The hamburger, it’s fair to say, is the sine qua non of the fast-food universe. Had the likes of White Castle, McDonald’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., and Jack in the Box not tapped into a distinctly American taste for ground beef served—with dizzying speed and ruthless efficiency—in patty form on a bun, the U.S. culinary landscape might look very different today.
The hamburger is in many ways the blank screen upon which the country’s chefs, fry cooks, backyard grill masters, and humble home cooks project their various whims, indulgences, and flights of fancy. And corporate chefs and menu-development professionals haven’t been shy about tinkering with the ostensibly simple burger formula, either. How else to explain such works of art as the Black Ninja burger that Japanese Burger King restaurants began selling in 2014? Topped with hash browns, tomato, lettuce, and bacon and served on a black bun, it gained instant attention and a little notoriety. Ditto the Surf and Turf burger McDonald’s Australia once served, which included tomato, cucumbers, arugula, and fried shrimp.
In the end, sheer novelty won’t drive a long-term uptick in customer visits; high-quality burgers given smart, creative treatments sometimes do. The following are three suggestions for adding a little vim and vigor to your burger lineup.
Give ’em an artisanal twist.
While it’s not impossible to cut through the burger-marketplace treasure chest with an ordinary patty, it’s far easier to distinguish your offering by upping the quality ante and adding flourishes that telegraph freshness, flavor, conscientious sourcing, and careful preparation. From Datassential, we learn that grass-fed beef has become practically ubiquitous, having achieved something in the neighborhood of a 250 percent increase in menu penetration in the past four years. Limited-service chains such as Bareburger, LYFE Kitchen, and Wholly Cow have put grass-fed burgers front and center on their menus and reaped the benefits in many instances.
Locally sourced meat has also earned plaudits from customers who care passionately about the provenance of their patties. The Healdsburg Bar & Grill in Sonoma County, California, features fresh-ground Angus beef topped with Alexander Valley gourmet pickles, all served on a toasted, locally produced sourdough bun with roasted garlic mayonnaise. At Farm Burger in Decatur, Georgia, you’ll find farm-to-table burgers featuring dry-aged, locally sourced meat piled high with exotic toppings ranging from cured lardo and oxtail marmalade to roasted bone marrow.
Even if sourcing all of your ingredients locally or using only grass-fed product isn’t realistic from a cost or supply standpoint, it may be possible to use a certain percentage of the higher-priced product and to communicate this inclusion to consumers. Maybe the burger features some locally sourced toppings—local lettuce or tomatoes, for instance—while others skew conventional. Capitalizing on the widespread appeal of higher-quality ingredients needn’t be an all-or-nothing proposition.
Fat is back, and blends are big.
If flavor is king and fat provides much of a burger’s flavor, it’s worth considering how you can use fat to enhance the patty’s flavor. This doesn’t necessarily mean using a higher-fat patty; it’s also possible to deploy other cuts or types of meat in a burger to upgrade its taste and enrich its mouthfeel. By dexterously using flavorful cuts of meat such as brisket or pastrami, for example, or by adding a little pork, you can utterly upend the consumer’s entire experience of the sandwich. The trick is to use fat judiciously and to treat it more like a seasoning.
If adding fat gives you pause, you might instead consider blending your burger with select grains or vegetables. Today, we see many chefs concocting hamburgers blended with grain and mushrooms to add flavor and an intriguing texture. Others are turning to the likes of rice, quinoa, farro, spelt, and different wheats. All can be used to impart flavor and lower the fat content.
Of course, playing with a burger’s core ingredient composition does prevent chains from touting that their patties are made from 100 percent beef. So it’s naturally important to weigh all the pros and cons before re-engineering any signature product. Perhaps this is where a friendly visit from the marketing department may be welcome—positioning counts for a lot!
Go for broke.
In the end, what is the magic of a hamburger? To my way of thinking, it’s all about contrasts—the hot patty topped with cold, crisp lettuce, acidic tomatoes, savory onions, tart pickles, and gooey cheese. And those contrasts are particularly alluring to Millennials and up-and-coming Gen Z consumers. These cohorts love an extreme culinary experience.
To help meet them on their turf, try selecting one or two of components of your hamburger and giving them an extreme treatment. Add pickled cabbage, onions, or zucchini to tease the tongue with something tart. Experiment with various chile peppers to add varying degrees of heat. Or replace your standard Cheddar and Swiss cheeses with a more pungent Roquefort or Bleu cheese. There are any number of creative ways to put a spin on the standard burger, and toying with extremes can yield spectacular results.
I’d be interested in hearing what you come up with. Drop me a line at Marc@QSRmagazine.com and I’ll consider featuring your creation in an upcoming column.