Immaculate Conception parish cooks and sells 3,500 burgers a month
Three years ago a committee at Immaculate Conception parish in Irwin rented two grills, set them up in the church parking lot and sold 800 beef burgers.
Now they own eight gas grills where volunteers cook 70 burgers at a time, and by the end of each monthly Burger Bash, 3,500 burgers have been flipped, tucked into buns and wrapped.
The secret to their growing success?
"The onions," said Bob Gutwald, chairman of the parish's social committee that will hold a Burger Bash from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 11.
The recipe is a secret, just like the onion recipe is closely guarded for the well-known Shuey Burgers sold by Greensburg Fire Company No. 8. But they're not the same.
"It's a spinoff of their Burger Bashes," Gutwald, of North Huntingdon, said. "But we got absolutely no input from them, and their onions are different. We came up with our own recipe."
The committee was looking for ideas to raise money for their Genesis Fund, which is used for a variety of needs in the parish. They looked around at other church carnivals, festivals and fundraisers, and discovered, Gutwald said, "The (Greensburg) fire department has the greatest thing going."
He attended a couple of times, liked the burgers and the potential, and proposed the idea to the pastor, the Rev. John Moineau.
"We decided to do it on a whim," Gutwald said. "Father John is real energetic, and he went into the kitchen with six or seven guys and they all starting cooking onions."
The onions are sauteed until they are caramelized to a natural sweetness, and each man experimented with his own seasonings. In the end, they mixed all the onions together.
"So you get all the different variations on the onions, and that's the secret," Gutwald said. "And Father John is the keeper of the secret, and he won't divulge it."
Since then, the committee has been holding monthly Burger Bashes from April through November, realizing about $3,000 in profits each time.
The burgers sell for $2 each, a low price made possible because the buns and tanks of propane gas are donated by local businesses, and parishioners donate soft drinks and bottled water. The committee has to purchase only the frozen Black Angus beef patties and 600 pounds of pre-sliced sweet Spanish onions.
"If we didn't get all the donations, we would probably have to double the price," Gutwald said.
Making the burgers is a team effort of 100 volunteers. The men do the grilling and prepare the onions and the women do the wrapping and the selling. Other parishioners sell the pop and bottled water.
"We have eight or nine guys behind those grills, and that includes Father John, and they're back there for five or six hours," Gutwald said. "Sometimes the women pitch in on the grills, but they're usually back in the cafeteria separating onions and getting the orders together. They are the backbone of all this, and everyone involved is so committed. We couldn't pull this off without them."
Customers come from all over the Irwin and North Huntingdon area, and even from Murrysville, Latrobe, West Newton and Allegheny County. Some people put in early orders for pickup, employees at local businesses plan on buying the burgers for lunch, and people at one local car dealership buy 75 every month. One customer comes each time to buy burgers with onions for his family and two burgers without onions for his dogs.
Other customers are in town shopping or happen to be driving by and are enticed by the aroma of grilled onions and burgers.
"Irwin smells wonderful," Gutwald said. "You can smell this six or seven blocks away."
A local bar shuts down its own kitchen and puts out a sign inviting people to buy their burgers at the bash, then bring them in to enjoy with a beer.
The burgers are sold with or without onions, and some people buy just an order of onions. There are no pickles, tomatoes, lettuce or cheese, but packets of ketchup and mustard are available.
Gutwald doesn't do any of the cooking, and instead takes charge of ordering, making sure the grills are cleaned and that everything runs smoothly on those Saturdays. At the end of the day, he might have a burger himself.
"But I didn't have any at the last two bashes," he said. "There's usually so much going on and I get all caught up in it, and then they're sold out and I realize that I didn't even get one."
The bashes are held once a month, but not always on the same Saturday.
For information, and for ordering in advance (orders are taken until 11 a.m. on Burger Bash day), call Gutwald at 724-863-6947. Immaculate Conception Church is located at the corner of Oak and Second streets.