The gourmet burger: An American icon evolved
by Michele Murray, Consumer Marketing Executive Director & Gina Nykerk, Food & Nutrition Communications Manager – NCBA
In late 2009, Nation’s Restaurant News reported on predicted food trends for 2010 citing the "white-hot better-burger movement" as a top trend based on menu analysis from Mintel. Relatively "local" chains such as Colorado-based Smashburger, Michigan-based Five Guys Burgers and Fries and California-based The Counter were going national at an astonishing pace, and the "better burger" seemed to be popping up everywhere.
Nearly three years later, the better-burger momentum shows no signs of slowing down. Nearly half of today’s consumers say they eat a burger at least once a week compared with 38 percent two years ago, according to a recent study by Technomic. While one reason for the increase is the continued prominence of burgers on quick-service menus, another major driver is the specialty burger craze. To the casual observer, it could easily be assumed the better “gourmet” burger fad is here to stay. But with food trends coming and going seemingly every day, it’s worth evaluating – is the gourmet burger just a food trend, or the evolution of an American icon, the hamburger?
Definition of a food trend
Trendologist Kara Nielson, of the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco, explained that a food trend can be verified if it is creating a new consumer need, if it provokes an action by a consumer, and if it follows the five stages of a food trend.
- The trend first surfaces in fine dining or ethnic restaurants.
- The trend appears in food magazines and specialty retail.
- The trend is picked up by chain restaurants, high-end retailers and broadcast food media.
- The trend hits the mainstream through coverage in women’s magazines.
- The trend is now part of "everyday" and is available on quick service restaurant (QSR) menus and through mainstream grocery store products.
Trend adoption usually takes quite some time, and while the gourmet burger movement may seem to be a recent explosion, many of the major players in the game have been crafting their menu for decades, while others are just recently franchising their business model in the past 10 years.
The New York Times recently touted Burger King and McDonald’s as the "two high priests of the global burger gospel." These two major fast food entities are no exception to the gourmet burger movement. McDonald’s now offers three types of Angus burgers and Burger King recently launched a Chef's Choice Burger with a 5.5 oz. premium ground chuck patty.
With brand statements such as "Anti-Established in 2003" you dare not call more recent gourmet burger restaurants a chain, even if store volume would beg to differ. Between concept leaders In-N-Out, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Smashburger, The Counter and Shake Shack, there are more than 1,300 locations spanning four countries. With menus boasting fresh, never frozen beef, customized offerings based on location (Smashburger offers a "Colorado Burger" at Colorado locations and a "Windy City Burger" in Illinois, for example) and an increasing menu selection of food items, it’s nearly impossible to not please the palette of everyone in attendance. In fact, Five Guys Burgers and Fries was the fastest growing large chain last year, with a 32.8 percent growth in sales.
One of the interesting effects of the gourmet burger boom is how it contemporizes the classic burger Americans know and love. It strikes a chord with consumers and has made burgers modern and hip again. It has consumers spending money on eating out when research still demonstrates Americans are trying to eat at home more often. It’s made beef contemporary again. Here's how:
- The gourmet burger isn’t just about the beef. It’s about what you put on it, in it, next to it, and what you wash it down with. To begin, the toppings are numerous. Spicy chipotle buns and New Mexican hatch chilies. Chopped scallops. Applewood smoked bacon. Fried egg and haystack onions. Yuzu-garlic aioli. Bacon-wrapped scallops. Potato chips. Dried cranberries. The toppings alone could re-define the burger as we know it. But what you order with it is just as noteworthy, such as truffle & parmesan fries, soy beans, sweet potato fries sprinkled with brown sugar, fried pickles or veggie frites. And if that weren’t enough, consumers can pair their made-to-order meals with liquid nitrogen milkshakes, bottled beers, fresh lemonade or glasses of wine.
- How do you want your meat? Marketing tactics tied to a breed aren’t necessarily a new phenomenon except for fairly recent twists like Kobe beef burgers. However, new on the scene are burgers made from a prime beef blend or dry-aged burgers. In addition to choosing the dizzying blend of grinds from various whole muscles such as ground chuck or sirloin, to the coarseness of the actual grind, to grind-ins (bacon ground into the beef), now consumers can also find out more about the farmers and ranchers behind the product.
- It’s affordable, but not "cheap." With the average price of a gourmet burger landing between $4 and $10 each, Americans are consuming their beloved burgers at a lower entrée price point than they’d pay at a typical sit-down dinner. It’s modern comfort food at a price they can afford. According to Technomic’s 2011 Center of the Plate Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report, 28 percent of consumers say the descriptor “premium” would make them more willing to pay up to 5 percent more for beef.
- Consumers feel good about the gourmet burger. As Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker, recently said, "…food is an easy status symbol for people to manipulate." A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers often "supersize" their meal because it makes them feel more important. The gourmet burger allows people to feel important by connecting with something unique to them. It’s fast, but not fast-food. Restaurant concepts are often local to their city or region (or are perceived to be) so consumers feel good supporting the local business community. Consumers believe their gourmet burger is part of a bigger story and are glad to eat where recycling and composting are part of the dining experience.
Implications for the beef industry
Along with the unique and seemingly positive implications the gourmet burger trend has for beef, there are some hard questions to consider.
With 90 percent lean or leaner ground beef being the fastest growing segment of ground beef in the meat case, based on pounds sold and dollars spent by consumers, the gourmet burger trend can help keep other grinds in high demand. The challenge is keeping ground beef, along with the toppings and the bun, attainable from a price margin and value standpoint so it doesn’t lose its premiere place on the menu.
Popular "meatless," vegetarian and vegan food trends are also becoming more prevalent and are quickly impacting beef's place on the burger menu. Portabella mushroom, turkey and veggie burgers are becoming commonplace on previously beef-only menus across the country. According to market research firm, Mintel, there was a 26 percent increase in menu items labeled vegetarian or vegan between the last quarter of 2008 and the same quarter in 2010. Even Burger King has a veggie burger on their ever-diversifying menu. Ultimately, it seems that the creative additions that make hamburgers "gourmet" also could improve lackluster veggie burger options.
Upon investigating the gourmet burger boom, we believe it is a trend that is here to stay. With it comes new challenges for the beef industry, however. We find ourselves asking how are we, as an industry, going to keep our evolving American beef icon "fresh" for consumers? How could the gourmet burger trend help re-position beef as contemporary and good for you? How does beef stay top of mind and not get overtaken by other proteins on the menu and plate? How can the beef industry use this trend to not only keep - but grow - our market share?
Questions aside, we believe that the beef industry can capitalize on the gourmet burger movement for years to come, thanks to the new variations of burger combinations and flavor pairings, creative inspiration, the foodservice environment and the subconscious delight that eating a gourmet burger brings.
Nation's Restaurant News “Five Dining Predictions for 2010”
Nation's Restaurant News “Breaking Down Better Burgers”
Burger Business "What Sells 'Premium' Burgers?"
TIME Business “Study: How Supersizing Makes Us Feel More Important”
The New York Times "Masters of Disguise Among Meatless Burgers"
Burger concept websites including
www.smashburger.com, www.larkburger.com, www.thecounterburger.com, www.fiveguys.com, www.in-n-out.com, www.shakeshack.com, www.bk.com, www.mcdonalds.com