Editor’s note: This report marks the annual recognition of hamburgers and the induction of the 2010 class of The National Provisioner Hamburger Hall of Fame. New members include Lopez Foods Inc. representing the processing side of the burger business, Giant Eagle the retail sector and Steak ‘n Shake the foodservice addition.

Imagine a marketing slogan touting the hamburger as a heart attack meal. On second thought give your imagination a rest and follow this story to a real destination in the Arizona valley to a hamburger joint that flaunts its disdain for health food with the name “Heart Attack Grill.” This scenario involves the fact that Heart Attack Grill is not advertised on TV or in publications of any kind — at least not by traditional means such as those employed by its counterparts including fast-food burger icons McDonald’s, Burger King and White Castle.

Opportunity knocks

Let it be known that the Tempe, Ariz.-based founder and owner of Heart Attack Grill uses gimmicks to attract customers to his restaurant where they can enjoy the gluttonous experience of a Quadruple Bypass Burger (two pounds of beef, four layers of cheese and 12 slices of bacon) and Flatliner Fries (French fries cooked in lard).

Although such gimmicks are steeped in controversy, Heart Attack Grill is not alone in its attempt to distinguish itself in a crowded field. Burger King, a member of The National Provisioner’s 2008 Hall of Fame, found itself embroiled in controversy involving one of its TV ad campaigns intended to promote its Texican Whopper — a cheeseburger with chile and spicy mayonnaise. The ad, featuring a character portrayed as a tall American cowboy paired with a short Mexican wrestler draped in a cape of the flag of Mexico, was condemned as inappropriate and an affront to Mexico and Mexicans. “The taste of Texas with a little spicy Mexican, to understand it, you must try it,” the ad said. Burger King defended the ads indicating that they were intended to show how the southwestern United States and Mexico represent combined effect in terms of marketing influences. The corporation reportedly planned to revise aspects of the ad “out of respect for the Mexican culture and its people,” however.

Meanwhile, Heart Attack Grill is under no compunction to revise its approach to positioning its restaurant business. For one thing, patrons are served by women wearing an outfit resembling a nurse’s uniform although more in line with the attire of servers at Hooters. Their scanty attire notwithstanding, there is a difference in the dress code at Heart Attack Grill — the stethoscope dangling around servers’ necks. Their customers are “patients” and orders are “prescriptions.”

Although not without critics — including the Arizona Board of Nursing and the Center for Nursing Advocacy who see such tactics as going over the top in terms of irreverence, there is no shortage of free advertising the restaurant garners. Consider the millions of watchers who saw Bill Geist of the CBS News Sunday Morning Show fame during his visit this year to the Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Ariz.

Who is the brainchild of Heart Attack Grill? His name is Jon Basso. In a 2007 report posted on Entrepreneur.com (Entrepreneur Media Inc.), Basso, Heart Attack Grill owner who dubs himself “Dr. Jon, chief surgeon,” discusses how his marketing thesis became a pivot point for the theme of his eatery that has acquired an international reputation mostly by world of mouth. Basso’s first business venture involved operating a chain of personal training studios where he reportedly listened to clients talk about cheating on their diets. And thus was born his vision for a place where gluttony is acceptable behavior or rather expected behavior.

Hamburgers and healthy eating

Heart Attack Grill is the antithesis of today’s burger joints and retail outlets that espouse the healthy aspects of ground beef (see calorie and fat breakdown chart). Tammy Roberts, a nutrition and health education specialist associated with the University of Missouri-Columbia extension division, confirms that lean ground beef is a better health choice. Lean ground beef contains no more than 10 percent fat, she reports. Four ounces of lean ground beef contain 11 grams of fat. Meanwhile, extra lean ground beef contains no more than 5 percent fat.

Among the products of the ‘90s at the height of consumer push for healthy foods was McDonald’s McLean Deluxe offered as a healthy alternative to regular menu burger items. Released in 1991, the burger’s reduced fat content was achieved from a mixture of 91-percent lean beef carrageenan (polysaccharides extracted from certain species of red seaweed). McDonald’s dropped it from its menu in 1994 after poor sales performances.

Hamburger particulars

Ground beef and/or hamburger, marketed under several brands and offered in a variety of grinds, represents the largest segment of U.S. fresh-meat processing with the hamburger as a mainstay product — especially for the foodservice sector (see per capita consumption chart).

Although ground beef and chopped are synonymous, there is a difference between ground beef and hamburger, according to USDA, which has determined that beef fat may be added to hamburger but not ground beef if the meat is ground and packaged at a USDA-inspected plant.

