Building a Better Burger


“Burgers are here to stay,” says Shant Mardirosian, whose passion (and religious education) are epitomized in the name of his restaurants, the Burger’s Priest. Although the GTA-based premium fast-casual chain is, in the words of its founder, “a classic cheeseburger joint,” it has its share of craft-burgers, including The Vatican City ($11.59) — a double cheeseburger squeezed between two grilled cheese buns — and The Low Priest ($5.79) featuring one beef patty, secret sauce, cheese, pickles, chopped lettuce and diced onions on a non-sesame seed bun or a lettuce wrap. Add another beef patty and it’s elevated to The Pope ($13.19.)

Mardirosian, who is preparing to open his 14th location, doesn’t put much stock in the price of beef as a factor in burgers’ popularity, noting that although prices fluctuate, the demand for burgers is constant. But Toronto-based NPD Group says a strong connection exists between the price of beef and the popularity of burgers. Beef prices rose sharply between 2010 and 2015 and some analysts say they are unlikely to decrease significantly. Reasons range from droughts that drive up the cost of feed to the recovery time to bring herds back up after culling — as well as foreign markets willing to pay more than domestic ones. Still, expensive ground beef is cheaper than the premium cuts traditionally used for roasts and steaks so for restaurateurs, staking on steak may be riskier than betting on burgers.

Banner Burger Year
NPD Group called 2014 “a banner year for burgers,” noting bulk ground beef shipments to both quick-service and full-service restaurants were up in the U.S., a trend also reflected in Canada. The result for diners has been a burgernanza of choices as competition for market share grows.

In a world with more choices than time, marketing needs to be remarkable. Seth Godin, author and marketing expert, points to increasingly popular annual Burger Week events as a great example of putting burgers in the spotlight. These events vary across the country and while some raise money for charity, others are the burger equivalent of fashion shows, featuring the ultimate in what a burger can be. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec and Halifax see hundreds of restaurants participate collectively. The patties are often 100 per cent beef, much of it Angus, but beef-plus-pork and/or veal, bison, vegetarian, lamb, salmon, tuna and poultry — like the Don’t Have a Cow, Man turkey burger from Bernstein’s Deli in Winnipeg — offer a plethora of flavour profiles for the discriminating burger customer.

In March 2016, 79 restaurants participated in Halifax’s Burger Week, “a city-wide burger-eating celebration and fundraiser.” Over half the participants offered prix fixe ($6) burgers. The rest donated a portion of the price to a local charity. One talked-about offering from Halifax-based Darrell’s Restaurant, which included an Angus beef patty, bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese and peanut butter for that “stick to the roof of your mouth difference.”

The Kangaroo Burger ($25) at the Press Gang in downtown Halifax was the most expensive burger on offer during last year’s Burger Week. This towering specimen features a ground kangaroo patty, manchego cheese, pancetta, grilled portobello mushrooms, taro crisps, red onion rings, tzatziki sauce, beet confit, iceberg lettuce, trevio and sliced tomato on a brioche bun.

In Belleville, Ont., Burger Revolution’s PB burger is part of a larger burger revolution going on in the city. The fast-casual restaurant is owned and managed by the husband-and-wife team of Jeff Camacho and Rayling Lei, who met at culinary school in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Although Camacho started out in fine-dining, he quickly realized burgers were where it’s at. “Everyone loves burgers,” he says, adding “Every burger is kissed with fire that brings out the flavour of the char.”

Burger Revolution’s appeal is broad. “There’s no person or demographic that’s excluded,” Camacho says. Different meats and vegetarian burgers are featured with one special “burger of the month.” All the beef used at Burger Revolution is sourced from a nearby producer in Tweed, Ont. The lamb for his burgers is also local, from Prince Edward County. Water buffalo comes from Stirling, Ont. and he sources pork, chicken and cheese locally as well. Supporting the community is a popular trend and in return, he says, the community supports him. “People always come, no matter what the price is,” he says when asked about the effects of rising ingredient costs. “They know we can’t survive without the price adjustment.” Prices at Burger Revolution range from $6 to $12.

