The Foodservice Grind
By Lynn Petrak, special projects editor
Ground beef remains a staple, and occasional R&D subject, of QSR menus.
In an era when competition for the food dollar is at a fever pitch, many quick-service restaurant (QSR) operators are staying grounded.
As in ground beef.
For anyone who ever thought ground beef was some kind of humble counterpart to steak, the sheer volume of ground beef that moves through the nation’s food supply ought to put that notion to rest. Ground beef still comprises the largest market share for overall beef consumption in the U.S. With eating occasions hovering at the even point between at-home and away-from-home locations and with convenience and taste still prime factors in purchasing decisions, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that ground beef is the centerpiece of many QSR menus in a variety of forms, from stalwarts like burgers to newer applications like ethnic dishes and salads.
A bit of number crunching bears out the notion that ground beef remains a fast-food staple. According to the Chicago-based market research and consulting firm Technomic, ground beef still represents “the lion’s share” of beef volume used in foodservice, to the tune of 63 percent of the total. According to information provided by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), ground beef easily leads beef usage in foodservice at more than 5.2 billion pounds a year.
Indeed, for a protein that is considered mature in an era in which cilantro, ciabatta and chipotle peppers are de rigueur, ground beef isn’t showing as many signs of age as it could be — similar to, say, iceberg lettuce, white bread or American cheese. After all, it’s a value-oriented cut (read: affordable), versatile, relatively fast and easy to prepare and a good-tasting base for several other ingredients.
Although beef suppliers grind out tons of ground beef on a regular basis, a good chunk of it is used for hamburgers. QSRs in the U.S. are practically synonymous with burgers, at least those operations that can trace roots back to the glory days of diners and roadside drive-ins that eventually became behemoths like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s and others.
How popular are hamburgers in away-from-home dining? According to information from NCBA, 77 percent of beef eaten out is in the form of hamburgers and cheeseburgers. Last year, restaurants served up more than eight billion burgers, making them the most frequently consumed sandwich in America. Of those foodservice burgers, many, if not most, are purchased at fast-service restaurants, given the sheer sales volume and ubiquitous presence of such establishments. Marketplace experts also point to the hamburger’s longevity and somewhat beloved status as a uniquely American foodstuff.
“Burgers are still the mainstay of the QSR industry. The reports of the hamburger’s demise are greatly exaggerated,” says Bob Goldin, executive vice president for Technomic, Inc. “For all the talk about salads and wraps, it’s the double cheeseburger — it’s just monstrously successful.”
Harry Balzer, vice president of Port Washington, N.Y.-headquartered research firm NPD Group, Inc., also notes that the burger is a long way from being overdone, in a summary of trends published by NPD Foodworld.
“Despite what we hear about salads being a must-have menu item, the humble American hamburger is doing just fine. In fact, the top three products consumers ordered at restaurants for lunch were burgers, fries and soft drinks,” he commented in a “Food Industry Surprises” list. ”People are being enticed in the doors of fast-food places by thoughts of a fresh, quick salad, but it appears that when they get to the counter, the aroma of beef, pickles and onions can make people reconsider their options.”
Various QSRs that have built their brand and stake their business on burgers also report that hamburgers and cheeseburgers still pack ‘em in by the millions. “Our No. 1-selling sandwich is still the double cheeseburger,” says Robert Cannell, director, quality, for McDonald’s USA.
“Hamburgers are absolutely the core of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s business,” says Anne Hallock, public-relations manager for CKE Restaurants, Inc.
At the rapidly growing Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based Culver’s chain of restaurants, the company’s Butterburgers (served with buttered and grilled buns, hence the name) are just as much of a draw as its frozen custard.
“The Butterburger has been a staple since Day One,” relays Barbara Behling, director of publications, adding that the burgers are the best-selling meals, including those meals on the children’s menu.
For many QSRs that have spun ground beef into global conglomerate gold, there is a balance between expanding into other proteins and building on a successful base of burgers.
“Certainly, we are working on changing our menu up and responding to consumers’ demands and wishes,” says Cannell. “Our customers are telling us they want some variety and change, and we’ve certainly provided that. But at the same time, we’ve been selling a lot of burgers for a lot of years.”