Hamburger meat is defined as chopped fresh and/or frozen beef, with or without added beef fat and/or seasonings. It should contain no more than 30 percent fat and no added water, phosphates binders or extenders. Beef cheek meat up to 25 percent is allowed as part of the meat formulation.

Traditional ground beef generally is made from the less tender and less popular cuts of beef. Trimmings from more tender cuts may also be used. Grinding tenderizes the meat and the fat reduces its dryness and improves flavor.

Most ground beef is ground and packaged in local stores rather than in food processing plants under USDA inspection. Even so, the federal labeling laws on fat content apply. Also, states and cities set standards for store-packaged ground beef which, by law, cannot be less than federal standards. Any products in retail stores containing more than 30 percent fat by weight would be considered adulterated under federal law.

Food safety matters

For years, the beef industry and the U.S. government have battled E. coli O 157:H7 — the most insidious among pathogens causing foodborne illness, to say nothing of its major threat to the viability of ground beef and hamburger. Their efforts seem Sisyphean given the spate of recalls in 2007, especially the one ultimately forcing the largest U.S. manufacturer of frozen hamburger, Elizabeth, N.J.-based Topps Meat Company LLC, to go out of business. Despite all that has been done to thwart this lethal pathogen since the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1992 — the watershed event that placed regulatory and consumer focus on E. coli O157:H7 — cases involving contaminated ground beef continue to plague the marketplace.

Besides the animals themselves — inherent food-safety risks are linked to the nature of the processing process and the lack of an efficacious kill step to deal with biological hazards. To offset such predictable challenges, experts recommend that grinders implement best-practice procedures to safeguard their raw and finished ground beef products. Total process control throughout the grinding operation is the ultimate goal. To that end, beef processors and their supplier-industry partners must in part rely on the development and employment of technology in equipment and systems.

Technology governing equipment such as mixers, grinder and patty formers play a key role in the evolution of the food-safety process of ground beef production.

Hamburger hype

To be sure, there are good reasons that the hamburger has become popular and profitable over the years backed by more than a century of food lore. Few other food products enjoy such a prominent position in American culture. Consider cartoons. Remember Popeye’s friend Wimpy? He loved hamburgers as much as Popeye loved spinach. His famous line, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” was first introduced in the 1934 cartoon We Aim to Please.

Concerning the debate over the oldest hamburger joint, New Haven, Conn. is a worthy location thanks to Louis’ Lunch, which opened as a lunch wagon in 1895. To this day burgers are broiled vertically in the original 1898 cast iron stoves and served between two slices of white toast. With that kind of longevity, who needs hype?

Lopez Foods

As president and Chief Executive Officer of Oklahoma City, Okla.-based Lopez Food Inc., the largest Hispanic-owned U.S. meat-processing company, Ed Sanchez knows the value of kudos bestowed upon a business in recognition of its exemplary operating performance.

He also knows that few such accomplishments happen in a vacuum — that is to say in isolation from external influences. In that regard, it is no wonder that Sanchez shares credit for his company’s success with McDonald’s, its major hamburger customer.

“The big news recently is the development and launch of the third-pounder Angus burger,” Sanchez says. “This is the first new burger launch for McDonald in eight years.” Sanchez sees McDonald’s new initiative as insightful and propitious. “The hamburger has been called dead so many times over the years,” he says. “It always comes back stronger though.”

Sanchez’ resume comprises more than 30 years of global strategic and operation experience in restaurant management including a stint at the McDonald’s Corporation where he served as president of its Latin America operation.

If the early results are an indication, the third-pounder will be a boon to Lopez Foods’ growth strategies as well as its Angus beef suppliers.

“The Angus burger will add a lot to the Angus movement, which is growing incrementally,” Sanchez confirms.

Made with 100 percent USDA-inspected Angus beef — the new line of burgers come in varieties including Angus Deluxe, Angus Mushroom and Swiss, and Angus Bacon and Cheese, for a suggested retail price of $3.99 each. Sanchez reports that the concept was born two years ago using input from focus groups on the West Coast where Angus is recognized as premium beef. Toppings include fresh produce and such savory ingredients as red onions, sautéed mushrooms, crisp green iceberg lettuce and sliced red tomatoes. Patties are served on a bakery-style sesame seed roll.

“The burger is more than meat on a bun,” Sanchez concludes. “It also has cultural implications. But its ultimate impact is how our business contributes to the satisfaction of consumers and the well-being of our employees.”

