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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

DJ's Cast Iron Burgers: Two Gainesville entrepreneurs set out to establish chain restaurant

Owners envision it as new In-N-Out of Florida

José Nieves and Miguel Cardona sit in front of their food truck in Gainesville.
José Nieves and Miguel Cardona sit in front of their food truck in Gainesville.

In the classroom of Harbour View Elementary School, an 8-year-old boy cried. 

José Nieves had just moved to Ocala from Puerto Rico with his family. He didn’t know any English, and on his first day of third grade he felt overwhelmed. He felt alone until Miguel Cardona sat beside him. 

Cardona was like a mirror of Nieves. His family had just moved to town from Colombia, and he, too, was starting his first day of third grade. 

That was 23 years ago. 

Today, passersby can find the pair sweating it out inside the foodtruck of DJ’s Cast Iron Burgers. Parked on University Avenue, the latest ’80s tunes play from the speakers and mingle with the sizzling of burger patties. When they open the window to greet their customers, the smell of caramelized onions and hot peanut oil escape. The heat from their cast iron planks bleed out, offering respite from the rare Florida cold.  

Cardona and Nieves started DJ’s during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when Nieves believed sharing a meal was still just as important.

“People always have to eat,” Nieves said. “No matter what's happening in the world, you always need a warm meal.”

Nieves always had a passion for food, he said, so he studied at the Culinary Institute of America. There, he met Dan Anagnostou, who would become the D to Nieves’ J. 

They graduated from the institute together and dreamed up the idea for DJ’s after Nieves was fired from his first job as a chef at a country club. 

Cardona was studying architecture and design at UF but flew to New York to help Nieves and Anagnostou with branding. But the recent graduates were unable to jump start their business. 

“We realized that it was unattainable for many reasons,” Nieves said. “We were too young, too dumb, not enough resources, with student loans about to kick in in a few months.”

So, the idea was put on the backburner, he said. 

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Nieves' next job was at Starbucks. Working as a cashier, a new interest emerged.

“I realized then and there that coffee was just like wine,” he said. 

From there, Brio was formed. Born out of passion and named after it as well, this bottled cold brew coffee company became Cardona and Nieves’ new project.

However, as Brio grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cardona and Nieves struggled to keep up with the demand. 

In an effort to raise funds to support Brio, they brought DJ’s back. Every weekend, they would set up their grill in the parking lot of Serpentine Plants + Provisions on 10th Avenue and serve a few dozen people — mostly friends and family, Nieves said.

By then, Anagnostou was busy with his own gig as a private chef. Though he wasn’t able to help the revival of DJ’s, he remains close friends with Nieves and Cardona. He even came to visit from Naples in June 2022.

Eventually, DJ’s developed its own cult following, Cardona said. 

Customers remained loyal even when the city shut down DJ’s parking lot pop-ups. Nieves and Cardona learned they weren’t allowed to operate under a tent and needed to be in an enclosed area like a trailer. Luckily, they were able to negotiate serving out of Halo Potato Donuts on South Main Street. 

At that point, Nieves said, they knew they needed something permanent. Something big.

So, they got a food truck.

But the obstacles didn’t stop with that purchase. After months spent tricking out their truck, the new grill malfunctioned on opening day.

“It was definitely one of the worst days we’ve ever had,” Cardona said. 

When the truck was back up and running, they started to park on University Avenue across from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium but were kicked off the land due to zoning issues. That location didn’t allow food trucks to park or sell food.

Eventually, DJ’s secured a spot at Midtown, and the duo continues to serve burgers there today.

But Cardona and Nieves have a goal that’s bigger than Gainesville.

“The most immediate mission for us is to become the In-N-Out for Florida,” Cardona said.

One customer, 30-year-old Lorne Rodriguez, believes this dream is possible. DJ’s may just have the same mass appeal, she said.

“I'm from California, where there's an In-N-Out on every other corner,” Rodriguez said. “The main product is a burger, but what really brings people back is the service and consistency.” 

Burgers are a commodity that can be found in most restaurants, but what sets DJ’s apart from common burger joints is the attention to detail. It’s obsessive, Nieves said.

DJ’s menu is small: two types of burgers, two types of hot dogs, two types of fries. The simplicity allows the pair to make each menu item perfect. Almost all their ingredients are made in house, Cardona said. 

“When you take a bite of DJ’s, everything's in harmony,” Nieves said. “Almost like a cocktail.”

Quil Cauchon, 26, has been following DJ’s since the original tent pop-ups. Throughout the evolution of food and location, they said, they’ve enjoyed the experience. 

The quality of the food can't be overstated, Cauchon said. But ultimately what keeps them coming back is seeing how Nieves and Cardona care about the community.

“Every single time I walk up, they know my name,” Cauchon said. 

Nieves and Cardona pride themselves on DJ’s nostalgia, comfort and friendliness. But at the end of the day, it’s the food that’s going to speak.

“The core, put simply, is to create the most memorable burger and fry experience on the planet,” Cardona said.

Contact Aubrey at abocalan@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @aubreyyrosee.

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Aubrey Bocalan

Aubrey Bocalan is a third-year journalism major. She is also pursuing a double major in Art. When she isn't writing, she's probably watching TV with her dog, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore Bocalan.


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