Trends Say Customers Demand Quality, Not Quantity In Fast Food Burgers

The demand for high-quality fast food style burgers made with fresh ingredients is higher than ever before.
July 20, 2011

In 2001, when New York City's DB Bistro came out with their DB Burger stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffle, it gave rise to a new category of burgers: fancy-pants, chef-driven burgers, far removed from the humble fast food beginnings. While the $27 DB Burger wouldn't catch on everywhere, more affordable, higher-end burgers would become popular over the next decade, as seen at chef-driven restaurants like Father's Office in Los Angeles, The Spotted Pig in New York and at celebrity chef-owned burger chains like Hubert Keller's Burger Bar, Bobby Flay's Bobby's Burger Palace, Richard Blais's Flip Burger Boutique and Emeril Lagasse's Burgers and More.

The demand for fast food-style burgers made with fresh beef and other high quality ingredients grew in line with consumers' growing preference for better quality food and awareness of where their food comes from. Five Guys, which was founded in 1986 in Virginia, didn't expand nationwide until they began franchising in 2002. By 2006 they had 87 locations, and today they have over 750 locations in the U.S. and Canada. The draw: cooked-to-order burgers made with fresh, never-frozen beef piled with as many free toppings as you want—a far cry from the frozen pucks you find at the mega-chains.

New York City burger landmark Shake Shack, which was opened in 2004 by the highly regarded Union Square Hospitality Group, immediately drew hour-long lines in Madison Square Park for their freshly made burgers, frozen custard and hot dogs—nothing fancy, just good quality ingredients prepared well. Today Shake Shack has 11 locations in the U.S. and Middle East, with more to come.

Serving fresh burgers is not without its troubles, particularly when it comes to supply chain. Frozen patties can be shipped cross-country in freezer trucks from a central location. Fresh beef, on the other hand, has a very short shelf life, requiring a different strategy. The iconic Southern California-based, family-owned chain In-N-Out Burger stands out for its lack of change and adherence to the same high standards of quality in food and service since opening their first location in 1948. Their extremely wallet-friendly menu of freshly made burgers and hand cut fries, and a "secret" menu of over 20 items, has gained cult-like adoration, but up until this year their approximately 250 locations were confined to a 500-mile radius around their beef processing plant in Baldwin Park, California. (They refuse to open locations where their own beef can't be shipped fresh every single day.)

Vertical integration like this means slow expansion possibilities, but In-N-Out made headlines in 2010 when they announced that they would go beyond the radius and open in Texas—their most eastern locations in the country, made possible by the construction of a second beef processing plant. When their first Texas locations opened this past May, customers lined up for hours, with some camping out overnight, to get the first taste of In-N-Out on Texan soil.

With customers' increasing demands for high quality ingredients in fast casual burgers, "better burger" chains are expanding nationwide. Smashburger, which makes "smashed" style burgers from fresh beef and offers a wide range of toppings, first opened in Denver in 2007 and today has about 100 locations in 21 states. The Counter, a build-your-own-burger chain that touts over 312,120 topping combinations, first opened in California in 2003 and today has 30 locations in 10 states and Ireland. Elevation Burger, an environmentally conscious fast food-style burger chain that uses organic, grass-fed beef, first opened in Virginia in 2005 and now has over 15 locations in seven states. Mooyah, whose menu features fresh beef burgers with a wide range of free toppings, fries and shakes, first opened in Texas in 2007 and today has 22 locations in three states, with plans to open 450 stores in the next decade. The list goes on. Smashburger, The Counter and Elevation Burger also have plans to open more locations this year and beyond.

One of the latest burger chains set for nation-wide domination is Umami Burger, whose burgers made of fresh ground beef feature umami-rich toppings—like truffle cheese, port-caramelized onions and roasted tomato—to showcase "the fifth taste." It first opened in Los Angeles in 2009 and currently has five locations around the city, but the Umami Restaurant Group is on track to open 25 locations across the country in the next two years of Umami Burger and a fast food burger concept called U-ko.

Taking the hint, even the mega-burger chains have been getting into the premium burger market throughout the 2000s. Hardee's launched their half-pound Angus beef Six Dollar Thickburger in 2002, discontinued in 2008, then brought back in 2009. In 2009, McDonald's launched a line of Angus burgers, their first new burger in eight years (and a move that Carl's Jr. and Hardee's weren't too fond of). Burger King launched Angus burgers in 2004 and replaced them with a line of Steakhouse XT burgers in 2009. Fries got the upgraded too; Hardee's started selling "natural-cut french fries" in 2007, Carl's Jr. did the same in 2008, and Wendy's followed in 2011. A decade ago, the race to upsell the competition used to be lowering prices, increasing portions, cutting corners and offering more $1 specials and the like. These days, it's all about proving how fresh and high quality your ingredients are. Overseas, McDonald's has even launched line of signature country-specific burgers, like in France, where fast food diners can order a burger topped with real Comté cheese, fresh tomatoes and a cheese fondue sauce.

Food industry consulting firm Technomic recently released a burger trend report saying that 48 percent of American consumers eat a burger at least once a week, up from 38 percent in 2009. Survey results also showed increased preference for better quality beef (organic, grass-fed, local, etc.). While the expensive fancy-pants burger movement has leveled out, the average customer who wants a quick, high quality meal has only benefited from the new standards it delivered. It's no surprise that better burger chains are spreading with America's changing standards.