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September 24, 2017

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'Better burger' appetite shows that it's insatiable

FALLS CHURCH, Virginia -- With a drive-through seemingly on every corner, one might think the market for burgers long ago reached saturation. But the fastest-growing restaurant chain in America last year was Five Guys, which specializes in double-pattied behemoths the size of a softball.

And that's just the tip of the arugula. So-called "better burger" joints are one of the fastest-growing parts the restaurant industry. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay launched Bobby's Burger Palace in the Northeast. Elevation Burger is expanding into Kuwait. Mooyah Burgers & Fries, Meatheads and the Shake Shack are looking to expand.

Higher-grade beef, fresher or more creative toppings, and better buns are bringing customers in the door.

The Washington, D.C., area has emerged as fertile ground for ground chuck. Five Guys, the earliest success story, is based in Lorton, Virginia, Elevation Burger in Arlington, BGR-The Burger Joint in Lansdowne.

Ray's Hell Burger, also in Arlington, is not a chain, but the restaurant run by iconoclastic chef Michael Landrum earned a national profile with U.S. President Barack Obama taking Vice President Joe Biden and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev there last month. (Medvedev's review: "Not quite healthy, but it's very tasty.")

It's a market that has room to grow. Such chains represent only about 2 percent of the US$65 billion burger market, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based restaurant consultant Technomic.

"The traditional players — McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's — have really shifted their focus away from burgers to breakfast, chicken and beverages," said Tristano. He predicts better burger chains will continue to have double-digit sales growth for at least the next few years.

The founder of Denver-based Smashburger, fast-food industry veteran Tom Ryan, was keenly aware that Americans were hungry for higher-quality fast-food burgers.

The company did extensive research with fast-food customers who reported that the burgers they ate were mostly a matter of convenience. "'It's not the burger I crave; it's the burger I use,'" Ryan said. Smashburger has expanded to 70 stores in 15 states in just three years.

Customers are willing to pay to ease that craving. A Five Guys burger runs anywhere from US$4 to US$6, and some charge more.

Five Guys, like others, sells the fact that its burgers are never frozen — the stores don't even have freezers, only coolers. Elevation Burger uses organic, grass-fed beef and sells fries cooked in olive oil. BGR uses a mix of dry-aged beef.

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