The Burger, All Grown Up
By Lynn Petrak,
special projects editor

A mature category stays invigorated through product innovation, industry support. As it turns out, the burger really is the next best thing to sliced bread.
In an era when things like ahi tuna, asiago cheese and wasabi mayonnaise, to name a few foodstuffs, are found on upscale menus and mainstream supermarkets alike, the humble hamburger remains not only a beloved staple in the American diet, but  a focus of continued, innovative product development.
One only has to look at restaurant menus, grocery store meat cases and freezers, food magazines, cooking shows and product line listings from meat and poultry processing companies to understand that the burger isn’t exactly passé. While billions of old-fashioned burgers — made with ground beef mixed with perhaps a few seasonings and paired with traditional white buns and condiments like ketchup, mustard, lettuce and tomato — are consumed each year in the U.S., the burger is being reinvented with eclectic new flavors, pairings, shapes and packages.
“The beauty of the hamburger is really the fact that once it comes off the grill, it’s great to not only make it attractive looking, like restaurants and people at home are doing, but to season it in a way that different people like,” notes Randy Irion, director, retail marketing for the Centennial, Colo.-headquartered National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). “Ground beef has a unique flavor that complements other flavors.”
So, who is exactly shaping today’s burger trends, ensuing that what is really a mature category isn’t showing signs of old age? It’s a collective effort, to be sure, as those with a stake in the success of the hamburger have been working to ensure that the burger boom continues into yet another century.
On one level, processors that offer ground beef and pre-formed hamburger patties are looking to strengthen existing business and make new inroads for their products through proactive, ambitious R&D and marketing efforts. Meanwhile, increased competition in the retail and foodservice sectors has led operators in both industries to look for new ways to distinguish their offerings.
The competition-breeds-innovation refrain may be common, but it’s a daily reality for those whose business involves the making and selling of hamburgers. As a testament to that reality, burgers are showing up in different ways across retail and foodservice channels and supported by a variety of merchandising programs.
Form follows function
As tastes and lifestyles change, processors have kept up with the times with a slew of new burger formats.
For example, The Solae Company, an alliance between DuPont and Bunge Limited that aims to bring more great tasting, nutritious soy-foods to the marketplace, this summer unveiled its new SoleCinaTM product. SoleCina converts a proprietary blend of vegetable and meat protein into a nutritious hybrid with the consistency of cooked, whole-muscle meat.
According to the company’s Web site, SoleCina is a new generation of concepts, applications and ingredients that will allow meat companies to produce products with the same exceptional taste and texture of traditional beef or chicken, at a competitive cost and often with a better nutritional profile. Appropriately flavored, the final product mimics the taste and appearance of beef patties, strips, chunks or steak but with considerably fewer calories, less fat and less cholesterol. It succeeds where previous attempts at soy-based burgers may have failed, in the area of taste.
Solae rolled out on of those concepts this summer — the “Better-For-You” Burger — which received quite a bit of media attention, according to the company.
This type of news, of course, is music to the ears of burger lovers who had shied away from grinds in the past in search of healthier alternatives, but simply could not find options that tasted nearly as well as good old ground beef. SoleCina allows the health-conscious consumer to get back into the swing of eating and enjoying the all-American burger without worrying about the effects on their health.
Also benefiting from improved product and better marketplace execution — though not considered new by any stretch since they’ve been around for decades — frozen hamburgers have come into their own in recent years. As evidenced by increased sales of brands like Bubba Burgers and others, frozen burgers are racking up sales not just for their convenience but for their perceived improved taste. Modern blast freezers, for instance, allow manufacturers to seal in flavors and enhance moisture retention better than past freezer systems, while stronger packaging materials also work to improve the quality of the burger patty.
Burger sizes, too, are not cookie-cutter in nature. Big, thick burger patties line the meat case and freezer, while flats are also available from some processors. One processor even offers patties in the shape of Texas, for fans of the Lone Star State.
Getting into the grind
Mention “burger” to either an aficionado or a casual consumer, and he or she will likely think of ground beef patties served on a bun with an assortment of accompaniments.
The hamburger made famous at lunch counters and world fairs a hundred years ago remains pretty much the standard, with ground or chopped beef serving as the heart and soul of the hand-held sandwich.
That said, because this is a more mature category, beef processors are mixing it up a bit with the basic hamburger patty. For example, in an era when consumers’ sophisticated palate is a regular topic of conversation, the beef used for burgers has gone more upscale in recent years.
The plethora of beef burgers made from the Angus breed of cattle is one trend of note over the last decade. Certified Angus Beef (CAB), for example, has seen demand for its brand of ground beef and frozen beef patties continue to expand in recent years, as retailers and foodservice operators promote their CAB offerings. According to the company, sales of product made by CAB licensees topped 533 million pounds in 2005, almost a six percent increase from the previous year.
