Larger, upscale hamburgers are moving from sit-down restaurants to the QSR industry.
In most cities, there’s at least one on every corner. Advertisements for them run in every television show. Hungry consumers flock to them by the millions every day. Hamburger chains are among the largest restaurant chains in the country, and their menus continue to grow to meet consumer demand for new types of burgers.
With so many quick-serve restaurants out there that specialize in hamburgers, there is bound to be plenty of competition. That competition has helped to redefine what consumers expect from such restaurants. “The industry has transitioned from a largely value-based mode of competition to a quality-based one — from a ‘price war’ to a ‘quality war,’ if you will,” says Brad Haley, executive vice president, marketing, for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s Restaurants.
“I think that we’ve seen certainly a movement to more premium hamburger products,” says Dave Theno, senior vice president, quality and logistics, for Jack in the Box. “Our Sirloin Burger is probably a good testimonial to that. If anything in QSR, there’s been a pull more toward casual dining.”
Haley says that the trend toward upscaling QSR food extends across the entire menu. “Just a few years ago, the public would never have accepted the idea that a QSR could offer a great entrée salad with such exotic ingredients as black beans or Mandarin oranges. Now such products are commonplace.” He says that Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. has responded to those trends by adding burger builds that consumers can’t get anywhere else, such as a Jalapeno Thickburger and a Teriyaki Burger, including a grilled pineapple slice.
McDonald’s has seen its menu continue to expand from its traditional hamburgers to new burger builds and other menu items. Danya Proud, U.S. media relations, says that consumer response has been driving much of that change.
“They have been asking us for new menu choices and variety, which really led to us to bring to the menu such things as the premium grilled chicken sandwiches, premium salads, the grilled version of the Snack Wrap. It’s our responsibility to make sure that what we’re offering is what they’re looking for.” One benefit from expanding the menu, Proud notes, is that customers are not trading off hamburgers for the new items. Those new offerings are bringing in new business.
One of the biggest trends in burger chains today is the addition of a “high-end” hamburger, something that separates itself from the rest of the menu. Carl’s Jr. was one of the first large chains to add a high-end burger to its menu when it introduced the Six Dollar Burger in 2001. It features a half-pound Angus hamburger patty and is so named because it would normally cost $6 at a fast-casual restaurant. “I think we were hoping that the original Six Dollar Burger would be a strong limited-time-offer promotion, but it was so successful that it became a permanent menu item and spawned the line of six varieties that we have today,” Haley says. “It was also the genesis for Hardee’s line of Thickburgers.”
Several other chains have introduced or are developing their own gourmet hamburgers. This May, Jack in the Box rolled out its Sirloin Burger, the first all-sirloin hamburger offered by a major fast-food chain. The burger, featuring a nearly one-third pound patty, comes with a choice of cheese and onion style on two builds, a Sirloin Cheese Burger and a Sirloin Bacon & Cheese Burger.
“We have met numerous consumer needs with our recent Sirloin Burgers,” says Tammy Bailey, division vice president of menu marketing and promotions. “We’ve provided them with the high quality of sirloin with the convenience of a drive-thru. And our Sirloin Burger line is customizable so consumers can fulfill their need for personalization.”
McDonald’s is the latest QSR chain to join the fray with the development of its third-pound Angus burgers. They are available for $3.99 and come in three varieties: Angus Deluxe, Angus Mushroom and Swiss and Angus Bacon and Cheese. They are currently being tested in approximately1,000 restaurants in Southern California and Ohio. Proud says that the test results have been extremely positive so far, but there is no final decision about further testing or a nationwide rollout.
“What we were hearing from our customers that led to the introduction of that product was that they were really looking for an even better-quality, premium burger but at a value that only McDonald’s can offer,” she says. The company sees the Angus burger line as a complement to its existing line of hamburgers, adding a product normally seen as a fast-casual restaurant at a QSR value. “We are seeing that customers are looking for that bigger, more premium, juicier burger,” Proud adds.
Burger King has successfully released an Angus Steak Burger of its own.
“Consumers are looking for options. Our flagship Whopper is the core of our burger portfolio. The Angus represents the next level — yes, customers are looking for a premium offering,” says John Schoufelberger, senior vice president of product development. “They want to be able to order a great-tasting Whopper or a great-tasting premium burger as a burger you would sit down to eat as a reward to yourself.”
While expanding the menu has been a viable growth strategy for many chains, it is important that they continue to focus on what brought them to the limelight in the first place. In-N-Out Burger has 209 restaurants in California, Arizona and Nevada with plans to expand into Utah in 2008. Its menu is not as diverse as other competing brands, but its quality and customer service have created a devoted customer base. Carl Van Fleet, vice president of planning and development, says, “Our menu has only consisted of burgers, fries and drinks since our inception in 1948,” he says. “We try to take care of our customers by continuing to focus on quality burgers, fries and drinks in a clean restaurant served by friendly associates.”
Schoufelberger says that consumers are constantly looking for bacon and cheese on their hamburgers, and Burger King has responded by adding several different limited-time-offer burger builds that feature those ingredients, both with its Angus burgers and its core Whopper burgers. “Spicy builds are also popular, [such as the] Texas Double Whopper and spicy chicken crisp,” he says.
While the burgers continue to grow in size, some chains are offering healthier alternatives for their customers. Burger King, Schaufelberfer points out, is the only fast-food hamburger restaurant that offers a veggie burger. In-N-Out Burgers allows its customers the opportunity to customize their burger by wrapping it in lettuce instead of a bun. Haley says that larger, premium burgers are a permanent addition to the QSR menu.
“With the widespread penetration of casual-dining restaurants over the past 20 years or so, the public has grown to appreciate the benefits of bigger, better burgers,” he says. He points out that a quarter-pound burger replaced the eighth-pound or tenth-pound hamburgers that used to be an industry staple. The third-pound burger will similarly become the new standard.
“The reason is simple — bigger burgers just taste better. Now people can get a great burger at many fast-food restaurants and actually taste the meat,” he adds.