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When it comes to grabbing share of stomach and dining-out dollars, burgers are leading the charge. New burger-centric eateries are springing up across the country, established ones are rapidly expanding and celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse are stamping their names on burger concepts. Not to mention at least one signature burger on almost every restaurant menu.

As operators try to differentiate themselves and attract increasingly picky customers, three trends are emerging: smaller, bigger and better. Downsized sliders and overstuffed behemoths are sharing the roster with standard-size burgers—everywhere from QSRs to upscale bars. What’s more, menus are calling out higher quality beef and other proteins between the buns. And those buns have been upgraded too—as have the condiments, cheese and other extras. Building a burger today means paying attention to every component and buying decision.

Q&A with the burger boys

Five passionate operators talk about the buying and menuing strategies that make their burgers the best. 

Do you work with one supplier to source your meat?

Andy D’Amico, Five Napkin Burger: LaFrieda is a top New York City purveyor that grinds our meat fresh six days a week. They specialize in doing mixes, adding shortrib and brisket to the chuck for our Burger for Two. They also grind a blend of white and dark meat turkey for our turkey burger and the lamb burger has a little beef added to the mix.

Greg Morris, The Oaks Gourmet: A burger is like a fingerprint. To make ours unique, we work directly with a butcher at Premier Meat Company, a local purveyor. We chose dry aged beef because we wanted a burger that would hold up to our bold toppings; the flavor of the beef really shines through.

Adam Baker, Larkburger: Cargill supplies a proprietary ground chuck that is distributed through U.S. Foodservice.

Davin Vculek, Johnny Garlic’s: We seek purveyors who can give us good quality at a good price. We switched from angus burgers to buying Snake River Farms Kobe beef burgers for the significant taste difference, and our lunchtime burger sales have gone up.

Jeff Darby, Ted’s Montana Grill: Certified Angus Beef is only 8 percent of the beef supply, but our vendor is able to source enough for us to use systemwide. The bison cheeseburger is still our number one seller and we have relationships with several of Ted’s ranchers to supply the bison. Some of our burgers are even named after the ranchers.

How else do you differentiate your menu?

JD: We debuted a Delicious Duo featuring both a bison and beef mini-burger on brioche bread. Our standard bun is a corn-dusted Kaiser roll made by a long-time supplier. Ted’s also offers premium toppings; we purchase Wisconsin cheeses and make our own bison chili and guacamole.

AD: We’re very particular about our bun; it’s created for us by Jean Yves wholesale bakery and is a cross between a brioche and a typical white bun so it “gives” when you bite it.

AB: The Little Lark and Little Turkey burgers are slider-sized and meant for sharing. We source fresh-baked buns from Aspen Baking and make our own Dijon mustard-based Larkburger sauce in house.

DV: We’re more interested in purchasing from top vendors—and that doesn’t always mean local. Our buns come from Rotella’s Italian bakery in Nebraska, for example. We try to offer guests food they can’t get at any other fast-casual place.

GM: The roma tomatoes and butter lettuce that tops our burger are grown locally and we make our own jalapeño-pineapple compote as a condiment. Brioche buns are just the right texture to “squish” around the burger without falling apart.

Do you use any special prep or cooking techniques?

GM: We hand-form the burgers 1 to 1½ inches thick and cook them on a charbroiler. They turn out very juicy. We serve a homemade peppadew slaw on the side and offer duck fat fries as part of our daily combo.

AB: Our burger meat comes in a log and we hand-slice it into patties. I believe in handling the meat as little as possible so it doesn’t become tough. A high-efficiency charbroiler imparts a grilled look and flavor.

JD: We hand-pack the burgers and use a flat-top griddle for consistent, even cooking. Then we cover the cooked burger with a stainless steel dome to seal in the juices.

AD: We cook our hamburger, veggie burger and Burger for Two on a griddle; the turkey and lamb burgers are done on a charbroiler. Our veggie burger is made in house from a blend of wheatberries, beets, carrots, squash, chickpeas and mushrooms. The biggest challenge: getting the doneness right for a 10-ounce beef burger. Medium-rare and medium-well need the most fine-tuning.

DV: Our signature Black ’n Blue is cooked on a flat-top to lock in the blackening seasonings. We offer six other Kobe beef burgers, keeping the preparations simple so the rich flavor of the meat is evident. And we also produce a fresh veggie burger in house.

The burger boom

Chicago-based Technomic excerpted its most recent foodservice burger trends in the November, 2009 American Express MarketBrief.

  • Americans eat more than 11 billion burgers a year and eight of 10 foodservice operations serve them.
  • Burger sales in the LSR sector (limited service) rose by 4.1 percent in 2008 and fast-casual concepts grew at an 11.4 percent rate.
  • Innovation differentiates the top fast-casual performers. They’re offering artisan buns, housemade condiments, unusual cheeses and bold seasonings, for example.
  • Diners are relying on restaurants to provide value in burgers through premiumization. Consumers expect—and are willing—to pay more for a specialty burger.
  • More than 70 percent of consumers specified that a high-quality breed or cut of beef is what makes a burger premium.
  • Nearly 50 percent of patrons say restaurants should offer varied sizes, from mini-burgers to half-pounders.
  • Burgers fit the price-to-value equation customers are seeking. Many are willing to spend more for premium ingredients that offer the most bang for the buck

Market talk

The past year has seen a 1 to 1.5 percent decline in the nation’s supply of cattle, according to Mike Miller, COO of CattleFax in Denver, Colorado, marking at least five years in a row that supply has been slightly down or stable.  “This will probably continue into 2012, since it takes awhile to ramp up production,” he says. Decreased supply is coupled with increased demand, as consumers trade down to less expensive menu items like burgers. The result—that burger meat will probably cost operators a bit more in 2010.

But ground beef is a market unto itself, Miller adds. “Most comes from the domestic supply but we also import a good amount of clean trim from Uruguay, Argentina and Australia. While imports will most likely be up, the weak dollar will make that beef more expensive to import. If I had to pick a component that will experience a higher increase than other cuts, it would be ground beef.”

That said, prices will not be as high as they were in 2006 through 2008, Miller believes. The beef industry’s muscle optimization program has the potential to create more trim from the chuck and round, as steaks and other products are cut by utilizing muscles in new ways. This trim can be ground for burgers as can sirloin trim. “Packers and suppliers should look to do some different types of burger blends to help operators differentiate themselves,” Miller suggests.

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