Sponsored by Cholula Foodservice
Americans reportedly consume in the neighborhood of 50 billion hamburgers each year and about half of all restaurants menu burgers to tap into that demand.
“It is the quintessential American hot sandwich,” says Dennis Lombardi, with restaurant consultancy Insight Dynamics, of the top-selling menu item. However, Lombardi adds, “The challenge becomes how can an operator differentiate itself in this hotly contested marketplace with a burger that stokes sales, new customer traffic and frequency-of-return visits.”
To meet that challenge, an increasing number of operators are seeking to break away from the herd by showcasing artisan burgers — creative menu items that focus on spices, heat and bold toppings, from chipotle and jalapeño peppers to green chili and hot sauces. Indeed, chefs and operators are caught up in the growing trend of amping up the flavor and complexity of their burger offerings.
According the National Restaurant Association's 2017 What's Hot Culinary Forecast, 40 percent of the study's nearly 1,300 professional chefs characterize gourmet burgers as being a hot trend.
Amping up the toppings
“Our talented chefs can make just about anything work well as a burger, even a taco,” says Jonathan Muhtar, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews.
The Denver-based full-service restaurant chain recently rolled out a series of “Tavern” burgers, comprising unique combinations, such as the Taco Tavern Double Taco, which is a cross between a taco and a burger. It features two grilled beef patties, melted pepper jack cheese, crispy tortilla strips, guacamole, salsa and shredded lettuce on a sesame seed bun.
Whataburger, the quick-service chain based in San Antonio, Texas, has introduced the new Chorizo Burger, which contains seasoned chorizo layered between two all-beef patties and topped with two slices of Monterey Jack cheese and a blend of roasted poblano peppers, red peppers and onions. It is topped with a creamy chili sauce made with six types of peppers.
The Loser Burger at Sobelman’s Bar & Grill in Milwaukee was already popular with its Colby-Jack cheese, smoked bacon and buttery fried onions, says owner Dave Sobelman. He then took a server’s suggestion to top the Loser Burger with a fried egg, and the Hangover Burger was born. Sales of the burger soared, he adds.
Tapping into the flavor trend
“Flavorful burgers are here to stay,” says Samir Wattar, director of operations for MOOYAH Burgers, the Dallas-based better-burger fast-casual concept with about 100 units. “It’s more about finding the complement that brings out the beef flavor, such as Cholula Hot Sauces.”
MOOYAH encourages customers to customize their own burgers from a choice of proteins, buns, toppings and sauces, Wattar says. But the chain’s selection of specialty burgers is also popular, such as the Double Diablo Burger, which is made with two certified Angus beef patties, pepper jack cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, jalapeños, Cholula Hot Sauce and mayo served on a potato bun. The restaurant also uses Cholula in its spicy ranch dressing to give patrons another flavor option.
Adding a kick
“It’s not so much about spicy as it is about adding flavor with a kick to it,” Wattar says. “I like the way it complements what we’re doing.”
Today’s spicy trend, in fact, is not so much about being hot for its own sake as it is heat that brings out flavors in the other ingredients, says Chef Steven Banbury of the Hopdoddy Burger Bar based in Austin, Texas. The concept has 21 locations in four states.
“We do have burgers so spicy they make people cry, and our Scorpion Tarantula burger requires a waiver,” Banbury says. “But what I like about Cholula is that it’s not about burning your mouth off; it’s about how to enhance a dish.”
Banbury created the Luau Burger using four different Cholula sauces for a televised food competition. The special burger served as an example for contestants as a way to boost the flavor profile of the typical hamburger.
Banbury incorporated the Chipotle Cholula into an aioli topping, and then the Chili Lime Cholula into a fire-roasted corn salsa.
“I liked the brightness of the corn, the cilantro and dried onions, but it was missing something,” he says. “I added the Chili Lime to it and let it sit for an hour to penetrate. The chili sauce brings all the nice, natural flavors to the front of the palate.”
Next he made ketchup using the Chili Garlic Cholula, and then mixed the Green Pepper Cholula into the meat patty before cooking it. “It mixes in so easily, really melds in for a more juicy burger,” Banbury says. “It adds to the flavor profile.”
While this burger for the TV program was more elaborate than typical Hopdoddy recipes, a simpler version using Cholula will likely be added to the restaurant’s rotation of limited-time offers, he says.
“This challenge was one of the easiest as Cholula was already my go-to sauce,” Banbury says. “Everyone knows about the original, but the other Cholula sauces offer great flavor combinations.”
The trend of heat and sauce extends beyond hamburgers. One of the most popular sandwiches at The Counter custom burger restaurants is the fried chicken sandwich, says Julie Feit, director of marketing for the Los Angeles company. The chicken patties are marinated in buttermilk and Cholula original hot sauce. The sandwich is topped with jalapeño Jack cheese, tomatoes, fresh jalapeños and honey Dijon.
“It’s our signature sandwich, and the one most focused on spice,” Feit says. “We offer a variety of sandwiches and burgers and salads. The way we differentiate ourselves is that we give our customers a clipboard with thousands of combinations they can create. They can add as much kick to their meal as they want.”
Some operators have amped up their burgers by utilizing premium meats — from Angus patties at Back Yard Burgers to 100 percent ribeye beef at Jack in the Box. Jack in the Box’s Havarti and Grilled Onion Ribeye Burger features a ribeye patty, sliced tomato, grilled onions, havarti cheese and a savory red wine glaze, all served on a potato bun.
Customization is another hot trend impacting burgers and sandwiches, says restaurant consultant Lombardi. Operators are offering a choice of spicy sauces, mayo and peppers, which enable patrons to create the level of heat they want in their burgers.
“Have a reasonable number of variations of add-ons that allow customers to customize their burger,” he says. “If I were advising restaurants, I would say do not have a menu with 15 different burgers. Have three signature ones and then allow customers to build their own.”
Sobleman offers his own thoughts on the growing artisan burger trend as he explains Sobelman's The Bomb — a hamburger patty topped with bacon, mushrooms and blue cheese, all piled high with fried onions. “When you think you have enough onions, add more,” Sobelman says. “More is more.
In the meantime, America’s long-lived love affair with its favorite sandwich shows no signs of waning. As a result, chefs and operators continue to cater to Americans' adventurous palates with hamburgers that feature vibrant and innovative toppings, spices, premium meats, and flavorful sauces and condiments like Cholula — while consumers continue to line up for their latest artisanal burger experience.