Burger Offerings are Delivering on Comfort in Uncertain Times


As Canadians grappled with the new realities created by COVID-19 and foodservice sales rapidly shifted to off-premise offerings, takeout stalwarts burgers and fries remained go-to menu items.

Turgay Kirbiyik, owner of Toronto-based Ozzy’s Burgers, says because are comfort food they’ve been a boon for his business during this challenging year, especially given they’re pretty takeout friendly.

Comfort foods have resonated with customers during these uncertain times. According to a Technomic consumer survey, 40 per cent of consumers say they’re buying more comfort foods from restaurants than before the pandemic.

And Kirbiyik wasn’t the only burger slinger to benefit. According to Ipsos Foodservice Monitor data, burgers were the second-most-popular foodservice menu category in April 2020, with 13.4 per cent of foodservice orders including burgers — up from 9.1 per cent in April 2019.

And, with many burger purveyors entering the pandemic with established off-premise strategies, it’s not surprising they captured additional market share.

“We’ve had delivery as a key part of our operations [for more than a decade], at about 15 per cent of our sales for the last 10 years,” says Bruce Miller, president of Oakville, Ont.-based The WORKS Craft Burgers & Beer. “So, it was very easy for us to pivot, during these [pandemic] times, to an expanded delivery percentage of sales, which, in lockdown, is up to about 45 per cent of our sales.”

However, Kirbiyik says his three Ozzy’s Burgers locations did have to make some adjustments to optimize their operations for increased reliance on takeout and delivery. The concept, which focuses on unique, scratch-made burger creations, initially ran into some challenges with packaging. “Because we have some towering burgers — some of the burgers are eight inches in height — the challenge was [figuring out] which items were going to easily fit into the standard packaging that’s available.” This factored into designing a simplified menu for off-premise orders, which also put less popular and more seasonal items, such as milkshakes, on the backburner. “It kind of brought us back to what we do best,” says Kirbiyik.

Miller says The WORKS also downsized its menu during the pandemic. “We [worked] with our franchise partners to be able to cut down on some of our menu items, overall, to make things faster and easier for our guests on a delivery or takeout occasion,” he explains, adding that these efforts reduced the brand’s extensive menu by about 20 per cent.

And, while Kirbiyik and Miller note increased takeout/delivery sales have only served to further highlight what their brands’ most successful offerings are, both agree there are a number of trends making an impact on the segment.

Though indulgent and comfort offerings have been popular, healthy options and better-for-you alternatives are also top of mind, with Technomic research revealing 31 per cent of Canadians are buying more healthy items from restaurants than pre-pandemic.

Kirbiyik confirms he’s seen shifts on this front. “Because of COVID-19, people are getting more health conscious,” he shares. “Avocado [is popular] again…and we’re seeing a lot of keto buns.” Overall, he adds, alternative buns — including gluten-free and ‘lettuce buns’ — and plant-based-patty options have seen growing demand.

Social responsibility and sustainability are considerations that are impacting dining decisions as well. According to a June Techonomic survey, 65 per cent of Canadian consumers indicated social responsibility is important to them when deciding which restaurant to visit — and it’s especially important to younger consumers. And, as Technomic’s, senior managing editor, Aimee Harvey explained in the company’s What to Expect in Canada in 2021 webinar, “It’s not enough for companies in our industry to simply pay lip service to social responsibility. [Gen-Z and millennial consumers] are the customers who want to see action.”

The effects of these expectations can be seen in shifts in beef sourcing across major chains, as well as Wendy’s Canada’s recent switch to 100-per-cent Canadian greenhouse-grown lettuce. And, Harvey notes, we can expect to see other top players follow suit.

As Technomic highlighted in its 2021 Global Trends Outlook, rather than focus on new menu development during the pandemic, many operators focused on upgrading menu favourites. Even pre-pandemic, this trend saw McDonald’s Canada re-vamp how its burgers are prepared and served in 2019. And, last March, A&W Foodservices of Canada committed to moving to 100-per-cent Canadian grass-fed and -finished beef. In September, the company met the milestone of serving all grass-fed beef across Canada and is working toward sourcing exclusively from Canada.

These changes also play into the value Canadian consumers place on local sourcing, which has only been heightened by the
pandemic. Technomic research reveals 51 per cent of Canadians are buying from local restaurants as a way to support the community. And, consumers increasingly expecting restaurants to source local ingredients and products.

Beef and Beyond
With regard to burgers, today’s consumers aren’t beholden to beef. An ever-growing range of dietary preferences, as well as desire for variety, have helped drive demand for burgers featuring a range of proteins. A prime example, plant-based burgers ranked 11th on DoorDash’s list of the most popular delivery dishes in Canada during the first half of 2020 and made it to the Top-10 list of three provinces (fifth in both Quebec and Ontario; sixth in P.E.I.), while traditional beef burgers were notably absent from the national Top-20 list.

