For being a small, shaped mass of ground beef, the hamburger has had a tremendous impact on American life and culture. Without the hamburger, people like Ray Kroc and Dave Thomas would never have launched their business empires, and tens of thousands never would have had their corporate and foodservice careers. Millions of Americans never would know the bliss that comes from eating a freshly grilled burger (cooked well done, naturally) during a summertime picnic. Without the hamburger, Jimmy Buffett would be singing about chicken sandwiches in paradise, which isn’t nearly as catchy.

The National Provisioner has, for the past four years, inducted processors, retailers and foodservice operators into its Hamburger Hall of Fame. A food product that has so thoroughly ingrained itself into our life deserves that kind of recognition, and so do the people and companies who bring it from the farm to the plate.

This year, we are proud to welcome three companies that have contributed to the hamburger’s popularity into the Hall. They are:

Processor Category: Burger Maker
Retail Category: Whole Foods Market
Foodservice category: Whataburger

Burger Maker, headquartered in Carlstadt, N.J., has focused on bringing the highest-quality burgers to its customers for more than 30 years. Whole Foods has been a pioneer in natural and locally grown products, and it has brought that demand for quality to its burger patties, which are ground in-store. Whataburger has, in its 50-plus years in business, become a regional favorite and the restaurant of choice for its many customers.

The National Provisioner congratulates these companies and welcomes them into the Hamburger Hall of Fame.

2011 Processor Inductee: Burger Maker

The hamburger has evolved from a convenient, cheap meal into an upscale menu item, with more and more “better burger” restaurants popping up. Burger Maker, located in Carlstadt, N.J., has been a part of that evolution for the last 32 years.

The Schweid family has been active in the meat industry since the early 1900s, working as fabricators in New York City. As the meat industry progressed, companies started becoming vertically integrated, with packers packaging their own products for sale. Not wanting to become a part of the boxed beef business, David Schweid decided to start his own business.

“What he was saw a need for fresh patties to hotels, restaurants and institutions,” explains Jamie Schweid. “He then decided to buy a small grinder and a patty machine. That’s where it all started.”

From that start, Burger Maker has grown into a premier supplier of hamburger patties. The company is still family-owned and operated, with David Schweid as president and his sons Jamie and Brad as executive vice presidents of sales and operations, respectively.

While competition against bulk ground beef can be a difficult task, Burger Maker has succeeded and grown by providing both a quality product and a valued service. David quickly noticed restaurants that made their own patties would advertise a 6-ounce patty but inadvertently serve larger patties, causing waste.

“In the end, he thought that giving the customer a better product and a better price was a pretty good sales pitch,” says Jamie Schweid.

Service remains a priority for Burger Maker. While it has been purchasing meat from the same suppliers since its start, it also caters to its customers by purchasing from specific suppliers or making a custom patty plate when asked.

“We treat our customers as we would like to be treated,” Schweid says. “Going above and beyond is what our customers expect and what we expect of ourselves.”

Burger Maker continues to thrive in the foodservice industry, but the company also has entered the retail market, selling its products at Fresh Direct stores. Schweid calls it a natural evolution for the company, but he adds that the foodservice category will continue to be the company’s focus.

“As my brother and I tell my dad, ‘You picked a great business to get into,’” he says. Burger Maker hasn’t even scratched the surface in hamburgers and ground beef, he says.

“The new ‘better burger’ category that’s emerging fits exactly into our company’s core competency,” he says. “We get weekly calls from entrepreneurs wanting to open up burger places. This is a very exciting time to be in the business.”

2011 Foodservice Inductee: Whataburger

On August 3, 2010, Whataburger reached a milestone that relatively few restaurant chains have managed -- the company celebrated its 60 anniversary. It got its start as a small hamburger stand in Corpus Christi, Texas, run by Harmon Dobson. He named it “Whataburger,” because he believed that’s what customers would say when they ate one.

“Whataburger has been blessed with 60 years of success thanks to the loyalty of our customers, the hard work of our employees and the commitment of our franchisees,” said Whataburger chairman and CEO Tom Dobson. “In 1950, when our dad opened the first Whataburger in Corpus Christi, he served over 400 customers that first day. Here we are, 60 years later, and on any given day, we serve over 460,000 customers. We are thankful for the success our family-owned company has achieved and eager to continue serving our customers for many more years.”

