The popularity of the humble burger continues its inexorable march across the nation. You only have to look on the high street in any city or town to see the prevalence of burger chains offering the consumer everything from value, all the way through to premium and gourmet options. The burger also sits alongside the major pub classics on menus up and down the country and continues to grow in popularity.
And, according to research from MCA Insight, the appetite for burgers shows no sign of stopping.
The burger accounts for an eighth of all pub lunches and a sixth of pub dinners. And its popularity as a dish has risen over the past year having been eaten on 11.2% of pub lunch occasions in 2016, rising to 12.7% in 2017. In addition, burgers accounted for 13.8% of pub dinners in 2016, rising to 16.5% in 2017.
“This hugely competitive sector has driven up the quality of burgers in the marketplace, with consumers continuing to demand them at both lunch and dinner,” says Peter Linden, market analysis manager at MCA Insight. “And it is not just beef burgers – looking at data from our MCA Menu Tracker, focusing on new burger additions to spring/summer 2017 menus at leading restaurant and pub brands, 20% of new burgers are chicken, compared with 58% for beef. Examples include the Smash ’N’ Stack and Cluck ’N’ Ale burgers at Brewers Fayre. More and more brands are now also offering their burgers as naked, bunless versions, which increases appeal to more health-conscious consumers.”
And burgers have increasingly premiumised and gone gourmet. Even McDonald’s has unveiled a new range of gourmet burgers called the Signature Collection, which it has started rolling out across the UK.
The wow factor
With mainstream chains recognising the demand for more innovation, premiumisation and quality, the burger bubble is unlikely to burst in the foreseeable future. Offering that wow factor with fresh ingredients is something that can set a business apart and keep people coming through the door.
Smashburger, the US burger brand, that has seven sites – in Brighton, Newcastle, Milton Keynes, Glasgow, Wednesbury, Dunfermline and Bath – has plans for 35 UK restaurants by the end of 2020.
It is known for its handcrafted artisanal burgers, which are smashed, seared and seasoned to order and made from 100% Red Tractor British beef.
Lauren Haslewood, marketing director for the burger chain, says that consumers are looking for better quality, fresh ingredients with more flavour. Operators looking to improve their burger offering should keep it fresh, cook to order and provide variety.
The Smashburger menu reflects this approach because it has a range of beef and chicken options with more interesting ingredients, including toppings such as spinach, cucumber and goats’ cheese and the Truffle Mushroom Swiss served with sautéed chestnut mushrooms with truffle mayo and aged Swiss cheese on a Smash bun.
“At Smashburger, we offer 19 burger choices on our menu, with the option to even create your own from the fillings, buns and sauces to a choice of cheese and toppings. Our mission is to bring a fresh approach to burgers and help the nation “burger better”, Haslewood says.
While offering cheap burger deals can be profitable for volume sales, it doesn’t necessarily create brand-loyal customers that will come back for more,
“By offering a ‘better burger’, great flavour and excellent service, we change the way people feel and think about burgers. We want customers to come back because they love Smashburger,” she argues.
As well as offering variety to the meat eaters, vegetarians are also catered for with the Avocado Ranch Portobello Mushroom burger and the Sweet Butternut and Chickpea Veggie Burger both served on a multi-grain bun.
“As more Millennials become vegetarian, a now popular lifestyle trend, they search for more veggie-friendly food on menus and grab ’n’ go options,” says Haslewood.
The trend for healthier eating is something that restaurant chain Leon is focusing on. The 49-site operator says it likes to think of its burgers as a “better-for-you treat”.
“Against the tide of all of the ‘dirty’ messy-eat meat burgers on the market, we’ve recently added a Halloumi and Avocado Burger to our range,” says Leon head of innovation Rebecca Di Mambro. “This was developed to increase our vegetarian options and give people more of what they want at lunchtime (avocado, always), but we’re really pleased to see it’s being loved by meat-eaters and veggies alike.”
Innovation is “absolutely essential”, she argues. The chain has recently invested in the development of its burger category, resulting in new launches with more planned.
“We’re seeing amazingly positive customer feedback and it’s being reflected in the sales. The Korean Chicken Burger is a recent example of this, which takes us into a new flavour profile with its gochujang chilli mayo slaw,” she says.
“But there’s still a lot to be said for our classic burgers – our Chargrilled Chicken Burger is one of the best-selling dishes on our menu and keeps customers coming back.”
