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Building a better burger

While steakhouses and casual dining spots have suffered recently from a trading-down trend, the "better burger" segment has benefited from trading up. Data from Chicago-based Technomic shows that fast-casual better burger chains grew sales by 20.8 percent in 2011. And according to the company's "Market Intelligence Report: Better Burgers," there's room for continued growth—despite a pretty crowded playing field. Other findings include:

  • Consumers place a premium on burger quality; 74 percent rank quality/taste of the meat or protein as the most important part of the burger.
  • Customization is key. Build-your-own-burger options are a popular point of difference.
  • The big QSR chains have also improved quality, touting ingredients such as Angus beef and cherrywood-smoked bacon.

In addition to upgrading the food, the better burger concepts have created a culture and experience that forges a connection with their customers. Here's a look at how several newer ones are tempting customers.

BGR: The Burger Joint
22 units

It was Mark Bucher's obsession with recreating the burger of his childhood memory that led him to launch BGR in 2007. He remembered burgers sizzling on the grill during block parties, cooked by a neighbor who owned a prime beef butcher shop. Today, BGR's burgers are made with all-natural, prime dry-aged beef. The exact blend is a secret, but it includes brisket, flat iron, sirloin and a little hanger steak. The ratio of cuts changes during the year as the cattle feed changes.

"Only me and our butcher know the formula," claims Bucher. "And there are only two vendors in our supply chain—one supplier does the aging, while a second receives the components." The beef is formed into 7-ounce patties, then shipped fresh and delivered three times a week. "We don't have freezers or walk-ins in our stores, only reach-in refrigerators," Bucher explains. "That way, everything is fresh everyday."

A BGR burger is grilled to order over an open flame and served on a locally baked toasted brioche bun. "It's salty, peppery, juicy all at once—all the qualities of a great steak," Bucher adds. This classic burger ($6.99) started it all, and the Bacon Cheddar Burger is now BGR's top selling specialty burger.

Aging the beef not only adds flavor, it helps BGR lock in prices. "During July, beef prices went down, so we bought a lot and put it away to age," Bucher explains. He predicts prices will go up around Christmas, but since BGR is locked in by contract, "we'll be okay until the end of the year. So far, we haven't had a price increase or changed the size of our burger," he adds.

Elevation Burger
30 locations

Elevation has a "niche within the niche" of better burgers, claims its founder and CEO, Hans Hess. "People want to eat more healthfully and make eco-conscious choices," he adds. To set its burgers apart, the chain sources grass-fed organic beef, grinds it fresh at each location and uses local ingredients when possible.

Taste is also a differentiator. "We think grass-fed beef has better flavor," says Hess. "Plus we serve our burger on a potato roll—uncommon when we started in 2005—and cook our fries in healthier olive oil." The signature Elevation Burger features a double patty topped with melted aged cheddar cheese; it sells for $5.19. In the last six months, bacon and mushrooms were added as topping choices. "It was a lot of work to find suppliers of organic bacon," Hess notes. "We're the only chain offering it."

Veggie burgers are a crowd favorite here too. The proprietary item, supplied by an outside vendor, is 80 percent organic ingredients and 100 percent vegan. A popular order is the Half the Guilt Burger—a double featuring one beef patty and one veggie patty.

Elevation buys its meat from large co-ops comprised of family farmers who raise the cattle. The purchasing department works six to eight months out to stabilize prices. In the next year, however, Hess projects prices to rise about 5 percent. Supply is down due to drought and the natural dip in the cattle production cycle, but global demand remains high—all of which is putting pressure on prices.

Better burger sampler
Name, LocationSignature or LTODescriptionExtrasPrice

Smashburger
Denver, Colorado
158 locations

The Wedge Club Burger100% Certified Angus Beef burger topped with applewood-smoked bacon, blue cheese crumbles, iceberg lettuce wedge, ripe tomatoes, red onions and blue cheese dressing on a butter toasted egg bunBeef is shaped into meatballs, seasoned and smashed on the grill to caramelize the meat$5.99

Larkburger
Edwards, Colorado
7 locations

The LarkburgerAll-natural ingredients, including one-third pound black angus beef, housemade sauces and dressings, hand-cut friesFine-dining approach, including a Tomato Wall to promote natural ripening$5.95
Burger 21
Tampa, Florida
2 locations plus 8 in development
The OMG!13-ounce double-stacked burger with applewood-smoked bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion on toasted brioche bun21 unique, chef-inspired burger creations, including shrimp, veggie, chicken and turkey in addition to beef$10.50
Tom & Eddie's Chicagoland
5 locations
Tried & True100% Angus hand-formed patty with American cheese, yellow mustard, organic ketchup, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, sliced red onion and pickles on a gourmet rollBuild Your Own burgers from a choice of three buns, 10 cheeses and many toppings$8.79
Burger Jones
Minneapolis, Minnesota
2 locations
The Burger JonesFresh custom grind of Angus beef, hand-pattied into 7-ounce burger, seared and served on a buttered toasted sesame seed bun or homemade English muffinOver 5,000 combinations of toppings, including green chile salsa and caramelized onions$7.99

 

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