There are more than 700 Whataburger restaurants in 10 states in the southern half of the United States. The company, named a “Texas Treasure” by the Texas state legislature in 2001, has sales of more than $1 billion annually. With its headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, the company has stayed close to its heritage. When founder Dobson died in a plane crash in 1967, his wife, Grace, took over the business. Tom Dobson stepped in as CEO in the mid-’90s and oversaw an expansion that has made Whataburger one of the country’s largest hamburger chains.

The favorite menu item is still the original Whataburger, with the company’s signature 5-inch bun, a fresh beef patty, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, mustard and onions. Every burger is made to order, and the company says there are more than 36,864 ways to customize the original Whataburger.

“Whataburger has stayed true to the values set forth by founder Harmon Dobson in 1950,” said the company in a statement. “Two things set Whataburger apart from every other burger concept: its people and food. Whataburger customers demand and expect fresh, high-quality food, which is why Whataburger serves fresh, never frozen, 100-percent pure American beef, still brings fresh produce into the restaurants and has 5-inch buns delivered fresh from the bakery.”

The company’s employees are referred to as “family members,” in keeping with the company’s family-run tradition. Through the company’s history, its adherence to quality has created generations of loyal customers, the company says.

“In addition to the food that has kept customers coming back for 60 years, the Whataburger spirit of selfless service is shared with customers, employees and the community through ‘Whataburger Serves.’

Whataburger Serves is a sweeping, long-term initiative with events to build employee team spirit and morale, customer appreciation initiatives with fun moments and free food offers, and community initiatives that will support groups in need.”

2011 Retailer Inductee: Whole Foods Market

Think about the buzzwords in food marketing that are steadily gaining in popularity: antibiotic-free, organic, natural, locally raised. While it may seem like these are relatively new concepts, they have been bubbling just under the mainstream for years. One of those companies that has been at the head of the natural trend has been Whole Foods Market. With nearly 300 stores nationwide and steady expansion through acquisition and organic growth, Whole Foods caters to its health-conscious customers with row after row of good and good-for-you products.

Whole Foods’ philosophy carries over to the meat case as well, where antibiotic-free and hormone-free products can be found. It strives to bring back the feel of an old-fashioned butcher store, where the meat was always fresh, and the products were cut or prepared for the customer on demand. The company’s burger patties are made at the store, in order to maintain that perception.

Whole Foods got its start in the 1980 in Austin, Texas, when John Mackey and Renee Lawson Hardy, owners of Safer Way Natural Foods, and Craig Weller and Mark Skiles, owners of Clarksville Natural Grocery, created a natural foods supermarket. It expanded out of Austin in 1984 and then Texas in 1988 by acquiring Whole Food Co. in New Orleans. Whole Foods has had 19 acquisitions since its start, most recently the Wild Oats chain, bringing the company’s total number of stores to more than 280 in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The company employs 53,000 people worldwide, and its 2009 sales were approximately $8 billion.

Whole Foods works closely with its supplier partners to provide products that meet with its customers’ needs. To get its organic ground beef, it works with small producers like White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., and Adams Blackland Prairie of Ladonia, Texas, ensuring that the animals are raised in keeping with Whole Foods’ requirements.

“We seek to create transparency from ‘farm to fork’ with respect to production, planning, sourcing, ingredients, product safety and efficacy in order to bring to market the safest, highest-quality products available,” the company says. “We work with our supplier partners in eliminating all unnecessary production and distribution costs to help ensure the best possible price.”

Whole Foods has a Local Producer Loan Program, which provides up to $10 million in low-interest loans to small, local producers. One of those loans helped White Oak Pastures add a processing facility to its operations.

“Grocery companies like Whole Foods … really value their reputation of putting a high-quality, consistent, safe product on the shelves,” said Will Harris III, president of White Oak Pastures, in a 2009 interview with Independent Processor magazine.

— Sam Gazdziak