Burgers are the top centre-of-the-plate food item in Canada and always have been. According to the NPD Group/CREST data, Canadian restaurants served more than 750-million burgers during the 12 months ending November 2020. Burger-serving volumes have grown for each of the past five years, despite the growing popularity of plant-based alternatives. As you might expect, burger volumes are down from the prior year — by about eight per cent. During this same time, CREST reports foodservice traffic (visits) fell by 18 per cent. If you’re doing the math in your head right now, you’ve just calculated that burgers actually became more popular since the start of the pandemic. How did this happen?
Since the start of the pandemic, many have reported the growing prominence of restaurant-meal delivery. The biggest beneficiaries of this booming trend, especially during the early days of the pandemic, were the quick-service restaurants (QSR) that specialize in pizza and chicken. They were already well established with a delivery infrastructure and the apps to support it and were quickly able to accommodate the increased volume brought on by the dining-room shutdown. That’s one of the reasons pizza was the best-performing food item this past year — declining by just six per cent — and remains the top menu item for delivery, outselling burgers by two to one. Just a year ago, pizza outsold burgers by a ratio of three to one. How is it that burgers have continued to grow in popularity despite the boom in pizza delivery? The QSR burger operators were quick to capitalize on this delivery trend by increasing their availability on third-party-restaurant apps. As a result, this restaurant channel was the fastest growing last year, collectively tripling their delivery visits.
The next factor contributing to the growing popularity of burgers is the drive thru. While delivery has grown quickly, it still holds just a single-digit share of total foodservice visits. Drive thru, on the other hand, has grown the most during the past year and now represents about half of all visits. QSR burger operators have outperformed every other restaurant channel through the drive-thru window, tripling their volume in just a year. And, unlike delivery, there’s no app that will provide a quick fix for other restaurant channels to take advantage of this trend.
Over the years, QSR burger operators have been able to reinforce the popularity of their signature menu item through a well-established ritual of new-product introductions and limited-time offers (LTO). Product innovation contributed as much as one quarter of all burger growth in recent years, but this LTO activity has slowed during the past 12 months. Operators are struggling to keep their product-development pipelines filled, due to limited access to their product-testing facilities, restrictions in working with their supplier partners and the inability to access consumer product-testing panels. Combined with operator demands for streamlined kitchen operations during this time of physical distancing, it is likely that LTO activity will continue to look a little
different in the short term. That supplier community will, therefore, need to come up with new ways to support its operator partners and should prepare themselves for a re-boot of tried-and-true LTOs from the past and minor variations on themes that operators can ‘build’ with their existing kitchen ingredients.
The growing popularity of burgers this past year has led to a lift in the amount consumers spend on burger-centred meals — fuelled mainly by growth in consumer demand for comfort and indulgence. This up-spending is taking place across several menu categories and represents an opportunity for operators and suppliers alike to upscale their products and grow their eater checks to help offset some of the declines in volume.
The number-1 request I’ve received over the past 12 months is to forecast what the future of foodservice might look like. In this ever-changing environment, I’m reluctant to make many firm predictions, but here is one that you can count on — the popularity of burgers.
Written by Vince Sgabellone