Cannell adds that although the chicken business is growing at McDonald’s in menu items such as the premium chicken sandwich and Snack Wrap, poultry has not been “detrimental” to its beef business. “That’s important, because we continue to grow beef year after year, even though there are a lot of new offerings.”
That formula of maintaining a menu with classic burgers along with poultry and other proteins or types of dishes is one being used by many fast-food burger chains, attests Goldin.
“A lot of the success of McDonald’s, and Burger King and Wendy’s too, has been the fact that they are doing well with burgers. I think poultry has been the focus of the snacks and specialty sandwiches,” he observes.
Interestingly enough, although QSR fixtures like single hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and double cheeseburgers served with traditional toppings like ketchup, mustard, lettuce, cheese, onions and pickles are top sellers for most operations, national burger chains are not resting on those laurels. At a time when consumers’ notoriously fickle palates are being met with a slew of new products, burgers are also the subject of many R&D tests and rollouts.
One route that R&D teams a various fast-food burger restaurants are taking is that bigger is decidedly better when it comes to burgers.
“The big angle is in the premium burger, the bigger burgers,” reports Goldin. To that end, many burger QSRs have scored sales and made headlines with rollouts of burgers that stretch the limits of previous weights. Among those newsmakers is McDonald’s.
“It’s pretty common news that we are testing big burgers,” says Cannell of the “juicier” Angus Third Pounder that is currently available in 600 restaurants in Southern California. “We’re looking to expand that test as well.”
Selling for $3.99, the Angus Third Pounder is available in Angus Deluxe, Angus Mushroom & Swiss and Angus Bacon Cheese varieties. According to Cannell, the Angus Third Pounder fits the dual trends toward heartier fare and premium foods.
“We’ve been pretty successful with our premium chicken offering, and I think there is a certain segment of our customers looking for something premium with burgers,” he explains. “This one is striking a chord with customers.”
In fact, bigger premium burgers are on the menu board at many of the nation’s leading burger chains. Carl’s Jr., for example, offers a premium line of 100 percent Angus beef, half-pound burgers, and at Hardee’s, the Thickburger line made with 100 percent Angus beef comes in one-third, one-half and two-third pound sizes.
“Our premium burger menu has been a big hit with our guests,” says Hallock. “We announced same-store sales for the last period, and they are up 2.3 percent for the period and 1.3 percent on the year.”
Miami-based Burger King Corp., for its part, has also added larger, more upscale burgers to its lineup over the course of the last three years. Burger King's Triple Whopper with Cheese, for example, includes a three-quarter-pound beef patty, affectionately dubbed the “Big Guy,” while the menu also features an Angus Steakburger made with 100 percent Angus beef, topped with steak sauce, mayonnaise and lettuce and served on a corn-dusted bun.
These burgers have found an audience, too. Last year, Burger King reported strong sales of big burgers like the Angus Cheese Bacon Burger, Texas Double Whopper and BK Stacker, which features two, three or four layers of beef and cheese, with bacon and sauce (and, as the Burger King online menu notes, “no veggies allowed”).
Wendy’s International Inc. may have started with its Single burger, but that company too is upscaling its burger menu and incorporating the increasingly popular terms, “Angus” and “steakhouse.” One of the latest additions to the Wendy’s menu is its Half-Pound Steakhouse Double Melt, with two fresh beef patties, caramelized onions, mushrooms, bacon and a creamy Swiss cheese and peppercorn sauce.
Culver’s, a chain that is growing its national presence beyond the Midwest, has used its limited-time menu as a spot for showcasing premium burgers.
“We’ve always sold the core items, and we bring in some limited-time items, like the barbecue bacon burger and the blue cheese burger,” relays Behling, adding that most premium burgers are offered in the fall, when patrons’ taste for comfort foods increases.
As the popularity of bacon and barbecue sauce shows, in addition to bigger burgers and patties made from 100 percent Angus beef, other sandwich components are distinguishing today’s crop of QSR burger offerings.