“Over the last five years, we’ve seen more of a move towards the vegetarian-based patty,” shares Miller, who notes The WORKS’ Beyond Meat burgers constitute about eight-per-cent of the chain’s sales. “We also have our portobello mushroom cap and The WORKS vegetarian burger, so we have three [patty] options that are fully vegetarian. We also launched Canada’s first vegan bacon cheeseburger last year.”

The WORKS offers a wide range of burger patties, which also includes a variety of beef-based options, chicken breast, the brand’s signature elk patty and crispy chicken. “We want to [offer] the ultimate gourmet-burger experience for any palette,” explains Miller, noting the classic beef patty is the brand’s number-1 seller, followed by wagyu beef and the Beyond Meat patty.

Kirbiyik agrees orders over the past year have revealed a desire for variety, sharing that people who have been ordering out a lot appear to be switching up their orders to keep things interesting or make more health-conscious decisions. However, Ozzy’s Burgers’ most popular menu items continue to be its cheeseburger and fried-chicken burger.

As evidenced by the wealth of media attention over the last couple of years, fried-chicken sandwiches have also been gaining traction. In fact, DoorDash’s data revealed crispy- or fried-chicken sandwiches ranked among 2020’s most-ordered dishes in three provinces — first in Saskatchewan, second in New Brunswick and sixth in Nova Scotia.

All the Fixins’
Despite growing demand for comforting offerings and ingredients with a health halo, decisions around burger toppings often come down to personal preference.

“People are very loyal to their favourite WORKS burger,” says Miller. “We actually find there’s different groupings of toppings [experiencing] popularity based on the guest’s need state and what they’re looking for.” These key ‘groupings’ include vegetarian, cheesy, barbecue and spicy toppings.

Highlighting demand for spicy foods, Technomic’s Ignite menu data identified “heat-infused condiments and sauces” as being among the fastest-growing ingredients on Canadian menus during the third quarter of 2020. Year-over-year comparison revealed wasabi mayonnaise (up 23.8 per cent), chipotle aioli (up 18.4 per cent), spicy mayonnaise (up 5.1 per cent) and honey-chipotle sauce (up 3.3 per cent) as ingredients that saw growth.

Technomic’s What to Expect in Canada in 2021 trends forecast also highlighted quirky offerings as a trend to watch. Harvey points to “fun fad foods” as an opportunity to cater to customers looking for a little joy and whimsy. As an example, she points to Muskoka Jack’s Muskoka Grill’s Couch Potato Burger, which was offered as part of its summer menu and featured brisket, branded snacks and a powdered mini doughnut on top.

Aside from being a great way to create buzz around a brand, Miller stresses that unusual burger creations do, in fact, generate sales. The WORKS has a long history of over-the-top menu items, including a Reese PBC burger, featuring a peanut-butter-cup-stuffed beef patty; and the Hella Nutella burger — featuring maple bacon, an onion ring and Nutella — which has become a permanent menu item.

And, while many may view these burgers as novelty items, Miller says these offerings are “incredibly powerful,” citing that when the Reese PBC burger debuted, it quickly became the brand’s number-3 seller.

However, the classic combination of bacon and cheese shouldn’t be overlooked. While it may be an old standby, the bacon cheeseburger still resonates with consumers and made an appearance on DoorDash’s provincial Top-10 lists from the first half of 2020, ranking as the fourth most-ordered item in Saskatchewan and fifth in B.C.

As Kirbiyik points out, the pandemic has meant that “the average consumer’s budget is being pinched,” which has led some customers to save money by opting for a classic cheeseburger combo rather than indulge in more extravagant, specialty burgers. This has also grown demand for specials and deals, he explains, which Ozzy’s Burgers has responded to with a $10.99 cheeseburger combo special offered on long weekends and holidays.

And, rounding out the burger experience, sides aren’t to be forgotten. Ipsos Foodservice Monitor data shows typical burger accompaniments (French fries, sweet-potato fries and onion rings) also got a boost during the pandemic. While this remained the most popular order category, the number of orders featuring these items increased to 17.5 per cent in April 2020, up from 15.1 per cent the previous year.

Kirbiyik notes sides have been influenced by the same industry trends as entrées, with sales of sweet-potato fries — often seen as a healthier alternative — up over the past year.

On the more indulgent side, poutine ranked as Canada’s third-most popular dish ordered on DoorDash during the first half of 2020. It also made the list of Top-10 foods in seven provinces. And, while sides weren’t the stars of the national trends list, many others achieved high rankings on provincial Top-10 lists: French fries were the number-1 dish in both Alberta and Quebec; onion rings ranked first in New Brunswick and second in Saskatchewan; and fried pickles ranked fifth in N.S. and seventh in Saskatchewan.

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