“That one’s ten times better.”
I must have appeared puzzled by the sudden, unsolicited recommendation.
“Like okay, all of our burgers are good. But the one with the fries on it, it’s ten times better,” Peyton reiterated.
It’s possible that I kept the same expression on my face because in actuality, I was a little bit stunned by the decisiveness of my server’s recommendation, atypical of my experience with wait staff. For people largely working on tips, every customer’s choice is sublime, even those pre-gaming Fitch football with Miller Lite and deep-fried whatever. It’s the vocational equivalent of wearing neutral clothing to your favorite team’s away game – you might be opposed to it as a matter of principle, but self-preservation trumps principle just about every time.
I wasn’t really in a position to question Peyton. After all, she had bailed me out with a phenomenally-clutch suggestion of a pumpkin cider when she saw me struggling to get the QR-driven list of on-tap beers to load on my phone. It was good enough to consider, if only for a split second, going all the way in and Ubering to the nearest hotel to sleep it off. Still, I was on a mission, and no amount of Peyton’s earned confidence or easy-to-drink alcohol was going to dissuade me.
Back in February, Youngstown State stars Mady Aulbach and Paige Shy entered into an NIL deal with Sam’s Wedge Inn, a sports bar that may as well have been named as a nod to its size, which can charitably be described as “intimate.” Sam’s is tucked neatly into the corner of S. Raccoon Rd. and New Rd. in Austintown and offers a pub-style menu and an extensive range of drafts as part of its full bar, all in a clean and classically-styled-yet-modern setting that belies its status as a small, neighborhood establishment.
What’s fascinating about the whole thing is how it came to pass. This wasn’t the “my friend’s dad owns the place” arrangement that you might expect when a local business connects with someone whose celebrity doesn’t extend far beyond HoriZone Roundtable writers and a devoted-but-small pocket of Penguins supporters, a favor tossed at someone qualified only by a last name or connections between members of older generations. Sam’s specifically sought out non-football YSU student-athletes and, after some research, arrived on Aulbach and Shy fully on their merits as endorsers. They’re both great on social media with big IRL personalities to match, they’re model students and, oh yeah, they can hoop a little bit too and have the championship rings to prove it.
That’s a refreshing departure from well-established norms. At what’s decidedly a football school with four FCS national titles, and also featuring an up-and-coming men’s basketball program that has a chance to make quite a bit of noise this season, Sam’s bet on women and felt that players from the defending Horizon League co-champions were the best choice to represent their brand. That decision might not sound significant to many, but people who exist in a space where the WNBA playoffs can be pushed to ESPN2 by Little League learn to count their wins.
It’s also a nice break from the mostly-mundane ways NIL has played out for the last year. Sure, an Ashley Joens might be able to find a deal with the giggle-inducing Kum & Go convenience store chain, but she’s a national-level star at Iowa State. In the Horizon League, or any mid-major women’s conference, NIL has roughly translated to “run a camp, sling some t-shirts with your name on them, and fire off a couple Instagrams or TikToks for whichever supplement start-up asks.” It’s honest money (to the extent any of those things turn a notable profit), and more importantly it’s players controlling the ability to monetize identities, but it’s not exactly anything that captures the imagination.
That all changed when, six months and the usual variety of posts and appearances into their arrangement with the YSU duo, Sam’s announced that Shy and Aulbach would go square off in a Burger Battle. The competition, a staple of Sam’s promotional efforts, is brilliantly simple: two people build their perfect hamburger. The construction that sells better over a month or two then becomes a permanent fixture on the menu, alongside a peanut butter and jelly burger (your guess on what possibly could have lost to that is as good as mine) and one stacked with breakfast staples like bacon, tater tots, maple syrup, and an egg.
I knew immediately what I wanted – no, needed – to do. I’m not typically welcome at girls basketball camps and I already have about a billion t-shirts, but if there’s some other way I can support someone’s NIL opportunity, I’m going to slot out a Friday and get busy.
So is Shy’s “I Love Fry-Days” burger, also known as “the one with the fries on it,” destined to win even more comfortably than Casper Ruud and the Buffalo Bills did in the sporting events that dominated the bar’s array of 10 or so TVs on the evening I made my pilgrimage? It sure seems that way, at least based on the way the staff puts their thumbs on the scale. Well after Peyton hit me with a second pumpkin cider, the host slid over to my table and in more of an “I’m not supposed to be sharing this” tone admitted that he also preferred Shy’s candidate. And to be brutally honest, there’s probably not an awful chance that the sales figures back both of them up.
Using fries as a topping, a Pittsburgh innovation with a sphere of influence evidently extending both to Youngstown and to Shy’s native West Virginia, seems to be everyone’s headline, but that’s not the entire reason the burger works so well. Right on top of the crispy potatoey goodness sits a generously-applied coat of barbecue sauce striped with ranch dressing, sort of an accidental fry dip with no actual dipping required. After finishing the thing off with some sauteed onions, lettuce, and Swiss cheese, the result is a full-on cookout in a sandwich.
It’s visually impressive as well, as the fries keep the lid lifted and allowing a better look at its smothered glory than the competition. And, as if those fries weren’t doing enough work already, putting them on the burger allows a bit creative freedom with the side and the chance to escape the standard yellow starch – though peppers in oil seemed like the only proper choice in the Mahoning Valley.
Still, there’s plenty to be said for Aulbach’s entry and since nobody else seems to want to say it, I suppose the task falls to me.
“It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green” has a little bit of a breakfast vibe but all in all, it doesn’t really have a cohesive and familiar flavor profile on the level of Middle-American Barbecue. Nevertheless, the underdog delivers by throwing several elite toppings together – avocado, provolone, bacon, pickles, and a fried egg lead the way – and hoping for the best. It’s Joey Tribbiani Culinary Theory applied to real life: what’s not to like? A salad bar might be on the opposite end of the food pyramid from Sam’s or Joey’s taste, but if you don’t overthink it and just throw a bunch of stuff you like in the container, you’re probably not going to hate the final product. And I like everything on Aulbach’s burger.
So it’s a resounding success on that level and probably deserves more respect from those should know better since, thanks to its ingredient diversity, it can take on a few different personalities. For me, the pickles dominated the first time around, while the avocado came to the front on the next day’s re-heat (crucially, for people who do things like order two meals and save half of each for later, “Bein’ Green” holds up to a toaster oven much better than Shy’s entry).
By now, you’re probably a bit impatient with my lack of a verdict, but the thing is, I’m not going to offer one because like most things, Burger Battles ultimately boil down to individual tastes and preferences. Both are fantastic options, and when I go back, I could easily see myself walking the fence once more. However, I’d encourage you to head to Austintown over the next couple weeks and come up with your own answer, while also demonstrating that women’s basketball players can help bottom lines.
Either way though, get the pumpkin cider. And thank Peyton again for me.