Trendwire, February 2012

Trendwire, February 2012

Food & Drink

Trendwire, February 2012


The Food Channel Trendwire
February 2012 •

Burger Wars: The Quest for the Ultimate Burger

The hamburger chains are at it again, trying to one-up each other in a battle to see who can devise the biggest, baddest burger (without breaking the $5 barrier).

The latest word is that Wendy’s has in test something called Black Label Hamburgers, borrowing the “black label” premium category designation frequently used for liquor brands.

Two Black Label burgers are being tested in Wichita, Kan., this month: a Bacon Portabella and a Spicy Santa Fe, both priced just a bit under $5. The Bacon Portabella is a quarter-pound burger with mushroom sauce on the bottom bun, a peppery portabella sauce on the top bun, topped with Muenster cheese, sliced tomato, and three slices of bacon. The Spicy Santa Fe is highlighted by a scoop of guacamole.

Wendy’s Black Label exploration comes on the heels of the chain’s rollout of Dave’s Hot ’n Juicy Cheeseburgers in 2011, introduced as a premium menu upgrade with an artisan bun.

These premium burger maneuvers could be seen as Wendy’s latest effort to leapfrog rival Burger King to become the second largest fast food burger chain in the U.S., something many analysts are predicting will happen as early as this year. According to market research firm Technomic, Burger King currently holds a 13.3 percent market share with Wendy’s nipping at its heels at 12.8 percent. McDonald’s still holds the lion’s share in the burger category at 49.5 percent.

While Wendy’s tries to position itself as a cut above its competitors with these premium burger upgrades, Burger King has been touting its own upgraded line of thicker burgers, BK Toppers.

First introduced last fall, BK Toppers aren’t really positioned as a premium burger—more like something midway between a “value menu” choice and a premium hamburger. As the name suggests, the upgrade is as much about the upgraded toppings as it is about the meat, although the tag line is “more beef, more value.”

Included in the original BK Toppers line are the Mushroom & Swiss, the Western BBQ, and the Deluxe. Just added this month is the Bacon & Cheddar Topper.

These are burgers for those who want an upgrade without the uptick in price. BK Toppers will set you back a mere $1.99.

In addition, Burger King has upgraded its french fries and has been blitzing the airwaves with TV commercials showing customers devouring them in a variety of ways. Wendy’s rolled out its Natural Cut fries seasoned with sea salt last year.

West Coast Burger Wars Upstart

Another burger chain to watch, although certainly no imminent threat to the Big Three, is a small (6-unit) outfit in Southern California called Umami Burger.

You may have heard of umami, the so-called “fifth taste,” the more recently discovered taste that joins the other four: salty, sweet, sour and bitter. The concept of umami has its origins in Japan. Umami is a pleasant savory taste that occurs naturally in some foods, according to the Umami Information Center.

Adam Fleischman, founder and CEO of Umami Burger, has brought the concept to the West Coast in the form of burgers made from freshly ground beef with soft and lightly-toasted buns, plus that hard-to-put- into-words ingredient: umami flavor. His product was named Burger of the Year by GQ magazine. SoCal Umami Burger fans include celebrities like Jay Leno and Ashton Kutcher, who have been effusive in their praise.

Fleishman won’t divulge what it is exactly that gives his burgers umami. He explains that beef itself is a umami-rich food, and he uses additional high-in-umami ingredients such as anchovies, Parmesan cheese, truffles, tomatoes, soy, and shiitake mushrooms. The cheese for the cheeseburgers is processed in-house, as is Umami’s homemade umami-rich ketchup.

Another distinct difference from the household name competitors in the Burger Wars: Umami burgers are cooked medium rare to accentuate their freshness, juiciness, and flavor. You won’t soon see McDonald’s, Wendy’s or BK doing that.

Oh, and the top-of-the line burgers at Umami do cross that $5 barrier, and then some. They’re priced at $11 each.

To be fair to the big name burger guys, Umami Burger is currently a full-service operation Fleischman calls “fine-dining fast food.” But expansion is on the way. The fifth-taste burger concept is headed for the fast food arena.

The first Umami Ko, or U-ko will open in Los Angeles early this year, and Fleischman says he hopes to open 150 locations around the world in the near future, with umami burgers priced closer to the $5 sweet spot.

Of course, any discussion of West Coast burgers wouldn’t be complete without a mention of SoCal locals’ favorite burger chain: In-n-Out Burger. The Food Channel recently ran a side-by-side burgers-and-fries comparison with its new challenger, Five Guys Burgers, which had just opened up across the street. Here’s that story.

School Lunch to Be Healthier Under New Guidelines

As a result of the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years, kids will be eating a healthier school lunch starting next fall.

Students can expect to find meals with more whole grains, less sodium and a wider range of fresh fruits and vegetables.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the new federal guidelines during a visit with elementary school students last week in Alexandria, Va. Celebrity chef Rachael Ray was also on hand.

The National School Lunch Program feeds 32 million school children each school day, according to Secretary Vilsack.

You may recall a few months back during the negotiations with Congress over the guidelines, it was said that pizza was a vegetable. (Actually, it was the pizza’s tomato sauce that got credit for being a veg.) Well, pizza will still be on the school menu next fall, but it will be made with healthier ingredients.

Under the new guidelines, entire meals will have calorie caps for the first time, and most trans fats have been banished. Sodium will gradually decrease over the next decade, and milk will have to be low in fat—and any flavored milk served must be nonfat.

The Obama administration had hoped for more aggressive changes to the guidelines, but accepted compromises after battling with conservatives in Congress who feel the government shouldn’t tell children what they can eat. Also, some school districts resisted the changes based on the added cost that would result.

The new guidelines reflect the kind of food parents want their kids to eat, Mrs. Obama said.

“When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary food that we’re trying to keep from them at home,” the first lady said. “We have a right to expect that the food they get at school is the same kind of food that we want to serve at our own kitchen tables.”

Improving school nutrition is one of the five priorities of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign against childhood obesity.

Ending the childhood obesity epidemic will be a tall order, and many place the blame with parents. A recent Poll Position national scientific telephone survey released just last week showed that 34 percent of Americans believe a combination of poor parenting and poor food choices cause childhood obesity.

Recession Rx: The Double-Sided Menu

With the economy still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, many customers are still looking for value, while others look for indulgent menu options as one of the few splurges they can actually afford in these pinched budget times.

For many quick-service restaurants, the best prescription for success under these circumstances is to offer options on both sides, according to Eric Giandelone, foodservice director for Mintel Menu Insights.

Quoted in QSR Magazine, Giandelone says, “A company like McDonald’s has really embraced this idea. You can order oatmeal or you can get the Big Breakfast. You have two sides of the menu. You have the better-for-you option, and you have the more indulgent option.

Wendy’s employs a similar strategy. It has its 99ȼ Value Menu on one hand, and the new Dave’s Hot ’n Juicy premium burgers for the indulgers.

QSR Magazine calls this the Double-Sided Menu, and puts the trend at the top of its list of Quick Serve trends for 2012.

Moving on to its second trend prediction, Frugal Fatigue, the magazine pointedly notes that more profit can be had with those more indulgent menu choices. And as the economy does begin to finally recover, some of the consumer’s pent-up desire for life’s finer things—including things like top-shelf burgers—will begin to be unleashed.

QSR customers will opt for the deluxe burger as times get rosier—and that will be a better day for everyone.

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