The burger business is hotter than ever. Half of consumers say they eat a burger at least once a week compared to 38 percent two years ago, notes Technomic in its 2011 Burger Consumer Trend Report. And operators continue to respond to this burger-mania: restaurants menued 3 percent more burgers since 2010 and 6 percent more since 2007, according to Datassential MenuTrends DIRECT. While QSR value menus have fueled the burger boom, “the specialty burger craze has driven growth in a way that is almost defiantly separate from pricing,” believes Sara Monnette, director of consumer research for Technomic. “The better burger restaurants in the fast-casual segment have put the burger top-of-mind for consumers.”
The grills in casual and upscale eateries have not exactly been idle either; the pedestrian patty has achieved the status of culinary icon in many chef-driven restaurants. But with what seems like a glut of better burgers in the marketplace, how can one concept or menu differentiate itself from the competition? Ultra-customization is one direction some operators are taking, while others are focusing on carefully sourced ingredients or regional burgers that reflect a locale.
The Greene Turtle
The burgers at this 30-location casual chain are crafted from 8 ounces of Certified Angus Beef—a quality product that drives customers in the front door, claims president Bob Barry. But the menu’s nine distinctive regional burgers keep those customers intrigued. The latest is the Chesapeake, a reflection of the chain’s Maryland roots. It’s flavored with Old Bay seasoning and topped with 3 ounces of crab dip (borrowed from the appetizer menu), bacon and melted American cheese. The bun is a cross between a hamburger roll and ciabatta.
“We were trying to make a version of surf ’n turf with a regional slant,” explains Barry. Although he was fearful of going over the $10 price point for a burger, the Chesapeake sells for $10.49. But customers aren’t rebelling, since the combination makes it filling enough to be a dinner item. “This burger is very flavorful and unique, and so far has been really well received,” Barry adds. Also on the regional burger list are The Californian, The Cowboy and The Philly, all sporting characteristic ingredients. The Philly features a whopping 11 ounces of meat—an 8-ounce burger topped with 3 ounces of Philly cheesesteak—along with caramelized onions and melted Provolone cheese. For its Pittsburgh locations, the culinary team is looking at a burger sandwiched with French fries between the buns—a tradition in that neck of the woods.
“Our goal is to find unique items that differentiate our burgers from others in the casual dining sector,” says Barry.
Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House
The symbiotic relationship between the burgers and the beer at this Northwest pub reinforce the restaurant’s intense focus on sustainability. “When our beef purveyor comes in, they take the spent grain left from our brewing process and feed it to their cattle during the finishing stage,” explains chef Jeff Usinowicz. That purveyor is Coleman Ranch in nearby Mulalo, Oregon, well known for its humanely raised animals and premium, all-natural product. Seared, hand-packed patties of this beef form the base of the signature Brewery Burger ($12), which is topped with Tillamook cheddar from a creamery on the Oregon coast. Mirror Pond Ale aioli, butter lettuce, hothouse tomatoes, shaved red onion and house-made pickles—all piled on a brewery-baked bun—complete the package.
Usinowicz is as particular about his cooking technique as he is about ingredients. “After I went on a burger trip to several New York City bistros, I pulled out all the flame grills and installed flat tops. They do a better job of searing the patties and retaining the fat—making for a juicier burger,” he says.
Although the Brewery Burger is Deschutes’ best seller, the second most popular is the Elk Burger. It’s sourced from Carfini Meats and topped with melted gruyere, roasted shallot and thyme mayo and sweet field greens on a brioche bun ($13.50). “Some customers come here just to have that burger,” Usinowicz reports. The pub’s Yellow Belly Burger ($15) is another big draw. This burger,—piled with root beer-braised pork belly, jalapeño pesto, whipped goat cheese and candied yellow tomatoes on a mustard ciabatta—was voted the Best Burger of 2011 in a local contest.
Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes
This 30-location fast-casual “better burger” concept prides itself on quality ingredients and customization. “The burgers and fries are delivered fresh, never frozen, and the wide variety of topping choices give customers the chance to get something different every time they come in,” says franchisee Gilbert Ramirez, who opened his first Mooyah this month in McKinney, Texas. The basic Mooyah burger ($5) is a build of two 3-ounce beef patties on either a traditional white or wheat bun; unlimited toppings are no extra charge. These include sautéed mushrooms, fried onion strings, pickles, tomatoes, jalapeños and more, plus any of nine condiments. The only extras are cheese (75 cents), bacon (85 cents) and sliced avocado (95 cents). Veggie patties and turkey burgers are also on the menu.
The burger buns are baked in ovens at each location twice a day—a point of differentiation that attracted Ramirez to Mooyah. “It smells like a bakery when you walk in and customers can see the buns coming out of the oven. Plus, the burgers don’t fall apart because the buns are so fresh,” he points out. Ramirez is also one of the first franchisees to open with the new design prototype. His store features communal tables and counter seating alongside the preparation table. “Mooyah restaurants are great gathering places and this new design adds to the sense of community,” Ramirez adds.
Chains are now offering regional burgers when they open in certain locales—an idea that indies were first to embrace. Here’s what’s showing up in some local markets.
Dusty’s Bacon Burger
Named for baseball manager Dusty Baker of the Cincinnati Reds; ground beef mixed with chopped bacon, mesquite seasoning, garlic and Worcestershire grilled and topped with “red red sauce” (chili ketchup with a kick) and cheddar
Windy City Burger
Certified Angus Beef topped with melted cheddar cheese, haystack onions, lettuce, tomato and spicy mustard on a
Santa Fe Burger
Certified Angus Beef or ground turkey with queso sauce, pickled jalapeños and blue corn chips
26 Beach Restaurant
Chef Katsu’s Original California Roll Burger
Angus beef, snow crab salad, avocado, pickled ginger, baby mix lettuce, tomato, nori and shoyu-wasabi-aioli
Beef burger topped with crispy onion strings, melted white cheddar and applewood smoked bacon, served on a toasted bun with Southern BBQ sauce
Cheesesteak Pretzel Roll Burger
Custom-blended beef patty topped with cheddar and stacked with a Philly-style cheesesteak (“wiz with” a.k.a. Cheez wiz); served on a giant, fresh-baked pretzel roll
½ lb. burger stuffed with cheese; choice of American, Amablu blue, pepper or Swiss cheese