Looking for differentiation
The burger category may be to thank for today’s generation of fast-casual innovation. While Panera Bread and Chipotle firmly established the industry in the ’90s, it was the better-burger boom of the mid-aughts that first invaded suburban endcaps across America and loudly proclaimed to consumers that there was a higher-quality version of the quick-service stalwarts available. Five Guys in particular became the standard-bearer for fast casual, adding more than 750 locations from 2002 through 2010.
In the wake of Five Guys came Shake Shack, BurgerFi, Farm Burger, Twisted Root, and the like. Yum! Brands is so convinced by the ongoing potential of better burgers that it just acquired Southern California–based The Habit Burger.
But while burger patronage may continue apace—data shows 57 percent of people plan to dine at better-burger joints the same amount, while 28 percent plan to do so even more frequently—the category is decidedly busy. And that’s led many burger brands to consider the differentiating factors that help them rise above the pack.
Dog Haus is a Pasadena, California–based fast casual that made a name (and a brand) for itself with creative hot dogs and sausages. But it’s the burgers that are the real workhorse of the menu. “People like to eat a hot dog or a sausage a couple times a month, but there are a lot of people who eat burgers twice a week,” says André Vener, who cofounded the brand with Hagop Giragossian and Quasim Riaz in 2010.
Vener adds that burger competition makes co-tenancy in some developments difficult, but ultimately makes it easier for the brands doing elevated burgers to shine. “I think the more competition is there, the better for the innovative burger offerings,” he says. “We’re not just meat, cheese, tomato, lettuce. We do so many different things. We thrive on the competition, doing something unique or different.”
Dog Haus’ burger offerings include upscale items like the Little Mule with white American cheese, avocado, pickled jalapeños, cotija cheese, fried egg, and chipotle aioli. The burgers are served on King’s Hawaiian slider rolls, and Vener says the four-square rolls are much more recognizable on social media than standard buns from competitors. Dog Haus has also run a Chef Collaboration Series that develops special menu offerings with celebrity chefs to benefit No Kid Hungry.
Beyond the premium burgers (and hot dogs, sausages, and chicken sandwiches), Dog Haus—which has grown to 50-plus locations through franchising—aims to sets itself apart from burger competitors through its booze offerings. It partnered last year with celebrity mixologist Phil Wills to develop signature cocktails, and it also boasts wine selections and craft beer on tap—perfect for someone who wants to watch a game or just have some downtime.
That bar-forward strategy is shared by Hopdoddy Burger Bar. The Austin, Texas–based burger joint serves beer, wine, and cocktails in a laid-back environment, pairing that with a classic menu that features burgers, fries, and shakes.
Hopdoddy CEO Jeff Chandler says the goal at Hopdoddy is to provide an experience similar to casual dining but faster, to “allow our guests to enjoy and experience Hopdoddy at their pace, at their style, at their convenience, at the way that they choose to use us.” That’s a big reason it invests in a bar program, which Chandler says helps to draw customers for use occasions beyond the three dayparts.
While Hopdoddy also invests in premium design and customer service and a technology-powered back end, Chandler says thriving in fast casual still necessitates three restaurant fundamentals: value, convenience, and craveabilty. “I don’t think the consumers in fast casual, especially in the burger space, are willing to frequent a concept or brand that only has one of those three,” he says. “It has to be price value, it has to be convenient, and it has to be differentiated with quality.”
Dog Haus and Hopdoddy diverge in one big way: While Chandler says Hopdoddy is trying to limit the growth of its off-premises business (which he says approaches 20 percent of sales in some locations), Vener says Dog Haus is leaning into the trend, which includes last year’s partnership with Kitchen United for ghost-kitchen real estate in several U.S. cities. Dog Haus is also in the midst of setting up sub-brands for its menu (for example, breaking out its chicken sandwich offerings) in order to grab more real estate on third-party delivery services.