Topped off: Creating a better burger

Consumers’ craving for burgers is stronger than ever, and operators have responded in a big way. Better-burger concepts are continuing to grow; in fact, six burger concepts were featured in this year’s Future 50, Restaurant Business’ annual ranking of the nation’s fastest-growing small chains, compared to three in 2013.

Furthermore, it’s not just these specialized concepts that are spotlighting burgers. According to a 2014 industry report from Chicago research firm Food Genius, burgers appear on more than three-fourths of menus in some segments. Clearly, the competition in the burger category has never been higher; thus, for operators, differentiation is key to increasing share of stomach.

“Every year, people say that the burger boom is going to go bust, but it hasn’t,” says Scott Hume, editor of BurgerBusiness.com. Hume also says that one key to differentiation in the burger category is, unsurprisingly, taste. “If you have good food at a good price, you don’t need to worry about what everyone else has.”

In the era of over-the-top burgers and add-ons that range from indulgent breakfast items to seasonal produce, however, it can be difficult to determine what will resonate with consumers. Here are a few ideas for operators seeking culinary inspiration.

  • Simplify. The days of out-there, excessive burgers and toppings are dwindling, according to Hume. Instead, operators should emphasize quality over quantity. “We’re back to the less is more idea,” he says. “[Operators] don’t have to go crazy with 17 toppings; try using fewer toppings that are higher in quality.” For example, operators could incorporate locally-grown produce and include a call-out on their menus.
  • Think outside of the box. The barriers for burger toppings have come down, says Hume, and operators should feel free to experiment. Oakland, Calif.-based Victory Burger menus a different specialty burger every week, and many of those burgers include unusual toppings such as fruit—think peaches, plums and apples—as well as chutney and okra. Additionally, the toppings for Victory Burger’s burgers of the week focus on fresh ingredients, and they’re often sourced hyper-locally.
  • Follow the trends. “The great thing about burgers is that they’re amenable to just about any culinary trend,” says Hume. For example, operators could try a play on the southern food trend and top a burger with fried green tomatoes or menu a breakfast burger topped with sausage gravy. Also, burgers are a natural fit with the bold flavors popularized by the ethnic-foods craze.
  • Add a shot. Boulder, Colo.-based Drakes Haus infuses Merlot into each burger patty for an extra shot of flavor. Although using alcohol as a burger ingredient can be tricky—Hume notes that it’s important to avoid making them too “squishy”—using beer, wine or even a spirit such as bourbon as a marinade or as a base for a sauce can be a way to incorporate flavor.

This post is sponsored by National Beef


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