“Better Burger” Category Exploding Despite Tough Economic Times
Whether they’re looking for comfort in trying economic times, or just plain good food, Americans seem to be patronizing the emerging Better Burger segment even as overall restaurant sales may be declining.
What is a Better Burger you might ask? Better Burgers share several qualities. They are served in a fast-casual restaurant. They are burgers that, on a quality scale, live somewhere between a fast-food burger (which one food professional I know describes as “consistently mediocre”) and a media-attention-grabbing high-end burger (in the $40 and up range) that were all the rage a few years back. These burgers are slightly more expensive than a QSR burger, highly customizable, and often have a specific quality proposition (fresh never frozen ground beef, hand patted, grass fed beef, etc.) that makes them attractive to many customers these days.
And maybe most important, these burgers are touting benefits as a point of distinction among themselves and other burgers. Some of their differences point to environmental concerns such as using organic beef free from hormones and antibiotics, or sustainably farmed beef. Other chains focus on health benefits such as increased omega-3 content of grass-fed beef.
Here are some up-and-comers in the emerging Better Burger category:
Burger Lounge (http://www.burgerlounge.com/), a San Diego, Calif., premium burger outlet, touts its exclusive use of Tallgrass beef (http://www.tallgrassbeef.com), a proprietary grass-fed organic beef that it sees as essential to the flavor and experience of its burgers. (Incidentally, Tallgrass beef made a splash recently on the menu for one of the many presidential inauguration dinners. This particular dinner was created by culinary powerhouse Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Tompolobampo.)
Additionally, Burger Lounge offers two intriguing menu categories that set it apart: fresh-baked cupcakes and premium beer and wine. Talk about full service!
The Counter Custom Built Burgers (http://www.thecounterburger.com/) prides itself on customization. In fact, the first thing you do when you walk into one of its locations is grab a clipboard and begin to build your burger. With cheese options such as Tillamook Cheddar, herbed goat cheese spread, and Danish blue, and sauces such as peppercorn steak sauce and ginger soy glaze, every burger is unique. While The Counter is based in Los Angeles, Calif., it is rapidly expanding with locations in several states (Georgia, Connecticut, Texas, Utah, to name a few) and two foreign countries (Australia and Ireland).
Elevation Burger (http://www.elevationburger.com/) believes “Ingredients Matter.” With locations currently in the Washington, D.C., area, it’s looking to open in additional markets, including Austin, Tex.; Philadelphia, Penn.; and Montclair, N.J., this year. In addition to sourcing only organic ingredients, Elevation Burger prides itself on its use of environmental building practices, including bamboo flooring, compressed sorghum countertops, and low- or no-VOC paints and sealants (VOC stands for volatile-organic-compounds-emitting).
Mooyah Burgers and Fries (http://www.mooyah.com/) focuses on “a celebration of all things burger.” This Texas-based chain currently has five locations, with seven more scheduled to open in the first half of 2009. It is proud of its limited menu: “No chicken. No salads. No subs, tortilla wraps or pizzas. Just burgers. Just the way it should be.” It does offer a hot dog, but who are we to quibble? Mooyah is ahead of some of its competitors, leveraging the power of technology to allow users to order both online and via text, using the GoMobo text ordering service (see our November 7, 2007, TrendWire for details on the GoMobo [http://gomobo.com/] service that’s growing daily.)
Patty Burger (http://www.pattyburger.com/), with two locations, currently in Chicago, Ill., and Milwaukee, Wis., is a chain that’s putting nostalgia front and center with its 1940s pinup girl mascot, Patty, and a return to a time when “mouthwatering meant something and fresh was the standard.” Offering its burger in three sizes (eponymously a single, double, or triple) with “Patty’s very special secret sauce,” diners can choose from other toppings such as avocado slices and provolone cheese.
Smashburger (http://www.mysmashburger.com/), with locations in Colorado; Houston, Tex.; and Wichita, Kan., offers three different buns (egg, multigrain, and chipotle), five cheese options, and secret sauces. Interesting side options include its Frites, or “flash-fried asparagus spears, carrot sticks and green beans.”
Another notable mention in the Better Burger category is Five Guys Burgers and Fries (http://www.fiveguys.com). With more than 300 locations, these guys may not exactly be up-and-comers, but you could argue that they’re leading the way in this emerging category. Some devotees even compare them to the legendary In-N-Out Burger (http://www.in-n-out.com/) based in California. While we aren’t ready to weigh in on that particular question, Five Guys is definitely a concept to watch. On an atmosphere note, you can grab free bulk peanuts upon your arrival and snack away until your order is ready. The menu here is simple: burgers, dogs, and hand-cut fries (Five Guys style or Cajun). Hard to argue with that.