A classic American menu item balances the familiar with the fantastic.
Research by global market intelligence firm Technomic Inc. found that burgers accounted for 44% of total U.S. handheld sales followed by sub sandwiches at 13% and deli sandwiches at 11%. For consumers, burgers represent a classic American menu item that can serve as the jump-off to new ingredients and flavors. Food service operators view burgers as a low-cost platform for innovation and differentiation.
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Burgers are found on half of all menus, according to global consumer research firm Datassential, which pointed to chains such as Red Robin (shown here) and Wendy’s as food service concepts that perform well on purchase intent and uniqueness.
"We also recently found that trending ingredients will often debut in burgers before moving to other parts of the menu," Datassential said. "Their lower price point compared to other entrees, especially dinner entrees, often means consumers are willing to take more risks here and order a burger.”
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“Burgers are the ideal platform for safe experimentation as nearly all toppings on a burger seem at least somewhat familiar,” according to Datassential. “Red Robin often has items that build on their successful model in this way. Wendy’s will also offer a wide variety of L.T.O.s [limited-time offers] with a particularly strong one being the Truffle Bacon Cheeseburger from September, which has the safe item of applewood smoked bacon, but paired with truffle aioli, which is rarely offered at Q.S.R.s.”
Another limited-time offering from Wendy's, the Gouda Bacon Cheeseburger (shown here), features aged Gouda and Swiss Gruyere sauce with applewood smoked bacon on a brioche bun.
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Datassential found that beef was the leading protein for burgers, appearing on 38% of U.S. restaurant menus. But meat and poultry are competing with alternative proteins for a share of consumers’ plates. Veggie and turkey were among the top burger proteins behind beef; while the top proteins growing in popularity over the past four years include salmon, lamb, black beans and bison, according to Datassential. Driving this trend toward alternative proteins are consumer demand for variety; nutrition concerns; ease of preparation and cost.
Sports bar Walk-On’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, recently combined the trends of alternative proteins and hot and spicy seasonings to create the Ahi tuna burger, a fresh 8-oz seared Ahi tuna filet topped with gochujang sauce, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, oven-roasted tomatoes and garlic aioli served on a toasted brioche bun.
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Health-conscious consumers are turning to bison as their burger protein of choice. The Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture states that 0.22 lbs of raw bison (separable lean only) contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams of fat, while the same amount of choice grade ground beef contains 291 calories and 24 grams of fat.
Mintel found that nearly half of consumers wanted to see more chicken burgers on menus, while 42% of consumers surveyed expressed interest in more turkey burgers. Another 34% of consumers said they wanted to see more bison burgers on restaurant menus. Diners at Ted’s Montana Grill locations can get burgers with bison or beef. A veggie burger also is on the menu.
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Consumer demand for nutrition information about the foods they eat is a key driver of increased interest in the backstory of where food comes from. Proteins sourced from animals that are “responsibly raised” is a mega trend that has interested more than half of consumers, according to research by Datassential. Along these lines, grass-fed beef is gaining traction among consumers, with demand for grass-fed, antibiotic-free and free-from meat products showing annual growth.
Mintel found that 79% of consumers surveyed said they believe grass-fed beef is higher quality than regular beef, and this perception is motivating 43% of consumers to want more beef burgers sourced from grass-fed cattle on food service menus. Carl's Jr. and Hardee's introduced a grass-fed burger at the end of 2014.
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Food service operators are experimenting with resizing and stuffing burgers. Datassential said in its 2015 Burger Keynote that 63% of consumers were interested in mini-burgers while 60% were interested in stuffed burgers. White Castle offers a range of sliders that includes beef, chicken and veggie. The small size of sliders makes them a flexible menu item that diners can order as an entrée to share or as a snack.
“…More consumers are seeing burgers and other handhelds as a ‘snackable’ item that can be eaten outside the standard meal day parts," according to Datassential’s Keynote Report: Snacking. "Only one-third of operators are actively promoting these items to diners as snacks.”
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There also is consumer demand for morning iterations of dinner items, including breakfast burgers. Datassential reported 45% of consumers expressed interest in trying a breakfast burger. Alongside this trend is the appearance of eggs as a burger topper.
“The trend to ‘put an egg on it’ continues to grow though the focus is less on fried eggs as it was a few years ago and more on sunny-side up eggs over the past four years,” according to Datassential. “These are often used on brunch burgers.”
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Next on the horizon of burger trends may be “test-tube” meat, or meat that is grown in a laboratory from animal stem cells, according to Datassential. Memphis Meats, a company founded by three scientists, is working to become the first company to sell through retail meat that is produced in a lab. The company’s founders expect to have products ready to market in less than five years. Products will include hot dogs, sausages, burgers and meatballs. The company revealed its cultured chicken and duck meat in March. Memphis Meats unveiled its cultured beef in February 2016.
“This is a technology that is getting closer to being reasonable for large-scale execution and mirrors the texture, taste and structure of traditional meat, but without the environmental and global impacts,” Datassential said.
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Traditional meat processors have taken notice of the growth of meat-free offerings. In 2016, Tyson Foods Inc., Springdale, Arkansas, created a $150 million venture capital fund called Tyson New Ventures L.L.C., which will focus on alternative proteins, among other segments in agriculture. The fund’s first investment was a 5% stake in El Segundo, California-based Beyond Meat, a manufacturer of meat-free burgers, strips, crumbles and single-serve meals.
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