Can Burger Operators Grow in the Crowded Canadian Culinary Landscape?

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Issue 48, Number 3

Written By: Rebecca Harris

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]ne evening this past March, Morris Baker, co-owner of Montreal’s Burger Bar Crescent, got an email from his executive chef, Brian Paquette. The chef said he was changing the recipe for one of the restaurant’s most popular menu items, Chix Dig It, a grilled chicken sandwich with bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado and mayonnaise. “We’ll make preserved lemons and do a lemon-and-herbed mayo for the sandwich,” wrote Paquette. “I also changed how the chicken is being prepared. It will be approximately 100-per-cent better.”

Tweaks to sandwiches, even ones that are top sellers, along with a steady stream of seasonal offerings, keep diners interested, says Baker. “You can’t just set up a menu and walk away,” he explains. “A menu is a living document; it’s constantly breathing and changing. I don’t think a two-week period goes by where we don’t have something new to offer our customers. And we attract the type of foodies who appreciate that.”

In an increasingly crowded segment, burger restaurant operators have to continually find new ways to attract diners looking for a better burger. “One of the biggest challenges in the sector is differentiation,” says Kristin Menas, associate editor, Canada and Adult Beverage at Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc. “Operators are at risk of falling into the same patterns as their competitors by utilizing similar ingredients, flavour combinations and preparations. Although it’s important to stay relevant with these trends, operators have to get creative in other ways to separate themselves from the pack.” They’re doing that, adds Menas, by introducing more exclusive signature items, specialty sauces and condiments to create a more house-made, higher-quality experience for their customers.

New York-based Bareburger, which recently opened its first Canadian location in Toronto, tries to stand out from the crowd by positioning itself as a healthier option. The concept focuses on organic, all-natural, free-range meats and has many non-beef options. Blue Elk, for instance, features elk, Amish blue cheese, back bacon, stout onions and tomato fig jam on a sprout bun ($13.65). The El Matador is a bison burger with cheese curds, pickled jalapeños, guacamole and spicy pico de gallo on a brioche bun ($13.95). “These are leaner red meats and have different nutritional content than [conventional] burgers,” says Andrew Sarda, executive chef. “Yes, it’s a burger, and you can still have fries and sauces and have a treat-yourself meal, but we’re using organic ingredients and healthier proteins.”

One new menu item Bareburger recently introduced is the Fire Quacker, made with ground duck, pepper jack cheese, habanero mayo, pickled jalapeños, red onions, spinach and tomatoes on a brioche bun ($13.15). “It has a spicy profile, but it plays so well with the duck,” says Sarda. “Duck is not what people think of readily as their meat of choice, but it’s been welcomed with open arms.”

Technomic’s “2013 Canadian Burger Consumer Trend Report” found that more than one-quarter of Canadian consumers (26 per cent) said it’s important for burger restaurants to offer non-beef meat options such as turkey or lamb. And a little more than one-fifth (22 per cent overall and 28 per cent of those 18 to 34) said it’s important to offer vegan choices.

“We’re seeing [non-beef] options as a new frontier for the burger concepts,” says Menas. “Consumers want non-beef options, whether it be for health reasons or alternative diets. This may be one way for burger chains to maintain their growth. Consumers are clearly not only looking for better burgers but burgers they view as better for them.”

While more diners are gravitating to non-beef items, such as the black bean and farmers’ quinoa patty options offered at Bareburger, the classics are still king. For example, the chain’s cheeseburger, The Standard, is a top seller. The menu item is made with Colby cheese, stout onions and dill pickles ($11.25). “It’s a go-to burger for people,” says Sarda. “It’s just a delicious burger that’s simple and straightforward — people don’t want to overthink things.”

The same can be said of the customers at Toronto-based gourmet burger chain Big Smoke Burger, which has 16 locations in Canada, the U.S. and the Middle East. One of its bestselling items is the classic cheeseburger, made with smoked Canadian cheddar ($7.89), says CEO Mustafa Yusuf, who founded the company in 2007. But, while some diners like to stick to tradition, Big Smoke Burger keeps things fresh by adding one or two new menu items each year.

