As tired as the saying has become, the claim that “not all heroes wear capes” applies perfectly to Mat Norton. The founder of Beaverton food truck Bumper Burger, whose logo includes the iconic Superman diamond emblem, has become a hamburger champion of sorts by declaring war against price creep on America’s favorite sandwich. And since he’s the one hovering over the grill, Norton does battle in a tie-dyed apron.
“Whoever thought the $13 cheeseburger was a good idea is an idiot,” says Norton. “People want to gouge people for money. There has to be a stop to that kind of crap. So that’s what we’re doing.”
It’s the business’s truly jaw-dropping prices, combined with the use of simple yet high-quality ingredients, that help it stand out in a market overrun with burgers. The entry-level quarter-pound hamburger, for instance, is a mere $3.50. Want to add a slice of gooey cheese? That’ll be $4. Extra hungry? The People’s Meal, which consists of the double-patty 50/50 Burger, side of fries with dipping sauce, cup of Kool-Aid from the front bumper-bound cooler, and a baked-from-scratch brownie, will set you back only $9.50. That beats what McDonald’s charges for the same meal—and the Golden Arches’ combo doesn’t even include dessert.
If you’re beginning to wonder why you’re only now just learning about Bumper Burgers’ existence, well, location probably has something to do with that. Norton parks his rig on a pretty bleak stretch of Southwest Baseline Road, where the neighboring tow yard, Tire Depot and landscaping company don’t attract much in the way of foot traffic. Even the lot he’s called home since leaving the tech industry and launching the food truck in August 2022, Panzer Nursery—a wholesale operation specializing in azaleas—won’t prompt the average passerby to stop.
Fortunately, Norton’s mobile kitchen, named Scarlet after the Grateful Dead song “Scarlet Begonias,” is fire-engine red, making Bumper Burger easy to spot while whizzing by, which has attracted curious customers. And it only takes one quarter-pounder with a burnished crust to get ‘em hooked, which is not a baseless brag on Norton’s part. Ample testimony on Yelp and Google back up his assertion.
“Once they have it, they’ll say, ‘That’s pretty good. I’ll be back again.’ And they’ll bring somebody else,” Norton describes. “It has just taken off. It’s gone to levels I didn’t think we’d get to this soon by any means. My greatest projections, hey, someday. But we’re beyond that now.”
Settling into the industrial wilds of Beaverton is one part of the equation that allows Norton to set his rates so low. Rather than slinging burgers in a pod, where he’d have to pay rent, Norton negotiated a more affordable arrangement with Panzer’s owners, whom he had ties to through friends, and offered them a cut of the monthly profits. It also doesn’t hurt that Scarlet, which he spotted moldering in a backyard in Aloha, is completely paid off and he’s done much of the repair work himself.
“I won’t take loans to run this. That allows my prices to be where they’re at,” he says. “[Scarlet’s] old and janky, just like me. It’s all good. We’ve bonded completely—as much as you can bond with an inanimate object like that. She’s my first employee and she’s been rock solid.”
Norton also keeps costs down by bargain shopping. The US Foods Chef’Store in Aloha (formerly Cash&Carry) is his go-to for many supplies, but he’s constantly scouring supermarket shelves and mobile apps for the best deals on everything from ketchup to tomatoes. In fact, before we sat down together one afternoon in mid-February, Norton had spent much of his day hunting down the cheapest mayonnaise—but that doesn’t mean he’ll compromise when it comes to quality. Only classic brands, like Best Foods, Heinz and French’s, will do.
The resulting burgers are a throwback to an era when meat, cheese and bun hadn’t yet become all fancified, and were certainly anything but trendy. Neither a plump, proud bistro burger nor a thin, craggy-edged smash patty, Norton’s stacks are what you’d expect to find at an old-school drive-in or walk-up stand, where a hardworking flat top has kept a few generations of customers both full and happy.
Norton, who’s seemingly been asked before to describe his style of burger, didn’t need to pause and gather his thoughts when the question finally came up. In fact, he has a concise label ready to roll: the picnic burger.
“That’s exactly what we call it, and it’s not a joke,” he explains. “It might not be flame-broiled, but it is the picnic burger, where you get your burger, you put all your toppings on it, and you eat it in the folding chair in the backyard in July.”
At Norton’s cookout, the all-beef patties are rich in fat and flavor. He generously seasons the meat on both sides—Spade L Ranch marinade (a staple on steaks at home that he discovered works just as well on a burger) on one and granulated onion and garlic as well as salt on the other.
If you order the cheeseburger (and you really should), a good ol’ slice of processed American—”that’s what I used to hammer my parents for,” Norton adds—is melted into the patty’s crevices. And while there are some who prefer their burgers without produce, here each component enhances the overall experience, like diverse yet complementary instruments in a band—from the crispness of the ruffle-edged lettuce bed to the acid from the slices of red onion to the tang of the bread-and-butter pickles.
Now, if you have a nearby destination where you can eat your Bumper Burger—there is no on-site seating, and, frankly, the wholesale nursery parking lot isn’t an aesthetically appealing dining room—I highly recommend one more dose of cheese. Norton makes pimento spread fresh daily with hand-grated Tillamook sharp cheddar, cream cheese, a bit of mayo and those punchy red peppers that he also chops himself. As sturdy as Norton’s toasted brioche buns may be, pimento sauce will end up oozing out of the sides of the burger as soon as you go in, so this is not a meal to attempt to have behind the wheel of a car. But the pleasantly piquant spread adds velvetiness to every bite—and it costs only a dollar extra.
That gets back to Bumper Burger’s mission, which is proudly displayed on the side of Scarlet: “Stick it to the man one burger at a time!” Norton firmly believes that people should be able to have a decent meal for a good value, and he’s practically daring other businesses to follow his lead. Following two years of exhausting inflation, and decades of price hikes in general, taking up the fight against the $13 burger may sound daunting, but Norton doesn’t seem deterred.
“I can more than pay my bills at the prices I am charging—that’s just the simple fact of the matter. You have to ask anybody else out there why they’re charging [so much]. It’s just the way of the world anymore. I think we’re just kind of taught: Acquire. Get up the food chain. I am not that guy,” he says with a hearty laugh.
EAT: Bumper Burger, 17980 SW Baseline Road, Beaverton, 503-828-7340, bumperburger.com. 11 am-6 pm Thursday-Friday, noon-6 pm Saturday-Sunday.