retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

The burger is king. (And I’m not talking about that creepy plastic mascot in the TV commercials.)

The coronation comes courtesy of a new study showing nearly half of today’s consumers eat a burger at least once a week, compared to 38 percent two years ago.

And the burger’s reign ranges from fast food restaurants to pricier competitors, fueled by America’s “craving” for a great taste between the bun. We’re also willing to pay more for a quality, made-to-order product, as evidenced by the explosive growth of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which has seen sales jump 44.5 percent in the past year.

“The specialty burger craze has driven growth in a way that is almost defiantly separate from pricing,” said Sara Monnette of the food industry consulting firm Technomic. “The better burger restaurants in the fast casual segment have put the burger top-of-mind for consumers, and even the quick-service chains have begun to respond and focus portions of their menus specifically on quality perceptions.”

Case in point: Burger King’s menu features both its premium XT Steakhouse burger at $4.69 along with its BK Stackers at a value-focused $1 for a single and $2 for a double. (On the higher end, the lunch burger at New York’s famed Gotham Bar and Grill weighs in at $22.)

To the network of burger aficionados online, such as the entertaining A Hamburger Today blog on Seriouseats.com or the almost two million passionate fans of In-N-Out Burger’s Facebook page, the survey merely confirms the obvious.

Other interesting tidbits from the Technomic poll of 1,500 consumers include:

• A whopping 99 percent of respondents said they occasionally eat some kind of burger.

• Twenty percent said they regularly eat a burger as a mid-afternoon snack, and 10 percent say they sometimes indulge in a late-night burger.

• Why a burger? Thirty-six percent of respondents cited “a craving” as the primary reason for their most recent burger purchase.

• Almost one quarter of consumers between the ages of 18-34 say it is important for vegetarian burgers to be available on restaurant menus.

• Half of those surveyed said health-halo attributes such as all natural, hormone-free, steroid-free and antibiotic-free are a priority.

And while most burger taste tests focus on the classic beef burger, the report recommends burger vendors try swapping out "standard ground beef" for Angus beef, turkey and vegetables to appeal to the consumer’s changing palate. It also noted that Americans are becoming more open to "exotic" toppings and flavors: guacamole, chipotle, pineapple and herbs.

(The notion of a vegetarian burger with pineapple would be viewed as heresy in my household, where trips to the West Coast begin and end with a visit to In-N-Out Burger for a double-double with cheese.)

But the lesson here, I think, is twofold.  One is that burgers have gone to a new level, and retailers can get more ambitious and innovative in what they offer.  But the other is that burgers are still less expensive than steak in most cases, and that also accounts for their appeal where recessionary attitudes remain pervasive.

So you have a bifurcated appeal - people still need to save money, but they want to indulge from time to time.  A thick, juicy burger may be a kind of perfect solution to these mixed urges, because they can fill both needs, depending on where you buy them.

Comments? Send me an email at kate@morningnewsbeat.com .
KC's View:
It may be worth pointing out here that MNB users’ “ultimate burger list” can be found here.