Americans are eating more burgers than ever, a trend fueled in part by the rapid growth of “better burger” chains, which not only are driving sales but are raising quality expectations as well, according to a study released Wednesday by Technomic.
In its “Burger Consumer Trend Report,” the Chicago-based research firm found that 48 percent of consumers recently surveyed eat a burger at least once a week, compared with 38 percent in Technomic’s 2009 burger segment report.
The growth in popularity of burgers results from several factors — such as price — that can vary depending on the industry segment, said Sara Monnette, director of consumer research for Technomic.
While “the value menu is certainly a big part of this increase in burger consumption” at quick-service restaurants, sales growth at fast-casual specialty burger chains like Five Guys Burgers and Fries is “almost defiantly separate from pricing,” Monnette said.
According to Nation’s Restaurant News’ Top 100 special report, Five Guys led the sandwich segment by far in terms of sales and unit growth in fiscal 2010. Five Guys’ system in the United States grew to 736 units in 2010, compared with 548 locations in 2009, and the brand’s systemwide sales increased 44.5 percent to $721 million, compared with $499 million a year earlier.
Other chains that ranked in the top 10 by systemwide sales growth in the latest Top 100 report were In-N-Out Burger, 7.4 percent; Hardee’s, 6.1 percent; Culver’s, 5 percent; McDonald’s, 4.4 percent; and Whataburger, 4 percent.
“The better-burger restaurants in the fast-casual segment have put the burger top of mind for consumers,” Monnette said. “And even the quick-service chains have begun to respond and focus portions of their menus specifically on quality perceptions.”
Among the largest quick-service burger brands, a barbell menu strategy has taken hold, balancing smaller options on value menus with premium products. McDonald’s rolled out its Angus Third Pounder line in 2009 to sell higher-margin, higher-priced burgers alongside the McDouble on its Dollar Menu.
Burger King now is promoting its BK Stacker burgers at a value-focused $1, $2 or $3 for a Single, Double or Triple, after rolling out its premium XT Steakhouse Burger early last year.
Wendy’s currently is testing an upgrade of its standard burger called Dave’s Hot ’N Juicy Cheeseburger.
Technomic’s research found that quality perceptions and premium flavors and ingredients drive many burger purchases, with 36 percent of those consumers polled citing “a craving” as the primary reason for their most recent burger purchase.
Other key findings pointed to the growing importance of health cues in burger offerings, Technomic reported.
Younger consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 reported an interest in vegetarian-burger options, with 23 percent of them characterizing the availability of vegetarian burgers as important.
Meanwhile, half of all consumers say it is very important to have burgers made from all-natural, hormone-free and antibiotic-free beef.
In addition, the most commonly offered cheese at limited-service restaurants is American, while Cheddar ranks as the most popular cheese ordered on burgers at full-service locations.