Although Mardirosian and Camacho differ in how they prepare their burgers (the former favouring a flat-top griddle and the latter a flame grill), they, like other successful burger restaurants in their category, combine a love and respect for good ingredients — carefully prepared and presented with skill and quirky humour.

For Mardirosian, that manifests in his biblically named burgers, while Camacho uses a revolutionary theme. The Outcider ($11.99) from Burger Revolution is a beef burger with grilled marinated pork skewers, cheddar cheese and County Cider mustard mayo. The Chèvre Guevara ($10.75) features a beef (or vegetarian) patty with goat cheese, roasted red pepper, bacon and smoked tomato jam. Both are served on pretzel buns, which Camacho likes for their ability to hold up to moist toppings.

Asked about burger trends, Mardirosian and Camacho have differing views. The Burger’s Priest owner foresees a return to what he describes as a “really classic burger” and a move away from the “outrageous.”

Camacho predicts the local ingredient push will continue and believes comfort-style and ethnic foods are growing trends for the burger segment. He also feels his Filipino background and his wife’s Chinese roots influence their ingredient choices, which includes an Italian salami spread called ’nduja. “A burger can be elevated,”
says Camacho. “A burger is our canvass.”

Move Over Beef
When it comes to hamburgers, beef is not the only game in town. Pork producers will be heartened to see pork’s use flourishing in the craft-burger movement. Like beef, pork’s popularity is affected by price fluctuations, an aging population that eschews red meat and religious restrictions on consumption. On the other hand, Canada’s multicultural community has developed many specialized pork products.

In Canada, hog and pork prices generally follow a four-year North American price cycle, according to Canada Pork International (CPI), an export promotion agency. Usually, two years of below-average slaughter and higher-than-average prices are followed by two years of higher- than-average slaughter and lower hog prices.

Canadian pork is leaner than its American counterpart and a lot of emphasis is now placed on increasing its tenderness and flavour, while giving it a more pleasing colour. In one online promotional video, Michael Young, a director with CPI, demonstrates a recipe using lean ground pork — which he describes as under-utilized in the foodservice industry. Young describes ground pork as “a real performer,” saying it holds up well under cooked conditions, is mild and takes on other flavours well.

Lamb also has its proponents, including the Canadian Lamb Producers Cooperative. It hopes to benefit from the public’s preference for buying Canadian products — the more local the better. Producers see a rapidly growing ethnic market in Canada that is accustomed to eating lamb.

Sustainable Sandwiches
In a world facing global warming and an aging population, sustainability and health concerns are increasingly important factors for the burger business. It’s no longer good enough to sell tasty burgers — consumers are concerned with animal welfare and the environmental impacts of raising livestock. They are looking for less artificial colouring and more natural ingredients.

Consumers’ appetite for sustainability is at the heart of A&W’s business. The QSR giant boasts it’s the first, and only, national burger restaurant in Canada to serve beef raised without hormones or steroids. McDonald’s, for its part, vows to serve 100 per cent more fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy or whole grains by 2020 and to promote Canadian farm products.

Another consideration for the burger segment is the ubiquitous older cohort who is cutting back on red meat. One response is “the trend to blend” — incorporating up to 35 per cent chopped mushrooms into beef patties. The result, says Steve Solomon, culinary director of the U.S-based Mushroom Council, is a blended burger with fewer calories and less fat and sodium. Solomon says the blend offers a pleasing umami and a moistness that allows it to be held for service. Are burger restaurants aware of this? Solomon doesn’t name names, citing confidentiality agreements, but says hundreds of American restaurants and schools are into “the blend.” Shannon Bryan, a manager with Mushrooms Canada says her organization works with its American counterpart and with Ontario beef farmers. The Canadian emphasis is on the consumer rather than the foodservice industry but Bryan says that diners pick up on trends they experience when dining out, including while on American vacations.

Volume 48, Number 3

Written By: Carol Snell

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