Smash & Grab is the (unlikely) best burger in Denver during the pandemic


On the last Friday evening of January, from the stretch of Tennyson Street between 39th and 41st Avenues, diners were practically glowing.

Couples walked arm in arm to their dinner reservations, families sat outside of the ice cream shop with to-go cups and, in front of one temporarily closed restaurant, The Way Back, groups of friends and singles lined up to try cheeseburgers from Smash & Grab, a new Denver pop-up.

As a pair who had been waiting in line approached the walk-up window, owner Eli Cox announced that these two customers would be getting the last burgers of the night. It was just after 6 p.m.

“I’d rather sell-out than throw meat away,” chef and business partner Trevor Gilham later told The Denver Post. “If we could do 150 (orders) next time, that’d be unbelievably flattering and cool.”


Gilham and Cox are the latest creators of a viral food trend in Denver during the pandemic. Their smash burgers follow in a line of wildly popular single menu items — from fried chicken to dumplings to doughnuts — that have caught customers’ attention over social media platforms like Instagram and stolen our hearts over the last 11 months.

The recipe for success is straightforward but elusive: Find the thing you make better than anyone else, figure out a way to get it to the masses and then, hopefully, sell out.

“It’s hype culture,” Cox explained. “Not everybody gets the pair of Jordans they want, and I think that makes it more fun.”

Bored at home, drawn to images on social media and assured of an easy delivery or pick-up, customers don’t stand a chance against the new food darlings of the internet.

RELATED: 9 Denver foods that went viral during the pandemic

When I got my hands on the eighth-to-last Smash & Grab burger of the final January pop-up, I walked straight to my car and (maybe I shouldn’t be boasting about this part) ate my dinner from the safety of a Tennyson Street parking spot. Enough pandemic pick-up food has taught me that a burger won’t withstand the 20-minute drive home to my dinner table.

But that night, it did hold up to the hype.

As Gilham describes his winning recipe: “That greasy smash burger, but with nice tomatoes and good stuff on top. You can just pick off (what) you don’t like.”

Shredded lettuce, grilled onions, a secret special sauce, plus relish, inspired by Dick’s burgers in Seattle — Gilham took the best of his favorite fast food across the U.S. (see also P. Terry’s in Austin and his hometown drive-in theater in Montrose) and he paid homage and leveled up.

He also happens to be a trained chef who long ago left the industry for a career in marketing with outdoor brands. Cox, too, worked for years in Denver restaurants, like the original Twelve downtown. Then he went on to open Berkeley Supply, a menswear shop that has lasted for nine years on Tennyson Street.

“I think both of us swore at one point that we’d never be (working) in a restaurant ever again, like ever ever again,” Gilham says as a caveat. “But the beauty of this situation is we get to play in a restaurant once a month.”

So they’re taking it all in. At three pop-up events so far since December, the pair limit their patties to around 100 and hope for the best. Because of the small stock, Gilham can remember how every single burger he flips turns out (he has regrets about one only that he deemed imperfect at the beginning of the last event).

But they donate their time working these pop-ups, they price food to cover good ingredient costs ($8.50 for burgers, $49 for a bougie “Caviar & Lays”), they work with a local rep to sell good natural wines and some Korean beers at a reasonable price, and they pay any tips forward to people in the restaurant industry who are out of work.

Gilham gets to cook in a nice commercial kitchen, an opportunity he wouldn’t have dreamed of outside the pandemic, and Cox gets to talk to customers and ring orders into the back. They’re having a blast.

“Every time we do it is a risk,” Cox added. “We’re writing pretty decent sized checks to cover all the (expenses). Luckily, people keep supporting it.”

When I talked to Gilham and Cox mid-week, early February, they were still nearly a month out from their next burger sale (Friday, Feb. 26). But I wondered if there was any way to get photos of the action in the meantime, the kind that would make potential customers mark their calendars for a one-night fast-food dinner nearly three weeks out.

“Do you want to just do one Saturday night?” Cox asked Gilham, scheming.

“No,” Gilham said, and they both laughed.

There were families to spend precious pandemic time with, day jobs to keep, and besides, with viral foods, you always risk giving the people too much.

“That’s almost why we do it once a month,” Gilham said, “so our friends don’t get sick of it.”

You can find out about Smash & Grab’s upcoming events only by following their Instagram account, instagram.com/smashandgrabco/. 

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