To be sure, many beef processors have enhanced their product lines with Angus offerings, including large companies like Cargill Meat Solutions, which offers an Angus Pride line and smaller operations specializing in premium beef products, like Creekstone Farms, LLC, which offers Black Angus Ground Beef Patties and individually-quick-frozen Black Angus Beef Burgers.
In addition to chain and independent service restaurants, fast-food companies have touted Angus burgers. Burger King Corp., which built its 50-year business on burgers, introduced an Angus burger more than two years ago.
Another form of beef for burgers that’s become buzzworthy is Wagyu, commonly referred to as Kobe, referencing the breed’s origin in the Kobe region of Japan. Although Kobe beef first showed up in high-end restaurants in metropolitan areas — a $41 burger made from Kobe beef topped with lobster mushrooms sold in a New York City restaurant made headlines — Kobe beef burgers have become trendy fare in recent years. (Those hitting the jackpot in Las Vegas may want to head over to Mandalay Bay’s Fleur de Lys restaurant, where they can shell out $5,000 for the “FleurBurger,” a Kobe beef burger made with foie gras and truffle sauce and served on a brioche truffle bun with a side of black truffles and a bottle of a rare vintage.)
In the mainstream U.S., companies are positioning themselves for success by touting their version of “American Kobe beef” burgers. One of the largest producers of American Kobe beef is the Boise, Idaho, Snake River Farms division of Agri-Beef Co., which sells whole-muscle as well as ground beef and pre-formed burgers. For its patties, the company also touts its patented process that provides “spaces” for meat juices to cook into and stay in, claiming a 50 percent greater juice retention than standard patties.
Burgers made from natural and organic ground beef are also expanding, in both well-known and smaller boutique-style brands. Major beef companies, such as American Foods Group, LLC and Bubba Foods, LLC, have developed burgers for consumers looking for natural and organic options.
Irion points out that the demand for premium meats for burgers exemplifies the ongoing appeal and versatility of the product. “Those may be niche products, but they are important niches, because they show the attractiveness of hamburgers and patties,” he remarks.
Beyond beef, meanwhile, other protein producers have responded to the clamor for different types of burgers. From large chicken and turkey processors, such as Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson Foods, to lamb and veal companies, the simple patty has become another way to provide value to customers and make inroads in sales and volume.
Changing seasons
The meat isn’t the only thing that has evolved in the makeup of the hamburger. Processors looking to add some new zest to the category are doing it in a real way with value-added products, including pre-seasoned ground beef grinds for burgers and pre-seasoned formed patties for the freezer or fresh meat case.
Kenosha Beef International, which supplies burgers under the Birchwood Foods brand, is offering flavorful burger options including bacon cheeseburgers with applewood-smoked bacon and cheddar cheese, Vidalia onion burgers, and burgers made with jalapeno peppers and Monterey Jack cheese.
Those that manufacture poultry-based burgers also are using seasoning to kick up flavor. Pilgrim’s Pride Wampler turkey line, for example, includes “specially seasoned” quick-frozen turkey burgers and barbecue turkey burgers. The Jennie-O Turkey Store brand offers seasoned fresh turkey burger patties.
Other points of difference
To convey the message of quality to consumers, those who process fresh or frozen ground beef and hamburger patties also promote the safety and wholesomeness of their products. Beef Products Inc. (BPI), for instance, developed a 94-percent lean frozen beef made using a pH-enhancement process designed to reduce pathogenic bacteria. Huisken Meats, owned by the JNR Holding Company, made a name for itself a few years ago by being the first U.S. processor to offer electronically irradiated ground beef patties.
The possibilities, while not quite endless, remain widely open to American ingenuity.
As Julia Child once mused, “It is the Americans who have managed to crown minced beef as hamburger, and to send it round the world so that even the fussy French have taken to le boeuf hache, le hambourgaire.
Burger bonanza
Even with processors grinding out new varieties of hamburgers for retailers and foodservice operators, that doesn’t mean that burgers aren’t already popular. Traditional hamburgers certainly are hot stuff in the U.S., to the tune of 13.5 billion consumed in this country on an annual basis.
Breaking down the burger a bit more, here are some other facts to chew on:
* Seven out of every 10 burgers consumed in this country are purchased out of home.
* Hamburgers account for nearly half of all consumed restaurant sandwiches.
* 29 percent of ground beef eaten in this country is used for burgers, followed by spaghetti at 14 percent, Mexican dishes at 9 percent and casseroles at 8 percent.
Source: National Cattlemen’s Beef Association