There’s an emerging fast-casual segment of Canada’s burger market that’s taking over the foodservice industry. From the millennial consumer to the baby boomer, Technomic’s 2017 Canadian Burger Consumer Trend Report suggests the hankering for the dressed up and the old classic hamburger is a mainstay of Canadians dining-out experience. Canada even has its own burger week, whereby local restaurants design a custom burger for the festival. It started in Montreal with “Le Burger Week” and has since been picked up in Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Alberta (under the name Burgerfest). In the Maritimes, P.E.I. hosted “Burger Love” in partnership with its provincial cattle producers and ended up selling more burgers within the 30-day period than there are residents in the province.
So what accounts for the upswing in the burger trend? “Part of this trend can be related to the increase in quality of beef,” says Anne Mills, manager of Consumer Insights at Chicago-based Technomic. “Operators are looking more at domestic beef sourcing as educated consumers take more interest in sustainable-food options.” Technomic’s Trend Report also noted 36 per cent of consumers have a preferred restaurant they stay loyal to when it comes to getting that favourite burger — up from 30 per cent in 2015. It also revealed millennials are driving the research-and-development focus of the industry and the push for bolder flavours. According to the report, 40 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds say it’s very important that restaurants offer burgers with new and unique flavours, compared to 22 per cent of older consumers and 56 per cent of consumers as a whole.
Baum + Whiteman, a New York-based restaurant consultancy, noted the biggest food trend of 2018 would be “plant-based” options since over the past decade, consumers under 40 have actually increased their fresh-vegetable intake by 52 per cent. For this reason, nearly every burger place offers a vegetarian — or even a vegan — burger option.
Glen Klepsch, owner and chef of Bite Burger House in Ottawa, claims to have perfected the vegan burger — a taste experience even his meat lovers like. “My youngest daughter is vegan, so it was really important to me to get it right. Finding the right binding for the burger was the real challenge.” Klepsch says a poor vegan burger experience on a family trip to Jasper, Alta. really kick-started his desire to start experimenting. “This vegan burger almost looked like red-beet soup on a sandwich,” he laughs. “So, once I got home, I started playing around with black turtle beans and a chimichurri blend (made of dried parsley, oregano, thyme, cumin and rice flour). At $14, the gluten-free feat is one of his best-sellers.
A Return To Nostalgia
Many burger operators say consumers crave “old-fashioned” burgers, but ones upgraded with locally sourced meat, high-end toppings and house-made condiments. Klepsch previously owned a wine bar with “higher-end food” and remembers “We had one item on our menu — the old style burger — that people couldn’t get enough of. It was simply a house-ground, local Black Angus triple-A beef seared on a 400-degree flat top.” He says a flat-top is better than a grill because the burger’s flavour can get lost when cooked on a grill and the fat drips down into the flames. “My burgers only go through two grinds,” he says. “This gives the texture of the meat a loose feeling so it almost falls apart in your mouth. They’re also gluten-free — there is no filler.”
Brian Tahririha, owner of Lost in the 50s Burgers Drive-In in Burnaby, B.C., insists his business model relies on nostalgia. “I rescued this place when it went up for sale,” says Tahririha of the original Lost in the 50s property. “We did extensive renovations and now have it back up and running again — but with higher-quality burgers (triple-A beef) and healthy toppings.” Customers couldn’t wait for the old-school burger drive-in to open. “They love the nostalgic decor, the neon sign, the glass pop bottles and the homage to the past,” says Tahririha. “But while people like the past, they also want the ability to customize their burger and have good quality.” Lost in the 50s makes a sirloin burger, cut and ground in-house with no additives or fillers. As their website touts, “Nothing grandma wouldn’t feed ya!”
Halifax-based Krave Burger also plays on a longing for days gone by. Matt MacIsaac, owner and general manager, says when the business opened in 2014, very few places were offering that simple, classic burger made well. “We identified a niche in the market, so we strived to apply that extra level of care to a meal that almost everyone loved,” says MacIsaac, who uses whole muscles from grass-fed cattle and grinds them in house. “People want to know where their food comes from, so they like the fact they can actually see the meat itself in the burger. It looks just like chunks of meat — revealing the fat itself. I literally just add salt and pepper.”
MacIsaac says the reaction he gets from customers is his greatest reward. “We have people coming here who say ‘wow, this reminds me of something I ate literally 30 years ago’ or ‘I remember eating a burger that tasted like this in the ’70s’. Our taste buds are powerful reminders of our past.” Tapping into the nostalgia factor has proven profitable for Krave Burger, which is currently in the process of opening a second Krave Burger location.
MacIsaac says one of his greatest challenges as a chef was to perfect his plant-based burger. “This vegan burger is trending more than I ever imagined,” says MacIsaac. After spending more than two weeks in research-and-development mode, he finally found the ideal combo of ingredients. “Vegans want to feel full, too. They want clean food, but they don’t want a patty filled with bread crumbs or wheat. They want protein in it.” MacIsaac says customers love the veggie burger so much that they will request it as a topping to a salad.
With all the burger variations and toppings at Krave Burger, MacIsaac says the bun shouldn’t be touched. “I personally have always liked the soft, white pillowy bread — your typical burger bun,” he says. “A burger is about what’s inside, not the bun itself. If it’s too fancy, it becomes a distraction from the main event.”
There is no such thing as a burger topping that is too outrageous. In fact, the crazier the option, the more likely customers will try it. Just ask Lance Popke, president and founder of Edmonton-based Soda Jerks.
“Everything we have experimented with has been trial and error,” says Popke, whose menu lists Kraft dinner and Captain Crunch cereal as burger toppings. “It’s been an evolution with a lot of time and effort put into the development of what works and also what doesn’t.”
The call for burgers kept the mainstay ’50s-themed diner menu as its focus. “We’ve perfected the burger and our customers appreciate the thought, care and creativity we’ve put into that.” Unique burger toppings on the menu include an eight-inch wiener, a fried egg, chocolate-dipped bacon, fried pickles, Buffalo onion rings, mac n’ cheese bites, peanut butter and jam and yes, even ice cream. The average cost of a burger hovers around the $14 mark.
Popke remembers a time when Soda Jerks attempted to join the health craze. “We tried to offer healthy options at first,” explains Popke. “Even grilled salmon and quinoa, if you can believe it.”
The menu evolved over time based on consumer demand for those indulgent favourites. “People come here to satisfy a craving or to have that ‘cheat day’ if they are on a diet,” says Popke. “You’re not coming here to count calories, but to just enjoy.”
The double cheeseburger is the best-selling item, so it’s safe to say this restaurant can bank on customers not requesting the low-calorie option.
Comfort food has cornered the foodservice industry and shows no signs of slowing down. Whether your patty preference is for top-notch beef or a plant-based alternative, the burger-and-fries duo allows for an infinite number of iterations in style and flavour.
Written by Jennifer Febbraro