This post is part of the Food Writer’s Diary blog.
Are sales at your restaurant sluggish? Then why don't you add a hamburger to your menu? Already selling hamburgers? Put more of them on your menu! Running a salad chain or a pizza place or an Italian restaurant? Just add a burger anyway, come on.
That seems to be the approach of many restaurant chains these days, and with good reason. Americans ate 8.9 billion hamburgers in restaurants and other foodservice operations in the year ending in June 2015, according to consumer research firm The NPD Group. That's around 28 burgers for every man, woman and child in the country, and it's 3 percent more hamburgers than we ate a year earlier. Research firm Food Genius says burgers are already on 43 percent of the nearly 360,000 restaurants whose menu it analyzes.
Management at The Melt, a 17-unit grilled cheese sandwich chain out of San Francisco, must have been reading similar research last November, when it broke its own mold and started selling hamburgers. Soon enough, burgers became the top seller at The Melt, which now offers four varieties of them, just as it offers four varieties of grilled cheese sandwich.
At our recent MUFSO conference, Stan Frankenthaler, who's in charge of menu development for Craftworks Restaurant & Brewery Group, based in Broomfield, Colo., said he was expanding the burger offerings at the group's pizza-and-beer concept, Old Chicago Pizza & Tavern.
“There's limited frequency in pizza," he said.
So he started testing new burgers about a year ago, and launched three of them on Old Chicago's spring/summer menu in later March: a craft beer burger (with beer mustard cheese sauce, caramelized onions and fried onion strings), a whiskey burger (which has blue cheese sauce, peppered bacon, balsamic mushrooms and whiskey sauce), and a Caprese burger (with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, just as you'd expect).
For the fall they replaced the Caprese burger with the Stupid Spicy Burger — which has blackening spice, sautéed jalapeño slices, crushed red peppers, pepper Jack cheese, breaded jalapeño slices and jalapeño cream cheese — and which Frankenthaler tells me his guests “really liked during test.”
Atlanta-based pizza chain Mellow Mushroom just announced that it, too was rolling out hamburgers nationwide, starting October 1, after testing them over the summer in select locations in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Texas.
The flower-power themed chain is offering an all-natural, “humanely raised” Certified Angus Beef burger with Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, romaine lettuce, tomato, pickles and garlic aïoli spread.
It’s also introducing a vegetarian burger with a patty made of kale, quinoa, roasted mushrooms and brown rice “among other seasonings and vegetables,” I'm told. It comes with Cheddar cheese, romaine lettuce, tomato, sweet onions and avocado.
Burgers sell particularly well on Fridays and during the weekend, according to some sales data that online ordering software mavens Olo shared with me, with burger-oriented restaurants seeing sales as much as 75 percent higher on weekends than during the beginning of the week. Salad chains, by contrast, saw sales drop by more than 40 percent over the course of the week: Apparently, many consumers enjoy those Monday salads and gradually slide into burgerdom as the week wears on. Does that mean that salad chains ought to consider a Friday burger offering?
Maybe not. Apart from the operational challenges of hamburgers, they might just not resonate with your customers, or they might not be what your customers are looking for at your restaurant. Back at the end of 2013, Olive Garden tried to gin up lunch sales with the introduction of a burger.
The Italiano Burger was topped with crispy prosciutto, mozzarella, arugula, marinated tomatoes, garlic and other Italian spices and garlic aïoli spread. It came with Parmesan-garlic fries a choice of soup or salad, and, of course, unlimited breadsticks, and it’s not on the menu anymore.