For last year’s citywide Burger Week promotion in Toronto, the company turned to its employees for new burger ideas. “We told them they can only bring one product from outside that wasn’t already in our inventory,” says Yusuf. “We generally like to keep using whatever we already have in the building rather than bringing in a new product across the board.”

One staff member brought in a pineapple to grill and The Blazing Pineapple was born. The burger, which became a permanent menu item, features hot banana peppers, grilled pineapple, blazing sauce, mayo and barbecue sauce ($7.69). Big Smoke Burger also recently introduced a Jerk Chicken sandwich with barbecue sauce and hot banana peppers ($8.29). “Our customers like that we use real ingredients,” says Yusuf, adding that the chain differentiates itself by serving hand-cut fries, house-made signature sauces and charbroiled burgers. “People’s appetites have changed, and they’re looking for quality.”

Indeed, gourmet burger restaurants’ focus on quality gives consumers a newer, better way to eat burgers, and there’s no turning back. “Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s very hard to put back,” says Burger Bar Crescent’s Baker. “It’s indisputable that people in North America like burgers. The innovators came along and taught the population that there was a better way to make them. And once people were educated, it made room within the category for more competition.”

Baker, a former Ben & Jerry’s franchise owner, had no restaurant experience when he opened Burger Bar Crescent with his brother Ari in 2011. But he applied Ben & Jerry’s philosophy of using high-quality, natural ingredients to the burger concept.

Burger Bar Crescent’s bestselling burger is The Hangover, which won the People’s Choice award at Montreal’s inaugural Le Burger Week in 2012. It’s topped with American cheese, bacon, poutine, fried egg, caramelized onion and truffle oil ($18). Burger Bar’s 2014 submission to Le Burger Week, The Dude, also became a permanent menu item. The sandwich is a beef, veal and pork patty topped with Monterey Jack, mozzarella, house ketchup and crispy fried onions.

Na’eem Adam, a marketing professional and co-founder of Le Burger Week, says part of the reason gourmet burgers are so popular is they’re one of the few items chefs can call their own. “When you create a lobster ravioli, it’s always a lobster ravioli — there’s really nothing you can add to it,” says Adam. “But when it comes to burgers, chefs can continuously create things and add ingredients.”

That’s also why customers are drawn to gourmet burger concepts, many of which have customizable options. Bareburger, for instance, has a “Be-My-Burger” option, which allows customers to choose the patty, bun, cheese, bacon, veggies, sauce and spread. “People want to customize to fit their needs,” says Sarda. “Be My Burger lets [customers] build their burger from start to finish — if you want it, you can make it.”

B.C.’s Splitz Grill was built on the create-your-own-burger concept. People order at the counter and choose from various toppings, including hot peppers, hummus, baba ghanoush and fresh salsa, along with standard toppings such as lettuce, tomato and onion. “People can make the burger the way they want it as opposed to picking an item off a menu,” says owner and chef Trevor Jackson, who opened Splitz Grill in Whistler in 1997 (it was later sold) and Vancouver in 2008. “Our menu has stayed pretty similar over the last 18 years … but with 10 different types of burgers and 30-odd toppings, there are a lot of combinations for people.”

Technomic’s Menas concurs that customization is part of the appeal of gourmet burger restaurants. “Consumers want what they want and how they want it,” she says. “We’re seeing customization going hand in hand with a lot of these better-burger concepts…. I think that is very appealing to people; you don’t have to know what you want going in, and you can create your own specific menu item.”

Whatever their preference, consumer demand for quality burgers shows no signs of abating. “We’re still seeing that market in Canada heat up,” says Menas, who adds that there is room for more growth. “There’s only so much growth before market saturation is reached, but I don’t believe this category in Canada is overly saturated yet.”

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