The chain admits it has been inspired by the way that many of its QSR peers are selling limited-edition burgers. This has prompted a limited-edition trial over the summer period to keep
“customers on their toes”.
But it is not just the quick-service and casual-dining sectors that are capitalising on the burger revolution – pubs are increasingly making the most of the trend.
Pub chain Young’s is one of those leading the charge, even trialling its own stand-alone Burger Shack & Bar in Wimbledon before deciding to keep the concept within its pubs.
Tom Elliott-Frey, marketing projects manager of Young’s, says that while burgers have long been a favourite go-to dish with consumers, their popularity continues to grow.
He says: “Brands, as well as Young’s Burger Shack, are constantly finding new ways to update and modify their offerings, whether that be with healthy options, alternative meats or unusual sides. It is this constantly evolving offering that keeps the market interesting and exciting.”
Various Young’s and Geronimo pubs, for example, have introduced a range of monthly specials to keep consumers excited. These include the June Burger of buttermilk chicken and kimchi sauce and the Billionaire Burger, which is topped with slow-cooked shin of beef and Béarnaise sauce.
“Gourmet burgers have seen a dramatic rise in popularity with customers seeking the best produce for their burgers, something we champion at all of our pubs,” says Elliott-Frey.
Classics with a twist
McPhabbs pub in Glasgow has taken innovation a stage further by offering a new take on the patty and bun, with its soft shell crab burger, kimchi, smashed avocado, peanut satay mayo and seven-spice fries priced at £12.50. The burger really offers a wow factor for the venue and a signature dish that is talked about in the city.
Licensee Louise Olivarius took over the pub 18 months ago with the aim of creating a gastropub experience and offering pub classics with a twist.
“We want to be quite innovative and do things that no one else is doing,” she says.
“The soft-shell crab burger, which is our most unique dish, is a whole crab, complete with claws, that is tempura battered and fried and served in a burger bun. It sells really well and no one else in Glasgow offers it.”
A little something on the side?
While the meat, the bun and the flavours added to the humble burger are essential, it is also vitally important to think about what is served on the side.
There is nothing worse that getting an amazing burger with a side order of limp, uninteresting fries. Operators are now offering premium fries, sweet potato fries, wedges, as well as a range of toppings to add interest to the side dish.
“Many burger venues have modified their side offerings with dips, sauces and toppings. The Young’s Burger Shack, for example, has modified its offering with the addition of curly fries, which can be ordered plain or topped with green chilli pulled pork and sour cream,” says Young’s Tom Elliott-Frey.
Offering a range of fries and side options can make the dish more interesting, help increase the GP margins and become an important element of the meal.
Nic Townsend, marketing manager UK & Ireland at Farm Frites, says that operators are judged on lower-priced items such as chips and roast potatoes.
“If these elements of a meal fall short then there isn’t much temptation to come back another time and try the rest of the menu,” he argues.
“When you look at a burger serving, it is important that the chips stack up. If a burger is served with soggy fries then a huge part of the meal is disappointing in the consumer’s eyes. The burger could be fantastic but if the chips are poor then that is what the customer will take away from the meal.”
While chips might be considered the ‘support act’ he argues that they are an integral part of the meal.
“Consumers like choice and choosing side orders is all part of the eating out experience. Every element matters, whether they are choosing a side for themselves or to share with a friend,”
“Premiumisation is a key trend and consumers enjoy trading up to a different side order. They need and expect choice and this is certainly an important section of the menu to get right.”
Side orders also provide an additional income stream as they allow operators the chance to upsell.
“Consumers perceive sweet potato fries to be more premium than standard fries,” he argues. “They also enjoy the health benefits of sweet potato over a regular potato chip. This means that they will happily pay a little extra to choose that side order.”
Meanwhile, Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at Fresh Direct, says the ability to customise has helped the growth of the burger category with fries being at the forefront of this – naked, or dressed, with everything from chilli cheese, to pulled pork or rosemary salt.
“Sweet potato fries are now the norm too, giving the consumer the false perception of ‘being better about themselves’ and the nutritional benefits,” he says.
Pubs wanting to capitalise on the humble burger can learn from the burger chains and other operators that are constantly developing their dishes to appeal to the consumer. Providing that wow factor with fresh ingredients, as well as ensuring that side orders such as fries offer something unique, can keep the customers coming through the door.