“We see our guests enjoying hamburgers that combine unexpected flavors — our Philly Cheesesteak Burger is literally a Cheesesteak sandwich combined with a hamburger — but also enjoying classic varieties like bacon cheeseburgers,” says Hallock. “Consumer tastes are definitely evolving to be more aware of different cuisines, which is why something like a jalapeño burger could be so successful at a major chain such as Carl’s Jr.”
Other QSR burger chains, including regional and national brands, have married traditional beef and Angus beef with different ingredients and breads. A few months ago, Indianapolis-based Steak n Shake, for example, introduced a new Black Peppercorn Premium Topping Steakburger, made from two patties with a slice of pepperjack cheese between a deluxe bakery bun and two thick slices of peppercorn bacon. That follows on the heels of the chain’s Premium Topping Steakburger line that bowed at Steak n Shake restaurants in early 2006, with varieties like Portobello ’n Swiss and Hickory Smoked Thick-Bacon Burger.
While there is a hub of R&D activity on patty size, type of beef used, and accompaniments, there has also been some focus on dayparts for burgers sold in fast-food venues. Carl’s Jr., for instance, offers a “non-traditional” burger sold outside the typical lunch or dinner time.
“It’s a quarter-pound product we call the Breakfast Burger, which is exactly what it sounds like,” says Hallock. Although it does not feature a beef patty, Burger King did make some noise in the QSR category when it introduced the Enormous Omelet Sandwich, a sausage patty topped with two eggs, melted American cheese and bacon strips served on a toasted bun.
Beyond the burger
Certainly, hamburgers and cheeseburgers are the heart and soul of QSR menus, particularly those that originated as burger chains. That said, those that supply ground beef to fast-food restaurants and their various locales around the country and around the world don’t just sell preformed burgers or bulk ground beef for patties.
Taco Bell, for example, is a major user of ground beef crumbles, used in traditional tacos and burritos as well as emerging dishes like the chain’s newer Crunchwrap and Zesty Nachos. As with the burger market, the taco market is ground beef-centric.
“Tacos are our best-selling item, with an average of two billion sold in a year. We use about 300 million pounds of taco meat per year on average,” reports Rob Poetsch, director of public relations for Taco Bell — part of the Yum! Brands group of foodservice operations.
As the popularity of Mexican restaurant food continues to rise in this country, ground beef is moving along with it, since it is a staple of many menus in chains like Taco Bell and Del Taco. In 2004, McDonald’s used seasoned ground beef crumbles in a Fiesta Salad seasonal menu item.
Still, Goldin points out, QSR operators and beef suppliers recognize that many of the newer and growing Mexican QSRs, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Baja Fresh, use more portioned whole-muscle cuts, like steak, grilled chicken and even fish for their versions of burritos and tacos, often at the expense of ground beef..
“Most of the action there is with alternative proteins, like chicken, pulled shredded pork and vegetarian,” echoes Goldin.
Ground beef crumbles are also used as toppings on pizzas, at several of the nation’s leading pizza QSRs. Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s Pizza, for its part, offers an ExtravaganZZa variety topped with ground beef, pepperoni, ham, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, black olives and extra cheese, and — for true carnivores — a MeatZZa Feast pizza, laden with ground beef, pepperoni, sausage, and ham. Pizza Hut, another Yum! Brands brand, offers a Meat Lovers® pizza, with six kinds of meat, including ground beef, and some of its locations have a Bistro Menu that includes a spaghetti and meat sauce dish. Papa John’s Pizza, the Louisville, Ky.-headquartered chain, does not put ground beef on its “All the Meats” pizza, but does offer beef as part of its optional topping list. Elsewhere on QSR menus, ground beef crumbles can be found in some other types of recipes.
“There are a lot of different uses for ground beef,” says Behling of the Culver’s menu. “We use ground beef in taco salads, chili dogs and soups, like my favorite soup that has green peppers and burger chunks. There are also some Culver’s restaurants that have a daily taco special once in a while or even a chimichanga.”
Meat of the matter
As the usage and marketing of ground beef evolves in the nation’s QSRs, the composition of the ground beef also has changed a bit over time.
