The story of steamed cheeseburgers, the central Connecticut delicacy that is as adored as it is geographically confined, is also a story of small-time manufacturing and local business, of community engagement, of those things which make a place unique. Any time you eat a steamed cheeseburger in central Connecticut, there’s a good chance it can trace its roots to Wallingford’s Bob Gattilia, who is the owner of Daleco, the small hobby-corporation he bought in 1990 that manufactures the Burg’r Tend’r steam chests that many local joints use to make their steamed cheeseburgers.
The 87-year-old Gattilia’s CV is a catalogue of the small local banks and lending institutions that used to dot our landscape, banks which were bought out, shuttered or merged into larger banks. Wallingford’s First National Bank, Meriden’s Puritan Bank, the Meriden Trust and Safe Deposit. All gone. In the late ’80s, Gattilia lost his job, stock options and pension after a bank merger failed, and found himself unemployed at age 59.
In an unsure time, he reached back into his knowledge base as a lender, and reconnected with a Meriden man, Dale Greenbacker, who was looking to sell his small manufacturing company, Daleco, which made the steam chests needed to make steamed cheeseburgers.
Gattilia bought Daleco in 1990 from Greenbacker, who had fallen ill. Gattilia taught himself the sourcing, welding and assembly of the steam chests, using the basement of his ranch house on the east side of Wallingford as his factory. Gattilia and Daleco in its various incarnations have sourced steam chests to a host of different burger joints just getting off the ground, such as K LaMay’s, Ted’s (before Gattilia owned the company), Sara J’s in Wallingford, and American Steamed, giving someone the resources to get started, just as Gattilia did as a bank loan officer.
“I ran against the grain a little bit, because I thought my objective in life was to help everybody. And no business is in business to help everybody,” Gattilia says. “One year I didn’t get a raise because my superiors thought that I was returning too many of the fees for bouncing checks. I said, ‘Do you realize you spend thousands and thousands of dollars on advertising, and for a miserable $3 that I rebate, I make a friend for life?’”
Gattilia says that as the banks he worked for got bought out and merged into larger and larger entities, the attitude that allowed for a small business loan, with flexible terms, was gradually phased out. No longer would he get to loan to small Italian and Jewish delis in Wallingford and Meriden.
“There are so many names that, as you go through, that I could lay on you that are important to me,” Gattilia says.
Gattilia is in the process of transferring the company over to his daughter, who lives in upstate New York, and will continue to make the steam chests with the name Burg’r Tend’r, which is a patented trademark.
The machine itself is a stainless steel chest, with a door on hinges. Inside are several trays where the meat and cheese are steamed. The whole unit sits atop a tray for water, which is then heated over a stove to create the steam. Daleco’s machines cost $329 for a home unit, and $599 for the larger commercial unit.
“My purpose in life was to help people. In [Daleco] I was able to continue with it,” Gattilia says.