his cooking. He loved to brag about that. Who likes good Army food?”
In addition to his wife and two children, Burger is survived by grandchildren Jacob and Dani Greenberg, and Tali, Jonathan and David Burgerand daughter-in-law Michele Burger. Services will be held at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at Temple Judea, 5500 Granada Blvd., Coral Gables.
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