Skateboarder and bar-owner Vaughan Marks started a media frenzy when he opened a hamburger pop-up inside his Melbourne speakeasy, Promise Bar. Rather than focusing on the food that Marks is serving, the eye of that media storm was keenly fixed on the name of the new establishment-within-an-establishment, drawing both chuckles and ire from around the world and sparking a debate about the ethics of marketing a restaurant around the legacy of the most infamous drug lord in history.
Marks' restaurant is called Pablo’s Escoburgers, and, as one might guess, they serve hamburgers—albeit with some pretty non-traditional garnishes. Their flagship-burger, The Patron, is topped with a line of garlic salt spread across the bun as if it were a fluffy, buttered mirror. Next to the salt-line, a rolled-up dollar bill bearing Escobar’s face sticks out of the hamburger.
Predictably, the concept sparked heated debates on social media. Many users have praised Pablo’s Escoburgers, calling it “hilarious,” and expressing their support for the restaurant’s decision to keep its name as is, despite the backlash they’ve received. “Don’t let a bunch of overly self important [sic] social justice warriors change a good bit of humor,” wrote one Facebook user. “Some people take things way too seriously. Do they not get that laughter is the best medicine?”
Others, particularly those from Colombia—a country still recovering from the violence Escobar’s drug war wrought in the late 1980s and early '90s—feel that their country’s wounds are still too raw to be healed by a couple of yucks. An Instagram user from Colombia voiced the common feeling that for those personally affected by the drug war, the restaurant’s name is much more difficult to take lightly, writing, “Whenever you want to refer to my country, be respectful. There are people dying and suffering a war that might never touch you, but for that same reason, PLEASE RESPECT US.”
Pablo’s Escoburgers has responded to the backlash, releasing a statement on Facebook attesting that their aim is not to glorify Escobar, but rather to poke fun at him. They claim that, were he alive today, the late drug lord would be among those leaving “terrible reviews and upset comments on FB.” In another Facebook post, Escoburgers’ owners wrote, “Lovers love our burgers and haters are always going to hate! Not all Colombians are going to love our name but they all love our burgers.” The top comment on that post reads: “No we dont [sic]. Change the name.”
Vaughan Marks spoke with PRØHBTD about the food his new restaurant serves, the response Pablo’s Escoburgers has generated and drug culture in Australia.
Tell me a little bit about your background and your path to becoming a chef.
I’m a skateboarder, a carpenter, and I also grew up playing ice hockey and still do. I’m originally from Sydney. I worked as a prep cook for a few years when I was around 22 years old, but I’m not a chef. I’m the director and one of the bar owners of Promise Bar, which is a hidden cocktail bar behind our humble, high street coffee house.
Pablo’s Escoburgers is just a menu available upon request inside the bar. The media has had us giggling as we read each twist on another article stretching the truth out further than a drug run from Colombia to the U.S.
How did you first get the idea for Pablo’s Escoburgers?
I just thought that the name was a great play on words. It’s actually hilarious. We didn’t think it would attract global attention, either negative or positive. It’s been an epic media frenzy, and we have received much more love and support than angst from a few disgruntled haters.
What is the pop-up/food truck culture like in Australia?
Food trucks are really popular Down Under, with a massive following including food truck festivals with venues even dedicated to food trucks. We are hoping to build a replica Cessna airplane food truck for Pablo’s Escoburgers, maybe even a grill out on the wings for flipping burgers.
What has the response, specifically to the food you serve, been like so far?
Everyone loves our food. We are definitely doing something right. The media attention has literally exploded the business, making it hard for us to keep up. Rolling notes and filling baggies with garlic flour isn’t your average garnish prep. We have a simple recipe with an amazing product that will simply keep people coming back for more.
What do you think of the backlash you guys received surrounding the concept?
We have received backlash in the media suggesting that it is offensive to Colombians, although we have had massive support from Colombians in Australia who come in to try our burgers and from within Colombia itself via Facebook messages. The other backlash we have received is around the alleged promotion of drug use and glorification. This has also been quashed out here on national TV in Australia by popular media personalities.
Have you ever been to Colombia?
No, I haven’t been to Colombia, but our head chef Sebastian is from Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. He designed the menu with us and is very proud of his burgers. Seb is a very skilled chef who has worked in some top Colombian and Australian restaurants. Seb’s focus is bringing the best flavors together packaged into the best hamburgers.
How does your use of Pablo differ from what Netflix did with Narcos?
I haven’t watched Narcos myself. I’ve been rather busy with work. The bar is not my only business, and I have also just had my second child—not a lot of free time with a newborn and a two-year-old running around. I have heard that Narcos glorifies Pablo Escobar and makes him out to be a legend and hero. We are definitely not doing this here.
Do you personally like blow? And if so, how has it inspired your work?
Absolutely love it. It’s an all-time classic. You are talking about the film starring Johnny Depp, right?
What is the climate like around legalization of drugs like in Australia, and what's your take on legalization?
Some say marijuana will be legalized eventually here. That could be a huge step in drug use reduction as it would take the cannabis trade away from the dealers, so when people are buying weed, they won’t have the choice between weed, pills, ketamine or coke all from the same dealer.
Recently there has been a lot in the media about ecstasy being legalized and sold from pharmacies soon. There’s a long road ahead, but one day I think every place will legalize drugs as authorities continue to lose the war against them.
I think it would be a great way to stop teenagers from using drugs when the whole taboo around them is gone and consumers can just buy them in a store. The drugs will be clean and pure for consumers, and tomorrow’s youth may even be saying, “Why would I want them? People taking those are weird.”
If you banned apples, then dealers would be selling them on corners, and it would create a black market for them instantly. The price would increase incredibly. “Do you know where I can score some of them apples, man?”
What kind of experience do you hope your customers walk away with having eaten at Pablo’s Escoburgers?
A good laugh, a great feed and to enjoy a bespoke cocktail or two with their meal. We in no way condone Pablo Escobar or the horrible things the man did to his fellow Colombians. We don’t find what Pablo Escobar did to his victims funny, the grief their relatives went through funny, or anything to do with it funny. Besides that, we have put the word burgers in the name Pablo’s Escoburgers, and that is OK.
We don’t sell drugs, we sell burgers. Damn good burgers.