Giant Eagle

How does a supermarket survive The Great Depression and various marketplace challenges in the years following that economic crisis to become a 21st century business model? If its name is Giant Eagle, the answer is by expanding with more stores, more services, good value and low prices. This is not an easy accomplishment considering competition from big box stores like Wal-Mart on one end of the landscape, and specialty stores like Whole Foods on the other.

Giant Eagle is still owned by the five families that founded the Pittsburgh-based operation in 1931. Its growth over the years has resulted in its current position as one of the largest U.S. food retailers and distributors with approximately $7.1 billion in annual sales.

The cornerstone of Giant Eagle’s strategy is product and marketing distinction, which is confirmed by Ed Steinmetz, vice president of meat, seafood and prepared foods, in a report published in Meat & Deli Retailer (February 2006). “Part of our strategy is to create points of difference and become famous for our meats,” he said. “We continually try to push the envelope.” To that end, premium and value-added meat and poultry are positioned as key drivers in Giant Eagle’s meat department. It markets only USDA Choice or higher grades of beef and offers an extensive variety of prepared gourmet foods besides.

“Beef is the biggest category in the meat department offering the opportunity to create multiple layers,” Steinmetz said.

Concerning gourmet foods, Giant Eagle’s gourmet burger program comprises a broad selection of flavored hamburger patties including BBQ, Cajun, Cracked Pepper $ Garlic, French Onion, Greek, Italian, Jalapeno, Steak, Taco, Blue Cheese, Bacon Cheddar and Pepperoni.

“The value-added area is a great differentiator,” according to Steinmetz. “As customers become less skilled at cooking and slicing meat, value-added items help fill the gap.”

Regular ground beef rounds out the category and Giant Eagle offers various blends in its service meat department and four Certified Angus Beef (CAB) blends only in the self-service section. CAB meet comprises chuck, round and sirloin cuts.

Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is a specification-based, branded-beef program established in 1978 by Angus cattle producers to increase demand for their breed of cattle. Angus cattle were defined as consistent, high-quality beef with superior taste. The brand is owned by the American Angus Association and its rancher members.

Giant Eagle began offering gourmet burgers more than five years ago to appeal to customers whose lifestyles were evolving.

“We experimented and tried different things in trying to understand what was driving customers’ eating patterns,” Steinmetz said. “Burgers seemed to be one of the top things on menus at fine-dining restaurants in different varieties. Our gourmet program grew from there.”

Steak 'n Shake

Steak ‘n Shake of Steakburger™ fame is on the move with the ultimate goal of offering “better burgers.” That does not mean opening new stores but rather by improving “present restaurant-level operations.”

So says Sardar Biglari, chairman and chief executive officer of Indianapolis-based The Steak ‘n Shake Company in his 2008 letter to shareholders.

“Steak ‘n Shake is a classic American brand, and we intend to lead and dominate the premium burger and milkshake segment of the restaurant industry,” Biglari wrote. “The culture of Steak ‘n Shake is changing to one that is performance-oriented.”

That shrinking revenues define business operations in these recessionary times is a given. No segment is more challenged than the foodservice realm. In that regard, there is something to be said for a restaurant that has survived and thrived for three-quarters of a century as has Steak ‘n Shake, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2009.

If Biglari has his way, 2009 is the year Steak ‘n Shake reinvents itself and makes more money for its shareholders.

“To win out, we must aspire to best-in-class cleanliness, product, service, value, promotion and menu,” Biglari wrote. “We now constantly gauge ourselves against the very best so we can improve dramatically, ultimately take the lead, and be in a class unto ourselves. It is critical that our food be distinctive, savory and priced to attract higher frequency of return.”

Already new food offerings — such as the recently introduced Steakburger Shots reportedly accounting for roughly 6 percent of all transactions — are contributing to increased restaurant traffic.

Steak ‘n Shake’s new four-page menu trumpets the company’s 75th anniversary on the front, with company’s full line of core products on the middle two pages. The company’s new drive-thru board is designed for an easier customer read.

This year in April, the company reported an unexpected second-quarter profit posting bolstered by a decline in expenses and a same-store sales increase of 2.4 percent.

The company explained that a 7.8 percent increase in guest traffic in the quarter was somewhat offset by a 5.4 percent reduction in average guest checks.

For the quarter, the company reportedly earned $2.3 million, or 8 cents a share, compared with the past year’s loss of $2.8 million, or 10 cents.