My first real job (“real” defined as a job that had a future, unlike my fast food, car washing business and door to door sales jobs I had tried as a USC student in L.A.) out of college was for a meat processor in Denver. Typical of what you’d expect to see at a small beef plant, the building was vintage 1950s, and smelled like musty meat of years gone by and cleaning chemicals.

I nicknamed the plant “the battleship,” as it was made of concrete and steel and had all sorts of small rooms that twisted and turned into a maze that one could easily get lost in without a smart phone with GPS to help you navigate your way around. The “battleship” was located in the old “Stockyards” section of Denver near I-70 and I-25.

In the belly of the “battleship” was a machine that was louder than the turbo diesel engines that push submarines around the bottom of the Pacific. It was a machine that could easily cause you to lose your hearing at a young age if you didn’t wear ear protection, and it was the workhorse of the small plant. It was our beloved, Old Faithful and reliable patty machine. I named all the machines in the plant just like Air Force pilots name their planes. She was Shari.

We would start feeding Shari’s hopper at 5 a.m. each morning and she’d work all day long, until 2 or 3 pm with just beef and food grade grease on her zerk fittings. She’d make us 6-1, 8-1, 5-1, 4-1, 3-1 and 2-1 patties in various shapes and forms. We had over 20 plates and cups for her, and she slid and pushed and stamped the patties out with ease, most of the time.

Back then, as a sales rep on the streets, my restaurant and distributor customers wanted beef patties as fresh as possible, but there weren’t a whole lot of options for your burger specs, just 2-1 round or 3-1 square or oval. That was then, when we wore pagers and carried Motorola brick phones.

Today is as different as smart phones are from brick phones. Today we can give our customers smash burgers, homemade style, thick or thin or wide patties. Today’s machines have advanced fill systems that can make the patties cook faster and eat better. Plates and cups have become less prevalent, and patties are now rolled flat. Customers today can get any size patty they want without having to commit to the volume required to invest in expensive plates. Our workers can change from 2-1 patties to 4-1 patties with a few finger pushes on the digital keypad. I remember when I changed plates it could take 10 minutes or longer if Shari was in a bad mood.

In February, I attended the National Grocers Association annual conference. Last month I attended Food Expo West in Anaheim, CA. At both events, I talked to retail store buyers, foodservice operators and beef patty manufacturers about what’s trending in beef burgers in ’14.

In foodservice, trends are:

  • Custom blends are popular, with combinations of chuck/brisket/sirloin or chuck/boneless short ribs/sirloin.
  • Roll stock over vacuum packaged bags are preferred for convenience.
  • Locally sourced, never-ever, grass-fed and organic demand is increasing, especially with Millenniums.
  • Beef mixed with bacon and cheese or other gourmet ingredients is gaining in popularity.
  • Chefs are asking for 6- or 7-ounce patties instead of 8-ounce patties to save on food costs.
  • Patties made by machines that can make a “smash” or home-style look and bite are preferred over stamped patties.

In retail, trends are:

  • Leaner grinds of 85, 90 and up to 96% lean.
  • Bricks packaged in roll stock film are preferred by consumers over chubs, even 1-pound chubs, because shoppers can see the meat, and the brick pack looks more attractive.
  • Sales of locally sourced, never-ever, grass-fed and organic offerings continue to grow

For both retail and foodservice, burgers made with LFTB are re-gaining in acceptance from buyers and consumers, and sales are growing. I believe that that this is in part because of consumers becoming self-educated, concerns about safety are abated and in part because of increasing ground beef component pricing.

In summary, I predict that even with much higher prices, beef patty demand will continue to grow in 2014. Americans love to eat hamburgers but with an increasing passion for gourmet differentiation.