Burger Battle: The Better Burger Continues to Gain Market Share

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The simple beef patty on a bun has been winning American fans for more than 90 years, according to Josh Ozersky, who chronicles the history of the favoured food in his book The Hamburger. And, these days, Americans (and Canadians alike) continue to crave the culinary creation with unwavering dedication. In fact, according to the Chicago-based research firm Technomic, Inc., nine out of 10 Canadian customers polled in “The Canadian Burger Trend Report” (2013), say they consume burgers at least once a month.

It’s not hard to find a burger to satiate every craving, with foodservice operators churning out everything from innovations on rotation for a limited time, to premium and meat-free options with a variety of fry creations.

One unifying factor, according to Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager at Technomic, is the impact of what the aforementioned burger trend report calls a ‘better burger’ and how it’s driving changes in the industry. According to the report, quality, variety and customization are key in this ‘better-burger’ approach that’s continuing to attract attention across industry segments.

Fast-casual burger establishments, which, according to the Technomic burger report, have grown their sales by 46 per cent since 2012, are taking the “better- burger” mantra to heart. They’re rivalling “the full-service segment in terms of quality, variety and customization at prices that often compete with fast-food concepts,” says the report.

Justin Leboe, founding partner and chef of Calgary’s Clive Burger, is doing just that. He gave serious thought to what he wanted in a burger and opted for “a marked return to classic American, traditional-style cheeseburgers.” He turned to the U.S.-based Shake Shack for inspiration from a culinary team that focuses on doing one thing extraordinarily well. It’s for that reason that Clive Burger makes and markets one burger. The star of the menu is a hormone- and antibiotic-free, 100-per-cent Alberta beef burger ground from whole muscle cuts; starting at $6, it’s a competitive price to similar offerings in the city. The quality of the ‘better burger’ extends to the brioche-like buns that took the team several tries to perfect. What’s more, lettuce and tomatoes are grown without pesticides in a nearby farmer’s greenhouse. As for the burger’s dressing, diners choose from a list of options, including sauerkraut, hot sauce, onion, relish and mustard. Fried mushrooms, onions and bacon are $1 to $2 extra and can be added to a double burger ($9) or a triple burger ($13). And, guests can grab a stool at the counter by the open kitchen to enjoy burgers with double-blanched, in-house cut fries (small $2.50, large $4) along with a ’50s-style custard milkshake ($5), a craft beer or a glass of wine.

Similarly, fast-casual eatery Cheese Curds Gourmet Burgers + Poutinerie in Dartmouth, N.S. offers gourmet burgers made with quality ingredients. Bill Pratt, the founder, owner and chef, says one of the biggest differentiating factors for customers at his two locations is the type of beef he uses. It’s locally butchered grass-fed, hormone-free Black Angus from the Annapolis Valley. “People tell us they can taste the difference. Gone are the days of the mystery beef filled with organs and floor scraps. People expect quality meat in a gourmet burger restaurant,” he says. Beef aside, the top seller at Cheese Curds is the triple mushroom and swiss burger with fresh spinach and CC house sauce ($8.75), while the single serving of spicy Taco Poutine ($7) is a fan favourite touted to offer great value as a meal in a bowl.

The business plan is working as the Woodside, N.S. 24-seater location alone is bringing in up to a million dollars in gross sales annually, according to Pratt. The Cheese Curds owner attributes such success to a premium foundation and more than 50 topping options. He often samples new offerings to see what resonates with his clientele. “We create new burger specials every week and give people a variety with crazy toppings. We’ve done lamb burgers as well as lobster burgers, turkey burgers and so on,” says Pratt. If it’s a hit, it becomes part of the core menu — just like the Monster Mozza Crunch Burger ($8.75) did, attracting customers hungry for a breaded mozza wedge with two strips of bacon and chipotle mayo.

Similarly, maintaining customer interest in an ever-expanding category has the team at Wendy’s focused on creating unique and indulgent flavours, says Paul Hilder, SVP of Wendy’s Restaurants of Canada. Its winning formula has led to a variety of limited-time offers (LTOs) such as its Bacon Portobella Melt on a soft brioche bun ($5.49), made with unfrozen, 100-per-cent ground beef. The brioche bun and portobello mushroom offer extra value to the customer. “This particular LTO has been very popular, so we will likely bring it back at a later date,” notes Hilder.

Change is ongoing at Wendy’s, which has featured offerings such as skin-on fries sprinkled with sea salt ($1.89) and a pretzel bacon cheeseburger ($4.79). In the future, look out for authentic Quebecois-style poutine to be sold at the chain across the country with real cheese curds and gravy. Ethnic inspirations from Asia, Europe and Latin America are also likely to inform future menu and condiment choices. But, the standby classic that won’t budge from the menu is the Baconator ($6.49). “Canadians love their bacon and cheese on a burger,” says Hilder.

Canadians on the West Coast have been flocking to the Vancouver-based White Spot for their burger fix for more than 80 years. These days, the chain’s burgers include non-beef offerings and value-added combos such as the wild Pacific salmon fillet patty topped with tomato, lettuce, onion and house-made lemon basil aioli on an artisanal bun with a caesar salad ($13.49), or a lemon-herb char-grilled Mediterranean Grilled Chicken burger with red pepper, lettuce, tomatoes, cream cheese and feta ($12.99). Both options include a soft drink, house-made creamy coleslaw and fries. A savvy idea given that “heavy burger users” (consumers who have burgers at least twice a week) claim they usually purchase burgers as part of combo meals, according to Technomic’s burger report.

White Spot guests can also opt to wrap their patty in lettuce at no extra charge and/or swap regular fries for sweet potato fries ($1.99), onion rings ($1.99), Zoo Sticks ($1.99, zucchini fries with a dip) or a plate of original poutine ($2.49). The customer choice extends to the perennially popular White Spot Legendary Burger. The quarter-pound ground beef patty can be customized with premium toppings — such as “bleubrie” cheese or smoked provolone ($1.49 each) — and topped with the proprietary Triple-O sauce.

If eateries such as White Spot entice guests searching for a family restaurant with time-honoured recipes, then it’s no surprise there’s an appeal for the “homemade” dishes served at the fine-dining Market restaurant in Calgary. Its Wagyu beef burger is made with on-site ground beef from Brant Lake Wagyu Superior Beef, cooked sous vide to retain juices and grilled to medium rare (or to order). Market chefs cut locally sourced fries, served alongside a burger that’s topped with house-made pickles, ketchup, cheese and bacon piled atop a house-made brioche bun. A side salad rounds out the plate for $20. The other burger on the menu is lamb ($23). The patties are a hit. “Our guests see the effort, time and love that goes into our burgers. Homemade and local ingredients come at a higher price, our guests understand that and see the value,” says Dave Bohati, executive chef at Market.

Overall, premium ingredients with health-conscious menu options, customization and unique flavour profiles are creating the ultimate “better burger” across Canada. It’s a fickle game of “What does the customer want?” and “What will he/she pay?” Either way, if history is any indication, the ever-burgeoning burger craze shows no signs of abating. 

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