Working in the restaurant business is in Denise Carter's blood, as she was quite literally born and raised in it. Not only did Carter grow up working in her grandparents' restaurant, but her mother left from a catering gig to give birth to her.
Given those circumstances, Carter — the current general manager at Gurty's Burgers and Shakes in Newton — seemed pre-destined for a career in food service. After graduating high school, Carter took the lessons she learned working at the family restaurant (Bernard's Catering in Hutchinson) and struck out on her own.
At first, that meant helping in the kitchen at assisted living facilities and nursing homes like Asbury Park — where Carter went to work when she moved to Newton in 2004. Before long, Carter was working in the dining center at Bethel College. Prior to her position with Gurty's, Carter worked as the manager at Dickey's Barbecue Pit and in each role she noted the commitment and customer service she learned from her grandmother (a Newton native) have stuck with her and served her well.
"Everywhere that I've went to work in Newton, I've always started at the bottom and worked my way up...because I just love food, I love to make people happy," Carter said. "I'm a people pleaser, that's what I do. I love to make people happy, and food just is the way to do it. Regardless of a situation, food will make somebody happy. That was just instilled in me from a young age that you make people happy and they come back and see you. That's really big to me."
Dickey's closing was a shock, Carter admitted, but when one door closes, another one opens — and it just so happened that a familiar face would be opening the door to Carter's next opportunity.
Local businessman Murray Anderson become familiar with Carter during her time at Dickey's, serving as landlord for the restaurant building. That led to a lot of interaction between the restaurant manager, Carter, and Anderson to take care of various issues.
Becoming familiar with Carter's commitment to customer service, Anderson was quick to offer her a job once Dickey's closed. That led to Carter's unexpected stint as a barista at 12 Brew Drive Thru, but given both her and Anderson's experience in the restaurant business it wasn't long before the idea for Gurty's was hatched.
Seeing the Dickey's building continue to sit empty, it didn't take long before the duo started meeting and pitching ideas in the restaurant husk each afternoon — plotting out its next form.
"At first, we didn't know what even we wanted to do in here, so we played with a couple of things, and then we set out on a burger mission," Carter said.
Following each reconnaissance outing, Anderson and Carter would return to the former restaurant and continue to brainstorm menu ideas — ideas they were fully in charge of as an original concept, something Carter said she was excited to be a part of.
Taking ownership of the menu allowed Anderson and Carter to get creative, with poutine added at the behest of one of the former's employees at Anderson Liquor. Meanwhile, Carter noted she strongly pushed for the inclusion of the "Durty Gurty" burger — a double cheeseburger topped with an egg, bacon and stuffed between two grilled cheese sandwiches — after coming across something similar in their research. Additionally, she was also happy to include a tribute to her late mother as part of the restaurant's offerings in its signature shakes.
"My mom's favorite shake forever in life was the banana cream pie shake," Carter said. "Being from Hutch, we used to go to Bogey's all the time and get a banana cream pie shake with my mom. Since she's not here any more, that was really big to me to be able to incorporate something that comforted us for many years and that I felt like I could let some other people in on that."
Creativity isn't the only luxury afforded as an original restaurant. Working under no corporate rules, Anderson and Carter noted they are not against shaking things up to attract more customers. For instance, getting people to show up to Gurty's for burgers has been no problem (with 11,000 sold in the first month), but the restaurant is also trying to attract a younger crowd with its long list of appetizers — leading management to start offering a happy hour featuring half-price appetizers from 2 to 6 p.m. (as of Monday) and 8 p.m. to close each day.
Happy may very well be Carter's permanent state when she's working, as she feels right at home (unsurprisingly) in the restaurant setting and looks to pass that on to her customers, visiting with everyone who walks through Gurty's doors and making sure she does everything in her power so that each guest leaves with the same feeling of fulfillment she gets simply from doing her job.
It is a manner customers were exposed to while Carter was working at Dickey's and one that she said has helped bring her to this point. All of her previous experiences, Carter said, have helped prepare her for her current position — a position she plans to hold onto for a long time.
"This is huge for me. I plan to make it work because I don't want this to go away. I want to stay here forever," Carter said. "I just want to serve good food and I want people to come back and come back and come back. I like folks to be happy about what they're eating and that's what we're doing, and it's working."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect all happy hour times observed at Gurty's.