Flipping over Burgers

Gourmet burger joints capitalize on a need for indulgence.

By  Erik J. Martin, CSP Correspondent

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Hear that sizzle? It’s the sound of patty-flipping fast-food franchises taking a charbroiling from a new breed of gourmet burger businesses that continue to demonstrate quality over quantity is a winning strategy.

A look at the latest numbers reveals that better burger restaurants (BBRs)—defined as limited-service restaurants that focus on burgers at the core of their menu—are no fl ash in the pan. BBRs represent approximately $3 billion in annual sales within a $69 billion annual burger market, according to Chicago-based Technomic  Inc. The BBR segment has-been growing at a double-digit rate each year over the past five years, despite the economic downturn. From 2010 to 2011, fast-casual burger restaurants increased units by 18.4% and sales by 20.8%.

The top two BBR sales leaders (see chart, p. 82), Five Guys Burger and Fries(more than 1,000 locations in 47 states and Canada and 1,500 locations underdevelopment) and Smash burger (200 stores in 29 states and four countries),grew sales by more than 24% and 71%,respectively, in 2011, Technomic reports

.In comparison, QSR burger chains, which includes fast food and fast casual, increased units by a mere 0.4% and saw sales up approximately 1%. Also, customer traffic at all fast-casual restaurants increased 8% over the same period.

Redefining Burgers

With their refreshingly basic but idiosyncratic menu offerings; focus on fresher, higher-quality ingredients; ability to personalize virtually any order; and relaxed restaurant feel typically without waiter service, BBRs have carved a profitable niche in the fast-casual dining sector in recent years.

“Money always flows toward opportunity, and Americans’ love for burgers is insatiable,” says Scott Hume, editor of BurgerBusiness.com in Chicago. “Fastcasual burger concepts proliferated at a time, between 2005 and 2010, when the U.S. restaurant industry was declining, in part because burgers are an affordable luxury.”

Accounting for much of their appeal is the caliber of the cuisine at BBRs: Seventy-four percent of consumers rank quality/taste of the meat or protein as the most important part of the burger, Technomic reports.“The secret to their success is generally strong unit economics with a good price point driving high-volume sales,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. “The secret from the customer’s perspective is the gourmet ingredients, fresh made-to-order preparation and indulgence. At a time when healthy and wellness is trending, the indulgence factor from these chains continues to be strongly driven by crave ability.”

BBR stores are often smaller than fastfood counterparts, Tristano says, differentiated by a focused menu and emphasis on lunch and dinner vs. breakfast.

“They typically have counter service with 50% of sales for dine-in, whereas fast-food burger chains emphasize convenience and price value, with over 70% of their sales consumed off-premises,” says Tristano. “The smaller fast-casual chains are more contemporary and emphasize the dining experience, and have invested more inside their four walls of the restaurant to appeal to diners.”

BBRs also target a broad consumer base that is willing to pay a little more for the quality, flavor and taste of the product, he says. And casual-dining patrons are targeted via the concept of trading down to a lower price point (without a tip) and equal quality and experience to full-service chains.

More specifically, BBRs generally appeal to families and patrons ages 18 to 49, with a slight skew toward males and mid- to higher-income consumers in both major metro and more affluent suburban locations, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for The NPDGroup, Port Washington, N.Y. Millennials, as well as baby boomers, are frequently targeted by these chains.

“Boomers, who fueled the rise of American fast food through the 1960s and 1970s, are now older and less inclined to buy a quick meal from a drive-thru window,” says Hume. “But they still like burgers. Fast-casual concepts provide the burgers older diners want in a less plastic environment.”

Unique flavors

You would be mistaken, however, to lump all BBRs together. Hume says each BBR chain offers something different and distinctive.“There’s no one single style, which is why the better burger segment always has room for growth,” he says. “There are retro concepts like Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes and Fries (more than 100 restaurants in five Southeastern states); build-your-own burger concepts like Meatheads Burgers and Fries (10 locations in Chicago’s suburbs);and culinary concepts like Umami Burger (14 locations in southern California).And many of the new fast-casual burger establishments, like Tom & Eddie’s(five stores in the Chicago suburbs), offer beer and wine.”

Every burger concept has its “own something,” Hume continues. “Maybe it’s prep style like Smashburger’s smashed hamburgers, or the pick-your-toppings approach at Mooyah (48 locations in 10 states) or the local sourcing and artisan ingredients at Bargersville (39 stores in Washington and Oregon). If it clicks with enough people, you’re in.”

The better burger, says Peter Romeo, vice president of content for the foodservice group at CSP Business Media, “is more a product that delivers art than mechanization in that it’s something that embodies flair vs. being the end product of systems and procedures designed to promote conformity. [BBRs are] able to draw the crowds that they do because people want to eat a sandwich that’s fresher, less processed, made with better ingredients and more flavorful.”

Genuineness, quality and a heavy element of nostalgia, says Romeo, are drivers for this sector: “You see that in the retro feel at Five Guys, where employees wear those soda-jerk-style peaked caps.”

Creativity and cleverness are also appreciated by BBR customers, he says. Many restaurants allow regulars to order personalized products off a “secret menu”(e.g., three-hamburger-patty burgers),and some alert fans to menu changes and special seasonal offerings via social media instead of a glitzy Super Bowl ad.

Sharing Secrets

In an increasingly crowded market, BBR franchises are challenged to stand out and outshine one another. Case in point: Mooyah.

Like several competitors, the company, which expects to have 80 locations open by the end of 2013, features customizable burgers, myriad cheeses and toppings, 100% ice-cream shakes, and regular and sweet potato fries.

Alexis Barnett Gillette, director of marketing for the Frisco, Texas-based company, says her chain, unlike its rivals, also offers Jennie-O turkey burgers, Morningstar Farms veggie burgers, buns baked fresh daily in each store, and a bevy of options for placing orders (remotely via phone, mobile app, email and text, and in-store at the counter or via a paper form or kiosk).

“Burgers, fries and shakes are the great American meal,” she says. “We aren’t serving anything new, but we’re following the trend of making the old new again and the new better than ever before.”

Hans Hess founded Elevation Burger in Arlington, Va., in 2005 with the goal of offering a healthier alternative (100% organic, grass-fed, free-range beef ground on premises, and fresh-cut fries cooked in olive oil). The approach proved popular; today the chain has 36 stores in 11 states.

“I equate what we’re doing to surfing: riding out past all the breaking waves to catch it from behind,” says Hess. “True fast food requires you to bring your prices down, which means squeezing quality out of the product. We’re not competing with the McDonald’s of the world. We’re about giving customers greater control and offering healthier options.”

Mike Mirkil, vice president of marketing for The Habit Restaurants, the Irvine,Calif.-based owners of The Habit BurgerGrill (with 69 locations in California,Utah and Arizona), says what makes his chain different from other players in this category “is the unique char-grilling of our meats, which provides a great flavor.”

“And,” he continues, “while we do offer convenience and certainly value(the Charburger starts at $2.95), it’s our dedication to quality and making sure we always deliver one burger at a time that ensures our long-term success.”

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