The move toward Angus is one shift that has affected beef purchasing decisions. Whether or not the consumer understands the difference between “regular” ground beef and beef made from Angus cattle, there has been a decided uptick in the number of Angus burgers developed and heavily promoted at major chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, among others.
“There is definitely a premium on Angus,” agrees Goldin.
Meanwhile, as consumers continue to cite health and nutrition as important concerns, the genetics of cattle aren’t the only issues in the perception of premium ground beef. NCBA for instance, recently conducted consumer attitude studies on ground beef and found that although a majority of respondents say they enjoy ground beef, between 47 and 52 percent expressed concerns about the health benefits and fat content in ground beef. In some heartening news, a study conducted after taste tests of a 95 percent lean ground beef patty showed that the leanest patty outperformed its competitors across all sensory measures.
In addition to the type of beef that eventually goes through the grinder, QSRs have been known to differentiate themselves by the use of fresh or frozen ground beef. Wendy’s, for its part, regularly informs consumers that its hamburgers are made from fresh beef.
Culver’s, too, shares with its customers the fact that Butterburgers are always made from fresh ground beef.
“There was a time when they used to go to the butcher next door to the original restaurant and bought their special recipe for ground beef,” says Behling of the chain’s early owners, noting that the current ground beef sourced is a ground chuck blend from Angus and Hereford cattle. Behling says that fresh ground beef makes for good hamburgers because of the way it is cooked on the restaurant grills.
“It’s seared to the grill with a spatula, that gives each its own unique imprint,” she says.
As for concerns related to meat safety due to the use of raw ground beef, Behling says Culver’s takes extensive measures to prevent cross-contamination and ensure thorough cooking of patties.
“There is always a heightened sense of awareness with fresh product, which makes you manage inventory very closely,” she adds. Due to advanced technology, there have been other changes to the way burgers are made and delivered to QSRs, thanks to increasingly sophisticated mixing, grinding, forming and packaging systems.
Equipment used by the nation’s QSR beef suppliers has become more automated, more able to handle high volumes, easy and effective and occasionally custom-built for specific operator needs and parameters.
“The actual specs for our ground beef haven’t changed in 50 years,” says Cannell, of McDonald’s demands of its beef supply chain. “But suppliers have come out with new technologies that are typically [centered] around efficiency, production and food safety. Those things are changing all the time.”
QSRs on the QT
As they expand their menus to include more fare, just how are QSRs faring?
According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), QSRs are expected to post sales of $150.1 billion in 2007, a five percent increase over 2006. As part of NRA’s 2007 Forecast, the organization predicts that quick-service operators will continue to focus on diversifying their menus and promoting their takeout, delivery and catering options in the coming year.
With QSRs competing with the up-and-coming casual-dining and fast-casual segments — according to NRA, QSR operators rate the intensity of competition today an 85 on a scale of 0 to 100 — it makes sense that operators would add more premium hamburgers, salads and wraps. That is an approach that CKE Restaurants, Inc. has taken with some of its new burger offerings, according to spokesperson Anne Hallock.
“Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have successfully positioned themselves, in recent years, as a quality fast-food alternative to casual-dining restaurants, so the focus has been on the core Six Dollar Burger and Thickburger lines, respectively, and what sort of varieties hit the right notes for the appetites and tastes of what we call our ‘young, hungry guys’ — burger lovers who dine at fast-food restaurants frequently,” she explains.
Four-star fast food
For the first time, the esteemed fine dining publisher The Zagat Guide recently published a survey of fast-food restaurants. For ground beef and hamburger patty suppliers, there are some tidbits of note:
Best overall fast-food chain: Panera Bread Co.
Best “big” chain: Wendy’s
Best burger: Wendy’s
Best French fries: McDonald’s
Best service: Chick-fil-A
Best overall fast-food chain: Panera Bread Co.
Best “big” chain: Wendy’s
Best burger: Wendy’s
Best French fries: McDonald’s
Best service: Chick-fil-A
Meantime, although 93 percent of survey respondents say they are “concerned” with the nutritional content of fast food, they visit QSRs an average of 12 times a month.