The burger remains one of the top-selling foods nationwide, found everywhere from fast food to gastropubs, fairgrounds, and high-end eateries.
As other products come into vogue—the fried chicken sandwich being a recent one— the burger hasn’t ceded as much ground as onlookers might believe. Just consider the fact McDonald’s serves 1 percent of the world’s population every day. That’s 68 million people, or 75 burgers sold per second.
In the year ending 2020 (when the “chicken sandwich wars” raged om), burgers were still included in 13.5 percent of all restaurant orders, which translated to 7 billion servings, according to The NPD Group. Chicken sandwiches (breaded and grilled) were featured in 6.7 percent of all restaurant orders in the U.S, which amounted to 3.5 billion servings.
But if burgers are so ubiquitous, and good burgers at that, what keeps customers coming back?
For Smashburger, it’s staying true to what the brand does well and guarding those traits: Every burger is smashed on the grill for 10 seconds before it’s left to cook. “We tell this story almost continuously,” says Scott Johnson, chief marketing officer for the Denver-based company.
This is not only an important branding piece but also caramelizes the patty and adds flavor. “Our procedure is as important as our ingredients. We have such a unique way of cooking our burgers and that’s always going to be our bread and butter,” adds Ty Goerke, leading chef and senior manager of operations.
But the brand doesn’t just rely on a cooking technique—it also focuses on quality ingredients that include 100 percent. Angus beef. Everything is prepared in house, and Smashburger makes meals to-order.
As a brand, Goerke says, Smashburger must continue offering customers’ favorite burgers but also constantly think ahead. “We have to keep developing … and creating what people want.”
Burgers are so important to Hopdoddy Burger Bar that in January it purchased another burger brand, Grub, adding 18 stores to its 32, largely in new markets.
Burgers remain popular because operators can constantly rethink them, says Jeff Chandler, CEO of Austin, Texas-based Hopdoddy.
The burger, he says, “is so uniquely positioned as a food vessel because of the flavors, food builds and customization.” Add to that, he says, “the savoriness of burgers, the juiciness of burgers. You can be dynamic with the flavors and the ingredients.” Yet at the same time, he points out, burgers are a comfort food. “We embrace this concept of doing the familiar in an unfamiliar way. That means the type of burger build but also the sourcing part of it, the cooking, and prep.”
Within Grub’s and Hopdoddy’s menus, classic burgers and slight variations of them constitute 60 percent of burger sales, though the desire for customization has gone up during COVID, Chandler says.
Killer Burger stays true to its mission of being an oasis from life “and bringing back the nostalgia of having a burger on the grill in your backyard,” says John Dikos, president and chief development officer of the Portland, Oregon-based fast casual.
“In anything you do, you’d better clarify what you do and who you are. There are so many upstarts, so much noise. There has to be a story, you have to be authentic and not try to be something you’re not, be confident in who you are.”
Killer wants every bite of its burgers to be well-thought out: For the bacon to be crisp enough to break, not bend, when it’s bitten into, and for there to be some topping in every bite.
To achieve that, it places a lead focus on ingredients. “Every bite has to be a clean bite to make sure product that goes out of the door is good enough,” Dikos says. Killer Burgers’ teams, he adds, feel empowered to let waste increase in order to produce this perfect burger—even an imperfect pickle is discarded.
There’s no ignoring the fact that while burgers remain the lead act, the prevalence of plant-based eating has shaken up traditional menus.
Smashburger is very cognizant of this trend. It’s had a black bean burger on the menu for 12 years, but it’s time to reformulate it, Goerke says. The company is now removing the cheese and egg to make it vegan. It’s also adding some vegan shake options and sides. “Even though we’re a burger company we’ll be respectful of what is going on,” he says.
Smashburger also introduced a pulled pork tailgater in late 2020. “That not only was new and interesting and brought another protein ingredient to the burger but also showcased our culinary expertise,” Johnson says. “Having burgers in a lot of different forms is where we want to go and as consumers’ tastes evolve we want to move with them.”
Hopdoddy has leaned into Beyond Meat. “We are impressed with their team and their CEO has been an awesome resource so we see being more aggressive in that arena and introducing plant-based products when and were we can,” Chandler says.
Some consumers are shifting to plant-based foods due to concern for the environment, which has led brands to commit to better sourcing practices in order to make strides toward alleviating climate change through their beef as well.
Hopdoddy changed its practices in order to become a better steward of the environment. The company only works with farmers and ranchers that commit to regenerative farming practices. And it works with companies whose core values align with Hopdoddy’s. “We commit to investing in those ranchers and suppliers who share core values with us because it needs to be a sustainable ecosystem,” Chandler says.
“Even the most conscious brands out there that are still using beef products are thinking about it,” Dikos adds. “We’re south of 20 stores and it’s not something we’re executing today but it’s something we need to be thinking about, to just see what we can do. And the bigger we get, the more thoughtful we need to be about our impact and putting some creative solutions together.”