Toppings add panache, but the basis of burgers' appeal remains the comfort and simplicity of the classic union between beef and bun.
This article first appeared in the 15 October 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
No menu item sells more briskly than burgers, a truth that seals their status as America's favorite meal. The ground-beef-and-bun combo has the deep devotion of consumers; add to that an adaptable formula of proteins, toppings and condiments and the sandwich hits on all cylinders. With so much to offer, it's easy to see why burger sales aren't holding steady but gaining ground.
"Fads come and go, but at the end of the day, people want their burgers and fries," says Aramark Corp. Director of Culinary Services Warren Goodman at Banner Estrella Medical Center in Phoenix, where cooked-to-order sirloin burgers are among top sellers for staff, visitors and patients. "We just couldn't operate without them."
Amid that much menu penetration, the challenge is differentiating one assemblage of beef patty, bun and condiments from all the others. With that in mind, operators work hard to devise winning formulas.
What's Your Beef?
Flavorful, cost-effective ground chuck is the go-to protein for scores of operations, whether purchased fresh or frozen, prepattied or formed in house. Many kitchens also create proprietary blends of several beef cuts or, to a lesser degree, source specialty products such as grass-fed or Kobe beef.
Charbroiled burgers, shaped from chuck ground in house, are a big draw on Burger Night Mondays at Doug Arango's, an upscale restaurant in West Hollywood, Calif. But when patties are made with natural beef Chef-co-owner Christopher Bennett sources from a Hawaiian ranch, they usually sell out.
"We don't get it that often, so when we do, we let customers know by fax and e-mail," says Bennett of the distinctively flavored beef, sourced from cattle raised on grass and feed that includes pineapple and sugarcane.
Sascha Lyon, formerly chef of Sascha and Pastis in New York City, favors a blend of domestic, low-muscle beef with 18% fat. He asks suppliers to chop the meat before grinding so there is less resistance as it moves through the machinery; this reduces the amount of heat, says Lyon, resulting in better texture.
Charcoal or wood-burning grills yield great flavor, he adds, but griddles are especially good. "They're consistent and they're very hot. They also maintain heat well, so recovery is almost instantaneous. You can throw 20 patties on the griddle and they'll sizzle away," he says.
At Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based Culver's Frozen Custard & ButterBurgers, up to three different cuts of steak form the chain's custom formula. The combination is lean and yet delivers a distinct steak flavor, says Jim Doak, director of research and menu development.
Puck-shaped 2Â¾-ounce portions of fresh meat are lightly seasoned and hand-pressed on gas griddles. While the single-patty Culver's ButterBurger Deluxe is the top seller, guests can order extra patties.
Letting customers decide portion size by adding multiple patties has long been a staple at quick-service outlets. More recently, some operators are giving diners several patty sizes from which to choose. Carpinteria, Calif.-based Carl's Jr. did just that with its recently introduced JalapeÁ±o Burger. Diners can get the pepper-spiked sandwich either as a Six Dollar Burger with nearly a half pound of Angus beef or in standard single- or double-patty versions.
To meet students' varying appetites, Aramark Corp. account Cherry Hill Public Schools in New Jersey matches burger styles to age groups. High schools serve more-upscale, 6-ounce sirloin burgers with specialty toppings and also sell 4-ounce hamburgers and cheeseburgers made from district-purchased, 80%-lean ground beef or government-supplied commodity beef. Middle and elementary schools offer only 4-ounce burgers. Because these facilities don't have grills or char-broilers, burgers instead are baked on lined sheet pans.
Downsizing is evident on menus of white-tablecloth concepts such as Chicago-based Morton's, The Steakhouse, as well as casual-dining chains including Maryville, Tenn.-based Ruby Tuesday, both of whom offer miniburgers, often dubbed "sliders" (after Columbus, Ohio-based White Castle's signature Slyder). The sandwiches are red hot, capitalizing on interest in bite-sized, shareable foods.
Boston-based Uno Chicago Grill added sliders about a year ago, selling them in trios for entrées and by the burger at the bar. The addition was easy enough operationally: standard 10-ounce ground-chuck patties, sourced frozen, are divided into thirds, seasoned with a proprietary blend and char-broiled.
Not the Same Old Grind
Beyond the basics of beef type, patty size and cooking equipment, operators have some tasty tricks to distinguish their products. At Naha in Chicago, grilling over hickory and sometimes cherry wood introduces extra layers of flavor into Chef-owner Carrie Nahabedian's 8-ounce Angus burgers, producing patties charred on the outside though juicy inside.
Chef-owner Tim Goodell, who this year added upscale burger joint 25 Degrees to his food-and-beverage portfolio at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, adds 5% pork fat to his ground chuck-sirloin burger blend.
"For flavor and fat textures, pork and beef are completely different. Pork fat creates a juicier burger," says Goodell, who conceived 25 Degrees as an "adult burger experience."
Great sandwiches at two-unit Red Mill Burgers, a Seattle quick-service favorite, start with char-broiled, quarter-pound patties delivered fresh daily, says co-owner Babe Shepherd. Burgers are dressed on the griddle, atop buns as they toast, and Mill Sauce (chipotle mayonnaise) is spread on both top and bottom.
Recipes inspired by the restaurants' bistro theme set burgers apart at Mon Ami Gabi, an upscale-casual concept from Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Rotating choices include the French onion burger and burger au cheval, topped with an egg. All burgers are served on brioche buns.
Try It Meatless
Nonmeat eaters aren't immune to burgers' charms. Convenient purchased patties and house-made recipes find devoted followings.
- Executive Chef Maneet Chauhan's deep-fried plantain-cilantro burger (shown)at Vermilion in Chicago blends boiled plantains with cilantro, jalapeÁ±os, ginger, lime juice and seasonings.
- Chickpeas, carrots, zucchini and spices combine in Mediterranean Veggie Burgers at New York Burger Co.'s two Big Apple locations.
- Local Burger in Lawrence, Kan., makes veggie burgers with onion, garlic, sweet potato, spinach, peas and shiitakes.
- Owner Donna Crivello adds chickpeas, garlic and spices to roasted eggplant, peppers, onions, carrots and mushrooms for vegan burgers at Baltimore-based Donna's.
- Chef-co-owner Christopher Bennett's recipe at Doug Arango's in West Hollywood, Calif., calls for quinoa, adzuki beans, flax meal and ground mushrooms.
Reaping the benefits of Americans' ardent appetites for burgers means finding inspiration beyond beef to stir up interest and frequency.
- Elk burgers at Local Burger in Lawrence, Kan., are richly flavored but not gamy, says owner Hilary Brown, and they're leaner than beef or bison. Another unusual choice, slower in sales, are Berkshire pork burgers.
- At five-unit, Baltimore-based casual eatery Donna's, burgers of ground turkey mixed with Romano cheese, breadcrumbs, Dijon mustard, hot sauce and seasonings are a staple on the light, Mediterranean menu.
- Bison Burgers, Portobello Swiss Turkey Burgers and Jumbo Lump Crab Burgers are among 18 burger choices on the menu at Maryville, Tenn.-based Ruby Tuesday.
Ground duck burger with cranberry ketchup and baby frisée is the most-popular nonbeef option on Burger Night Mondays at Doug Arango's in West Hollywood, Calif., which also menus veal, pork and lamb burgers.
- Five-unit, fast-casual chain Energy Kitchen in New York City emphasizes lean proteins and health-oriented toppings, with choices including turkey, bison and ostrich burgers.