KANSAS CITY — The origin of the hamburger is somewhat subjective, but its growing popularity today is undisputed. When it comes to handheld meals, burgers continue to be king.

One out of every four dollars spent within the food service channel in 2016 was spent on a handheld item, whether that was a sub, wrap, burrito or burger. Of the total $205.36 billion in food service sandwich sales in 2016, $90.57 billion were spent on burgers (that’s 44% of total sandwich sales), according to global market intelligence firm Technomic Inc.

“Burgers remain as popular as ever, constituting 44% of all handheld sales in the U.S.,” said Dave Henkes, senior principal of Technomic’s Advisory Group. “They are remarkably adaptable and often serve as the basis for flavor innovation in sauces, toppings and even proteins.”

Fast-food establishments and full-service restaurants continue to add new burger options to their menus in an effort to keep up with consumer demand and changing tastes.

Source: Technomic Inc.

Of the $90.57 billion in burger sales, 57% were sold in limited-service (or quick-service) restaurants, and 19% were sold in full-service restaurants.

“While burger sales are obviously driven by ‘big burger’ concepts like McDonald’s and Burger King, the penetration of this versatile item is high across nearly every food service segment,” Mr. Henkes said. “In fact, over 40% of burger sales occur in segments other than fast-food.”

Other segments where burgers were sold include travel and leisure, bars and taverns, education, retail and healthcare.

The burger category has seen 3.2% in growth between 2013 and 2016, according to Technomic research, and the firm predicts 3.4% growth in the burger category between 2017 and 2019.

“As the industry shifts toward greater usage of takeout and delivery, burgers are well-positioned to capitalize,” Mr. Henkes said. “Very few handheld items travel as well as burgers, and they should benefit from the increased emphasis on off-premise consumption.”

As the burger category continues to grow, food service operators will keep finding ways to answer consumer demand for new products.

The segment that has seen and will continue to see the most growth in burger consumption is travel and leisure, with 4.7% growth between 2013 and 2016 and a projected growth of 5.1%. Limited-service restaurants and full-service restaurants will continue to see growth in the burger category by 3% and 3.8%, respectively.

As the burger category continues to grow, food service operators will keep finding ways to answer consumer demand for new products. 

Click here for a slideshow of burger trends emerging in food service.

“The things we’re watching in the burger category (and with burger operators) right now include transparency, antibiotic-free meats, cage-free eggs and improved conditions for animals,” Mr. Henkes added. “We certainly believe sourcing antibiotic- and hormone-free beef will become a long-term initiative for many operators serving burgers.”