According to the Datassential FLAVOR database, 85 percent of consumers say they love or like burgers. Claire Conaghan, syndicated group manager, says burgers rank higher than 99 percent of the thousands of other foods in the database. Such a favored item will always do well on menus, but, with competition tight, brands are forever figuring out how to sell more. Here are a few ways limited-service restaurants are innovating to seal the deal with already-on-board consumers.
The better burger is still very much in vogue. “Fresh, never frozen” is a slogan heard from leaders like Wendy’s in advertisements, but also a phrase that came up again and again while reporting this story from The Counter, Wayback Burgers, The Habit, Culver’s, and more. Chedda Burger actually receives fresh meat for its three locations daily from a local Utah butcher. Even McDonald’s is heeding the call, offering 100 percent fresh beef Quarter Pounders at most restaurants in the U.S. today. With all these brands on board with the better-burger ingredients, restaurants are feeling the pressure to set themselves apart even more. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to carve out signature space in the burger category, as there is more competition than ever before in terms of both direct competition and the sheer variety of dining choices our guests have today,” says Quinn Adkins, Culver’s director of menu development. In response to this boom for the better, brands are turning to new blends, over-the-top presentations, and worldly flavors to keep guests coming back.
Plant-based options like the Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat brands are trending, yes, but restaurants are also experimenting with other light proteins, as well as blending beef with vegetables. “I think the definition of ‘burger’ has already evolved to mean more than just beef,” says Kim Bartley, chief marketing officer at White Castle. Outside of the U.S., she’s noticed the word used to refer to chicken- and fish-based items. White Castle itself has been heavily promoting the Impossible Slider (which uses the Impossible Burger product) since its launch to most U.S. stores in September.
Scott N. Weaver, research and development chef at The Counter, echoes Bartley in saying vegan and gluten-free items are gaining in popularity, and there is room to innovate with those items, even with indulgence. In January, The Counter introduced a Mushroom-Blend Burger LTO that featured a patty of all-natural beef blended with mushrooms and topped with melted Swiss, umami sauce, lettuce, onions, and more mushrooms at its 28 domestic locations.
Top it off
Social media’s hold on the restaurant industry is evidenced by the growing number of larger-than-life burgers on fast-casual menus. “Over-the-top, head-turning hamburgers are gaining attention on Instagram,” says Anne Addesso, a culinary applications coach from meat provider Johnsonville.
The Habit’s French Onion Char burger, for instance, tops a chargrilled beef patty with panko-fried onions rings, as well as a roasted sweet onion sauce, caramelized onions, cheese, lettuce, and tomato.
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Chedda Burger, too, has turned to unique topping combinations to set itself apart from competition. The Chili Con Padre is brimming with house-made chili con carne, cheese curds, cornflake crunch, and jalapeño honey mustard, while customer favorite The Green Mile has mac ’n’ cheese, bacon, green chilies, and whole-grain mustard. “The burger space is becoming more and more competitive, which I think will lead to more concepts pushing the limits and trying new things as they work to differentiate themselves and stand out from the crowd,” says Ryan Andrus, Chedda Burger’s co-owner.
Wendy’s, which is known for the over-the-top Baconator with two quarter-pound patties and six pieces of bacon, believes consumers at its almost 6,000 domestic locations are going to continue to seek approachable, familiar flavors, but reimagined in a way that elevates the experience, says Marshall Scarborough, director of culinary innovation.
Where in the world
The inspiration for many new burger flavors and toppings is coming from other cuisines, such as German, South American, African, Asian, and Cajun. The Counter’s Weaver predicts more world flavors are on the horizon for the brand and the industry as a whole. “Our guests are flavor-curious,” he says.
Wayback Burgers’ winter 2019 LTO was the cajun-themed Big Easy Burger topped with a remoulade sauce, bacon, and cheese. And later this year the brand plans to take inspiration from Germany in a new pretzel bun, says president Patrick Conlin.
Culver’s is feeling German, as well, as it features a Pretzel Haus Pub Burger with its WI Cheddar Cheese Sauce and house-pickled vegetables, along with the bold Bistro Sauce (mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, and a touch of horseradish). Adkins says customers in this space want unique yet approachable combinations of flavors and textures.
White Castle’s Bartley says the same. “[Customers] always want food that is hot and tasty and, depending on the region of the country or how adventurous they are, some are even trying new food trends in South American, African, and Asian flavors.”
Beyond the burger
Experts agree that these trends toward quality and innovation will continue, but what customers are really seeking is authenticity to the brand and its products.
“I see consumers’ standards for high-quality ingredients continuing to rise over the next few years. It’s become table stakes for customers, which is why you see some of our competitors trying really hard to catch up,” says Scarborough of Wendy’s. The brand, he thinks, is well positioned to capitalize on this continuing trend because quality has always been a major push for Wendy’s. “We will continue to step up our game to reinforce the message to our customers that when it comes to amazing food, Wendy’s has your back and always will.”
Culver’s Adkins sees the industry doubling down on the extreme burgers in order to generate buzz, but says Culver’s will stick to innovating in a way that makes sense for the 700-unit brand, leveraging quality and hospitality.
And Chedda Burger’s Andrus sees his market in Utah starting to shift from national or even regional chains to local concepts. “I believe customers value the authenticity of local brands and the unique, craft experience those brands can provide,” he says.