Food & Drink

The Unlikely Origins of Atlanta’s Gas-Station Burger Sensation

How a series of professional missteps—and an insatiable hunger for burgers—led Billy Kramer to launch NFA Burger. Plus, where the self-made chef will go next

Photo: Erik Meadows

NFA Burger's stacked cheeseburger with Sassy Sauce.

photo: Erik Meadows
Billy Kramer.

Billy Kramer is a successful fifty-year-old restaurateur, husband, and father of two. He founded the rabidly popular NFA Burger in a suburban Atlanta gas station in 2019 and has since slung some 200,000 perfectly seasoned patties to long lines of locals and travelers. But his path to a tiny counter inside a Dunwoody, Georgia, Chevron can be described as roundabout at best.

As a young graduate of Rutgers University, Kramer followed his father into the footwear industry but bailed after just one year, snagging a position selling ads for an Atlanta radio station. He soon started a magazine, Georgia Sports Monthly, and then another, Dawg Nation. The job was exciting—he threw a football in the office of former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue and was in the stadium the night Jeff Francoeur hit his first home run for the Atlanta Braves—but stressful. “Every time we printed a mistake it drove me insane. The best night of sleep I had was the day we decided to shut it down,” he says.

He spent the next decade working in sales and publishing, then decided he needed a break, intending to take a month off and regroup. “Three days in, I was bored out of my mind,” he says. He was also hungry. “At 2 a.m., I googled ‘best burgers in Atlanta.’”

The hunt for a better burger

The next day, he started down the list, chowing down on the popular cheeseburger at George’s, a pub in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood. He went on to sample Farm Burger in Decatur, the city’s now-defunct Anne’s Snack Bar (home of the Ghetto Burger), and the much-lauded stack at Holeman & Finch. Everywhere he went, he made friends, chatting up chefs, owners, and patrons. He didn’t have a goal in mind; it just made him happy, he says. 

In 2014, Kramer launched the Instagram handle @billysburgers to share his findings, amassing thirty thousand followers without even trying. But he hadn’t found his footing. “I was chief revenue officer for a Silicon Valley startup and was absolutely miserable,” he says. At the same time, “People kept asking me how to cook a burger like I was an expert. I felt like a fraud.”

So he dove in, studying cookbooks and speaking with chefs. “I called a buddy and asked him how to make a rub. Then I sat in Publix for hours, staring at the [herbs and spices],” he says. Batch No. 19 of his trials resulted in what is now called Sassy Seasoning, used in the sweet and salty Sassy Sauce that tops NFA Burgers. 

His home kitchen became a burger factory, his friends and family guinea pigs. One day, a friend mentioned that his wife would no longer eat burgers out anymore. “Oh no! Did mine make her sick?” Kramer asked, worried. 

“Nope,” his friend replied. “She says none compare to yours.”

Courting disaster

Kramer soon lost his sales job and began buying books on how to run a restaurant. His wife was skeptical, but he pushed through, using his Instagram connections to secure kitchen space for a pop-up at a local bar called Battle & Brew. With no proven track record, the deal was for Kramer to bring his own ingredients and the owners to keep all the profits. 

“Twenty minutes in, we had fifty orders. It was a complete disaster,” he says. Unused to time constraints, Kramer hadn’t realized that putting cold meat on a grill drops the grill’s temperature, so the burgers didn’t have the golden sear his friends had so enjoyed. 

“We just kept pushing inferior food out the window to make ticket times lower, but I knew within five minutes of researching grills, it was a solvable problem,” he says. “I came home with this big grin on my face and told my wife it was a glorious mess.”

A few pop-ups later, NFA Burger (short for Not Fooling Around) started earning word-of-mouth raves. “It’s about the crispiness. It’s almost as if the patty is 100 percent caramelized,” says the chef Linton Hopkins, who created another of the city’s storied burgers at Holeman & Finch. Hopkins describes Kramer’s burger as “hitting the umami button with spicy, sweet, and sour notes. Flavor and texture work really well with each other—soft bun to crisp pickles, caramelized beef to melted cheese. And spicy sauce brings it all together.”

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A post shared by NFA Burger by @BillysBurgers (@nfaburger)

A turning point

Kramer continued popping up around Atlanta until the owner of a local gas station approached him with an offer to take over the station’s tiny kitchen; his son had been raving about NFA Burger. Kramer wasn’t feeling well—he’d just been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis—but figured “what the hell?” and signed the lease. 

On opening day, Tuesday, December 3, 2019, NFA only sold three burgers. By Saturday, one hundred hungry Atlantans were lined up out the door. “It was complete chaos,” Kramer says. “My line cook says he still gets nightmares about it.” 

The next day Kramer bought a printer and a Square payment system. Soon he added a grill and, at the advice of Gunshow chef Kevin Gillespie, a better fryer. Along the way, he cemented a simple menu focused on the Classic—two certified Angus beef patties with American cheese, Mt. Olive pickles, French’s mustard, and Sassy Sauce on a Martin’s Potato Roll. NFA also sells hot dogs, sausages, tater tots, crispy fries, and by accident, Belgian liege waffles. (Kramer had wanted to sell a fried chicken sandwich on a bun that already had syrup in it; his supplier sent him a waffle instead.)

A more intentional pastry offering is something called Schmoops, homemade by Kramer’s wife, Jules. Like the Jewish crescent rugelach, it’s a flaky yet doughy pastry made with cream cheese. The Kramers named it for their niece, who earned the affectionate nickname as a newborn.

photo: Erik Meadows
NFA’s Belgian liege waffles.

Looking forward

Kramer says he knew in the first week of operation that a gas-station kitchen wouldn’t cut it. Yet three years later, he’s still there. “I started looking for new locations, but I couldn’t get the right situation where I felt like I was keeping my family financially secure,” he explains. He settled on expanding the side of the gas station to create a separate space for NFA’s ordering line, allowing him a buffer from the chaos and the opportunity to sell milkshakes and drinks. 

While he waits for permits for that expansion, he has a couple of other ideas up his sleeve. One is to franchise, but that would require him to open a full brick-and-mortar to use as a model store. The other is a joint burger-and-barbecue venture with Atlanta chef Robert Owens of Grand Champion BBQ. They’re currently looking for venues. 

After three decades of professional “mistakes,” he’s trying to be intentional about his next move. “I’m really happy right now, and I’m not sure how much I want to upset my apple cart,” he says. With his expertly seared NFA burgers to chew on, Atlantans are willing to wait.